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Modernizing 5th Gen Fighter Pilot Training

  • Published
  • By Col. Chris Hubbard

In no other profession are the penalties for employing untrained personnel so appalling or so irrevocable as in the military.

Douglas MacArthur
Annual Report of the Chief of Staff of the US Army (1933)


Military training must…continually be forward-thinking, innovative, and aggressive.

- Jim Greer
“Training: The Foundation for Success in Combat”


To prepare fifth-generation fighter pilots for the demands of modern air combat we must increase their level of autonomy, develop their ability to solve problems against a peer adversary, and increase our threshold for basic fighter training. Before diving into fighter pilot training, it’s important to define fifth-generation fighters. Heather Penney from the Mitchell Institute explains that,

Fifth-generation fighters (such as the F-22 and F-35) have all-aspect stealth, highly advanced active and passive sensors, digital avionics (sensor) fusion, and sophisticated processors that can execute many sensor management functions autonomously.[1]

Sensor fusion is an important advancement for fifth-generation fighters. It is a technology that combines the information gathered from different sensors into one coherent picture for the pilot which “allows pilots to spend their cognitive capacity on tactical and operational decision-making rather than sensor management.”[2] Sensor fusion and the other fifth-generation fighter advancements described earlier have all impacted the fundamentals of being a fighter pilot.

Fighter Pilot Fundamentals

The fundamentals of being a fighter pilot, in any generation of fighter aircraft, include administration (admin), tactics, and performance under stress.

Admin includes emergency procedures, starting the airplane, taxi, takeoff, flying in the weather, etc. Admin has changed because the aircraft is easier to fly due to advances in flight control logic, autopilot, autothrottle, and software programs such as Auto Ground Collision Avoidance System (AGCAS). Fifth-generation simulators are more capable than fourth-generation simulators which also improves admin training. Even with these advances, admin remains a critical part of employing a fighter aircraft. A majority of mishaps still occur during this phase of flight.

Tactics include employing the weapon system, shooting missiles, teamwork, threat knowledge, etc. Tactics have also changed with the shift from fourth to fifth-generation fighter aircraft. Fifth-generation fighters have dynamic stealth and advanced sensors, both of which are optimized when aircraft operate outside of visual range from each other. The first distinction, dynamic stealth, can be described as,

In contrast to previous generations of stealthy platforms, fifth-generation aircraft know the locations of both surface and air threats, and they know at what ranges and angles they can be detected. Because of this, fifth-generation fighters enjoy advanced battlespace awareness that allows their pilots to manage their signature by maneuvering to avoid detection.[3]

While dynamic stealth requires that members of a formation operate outside of visual range from each other, advanced sensors enable formation members to operate outside of visual range from each other. These two differences enable the paradigm change from a fourth-generation wingman that follows their flight lead around as an extension of their will to a fifth-generation wingman that is executing more independently.

The number one priority for a fourth-generation wingman is to stay visual with their flight lead. Everything else, including operating the weapons system and paying attention to the battlespace, is secondary. When you are 1-2 miles away from your flight lead, many times the biggest threat isn’t the enemy, it is running into your own flight mate. In a fifth-generation fighter, due to the differences noted earlier, wingmen are not in close formation during the tactical portion of the sortie. Fifth-generation wingmen are maintaining their formation position using their sensors and are tens of miles away from other flight members. The number one priority and largest time consumer of a fourth-generation wingman is now taken off their plate.

Without the requirement to spend the majority of their time visually deconflicting from their flight lead, fifth-generation wingmen are now free to interpret the battlespace and execute in accordance with their tactical priorities. This freedom from maintaining the visual on their flight lead, combined with advanced capabilities such as sensor fusion, explains why tactics for a fifth-generation fighter pilots have changed compared to their fourth-generation counterparts.

Performance under stress is the most difficult fighter pilot fundamental to quantify. A fighter pilot can drop 100 bombs and hit the target every time with nothing else going on. If you give them a time on target, put in some weather, and add enemy air and surface threats, that hit rate drops. The hit rate difference between the benign environment and the busy one is performance under stress. Properly stressing a fighter pilot has two major benefits. First, it puts them in the learning zone (not too much stress, not too little stress) in order to maximize the learning for a given training scenario. Second, a proper level of stress quickly finds the gaps in their knowledge and ability.

Admin tasks such as taking off, flying in the weather, and landing the airplane were stressful enough in pre-fourth-generation aircraft. This fact does not take away from the incredible skill and bravery that these pilots exhibited. Instead, it shows just how challenging and amazing their accomplishments were. In fourth-generation aircraft, operating your aircraft’s sensors and weapons, while maintaining formation, and not being a conflict to your flight lead was the proper level of stress. With the capabilities of a fifth-generation aircraft, the required stress to put a fighter pilot in the learning zone has increased.

Fifth-Generation Fighter Pilot Training

With an understanding that the fundamentals of admin, tactics, and performance under stress have changed for a fifth-generation fighter pilot, it’s time to look at how training must also change. The three aspects of fifth-generation fighter pilot training that must change include increasing a pilot’s level of autonomy, developing their problem-solving ability against a peer adversary, and increasing our threshold for basic fighter training.

The first aspect of training that must change for fifth-generation fighter pilots is executing with an increased level of autonomy. A fighter pilot’s level of autonomy has evolved throughout the years as tactical aviation progressed. Starting with the third generation of fighter aircraft from the Vietnam era, the wingman was expected to stay visual and only speak in the most critical situations. This progressed to fourth-generation pilots that began trusting their wingmen more as aircraft technology improved. The fourth-generation wingman also had to be better incorporated into the tactical plan because the adversary was advancing. Wingmen were allowed to be out at the wide limit of visual formation which allowed them to focus more on tactical employment. Eventually, this increased responsibility led to wingmen being allowed to make their own tactical decisions in limited scenarios.

In fifth-generation aircraft, wingmen are flying formation far away from other flight members. Each pilot has to make decisions that impact not only their own formation’s survival and mission success, but also impact the entire force. Wingmen are making critical package-level decisions and managing risk for their formation and others without flight-lead direction. Another way to think about this change is that every fifth-generation pilot is executing in a similar way to a fourth-generation flight lead. They are processing the battlespace around them, making tactical decisions, executing in accordance with their priorities, and communicating critical package-level information to their own flight and others outside their flight. In order to do all this, we have to trust our wingmen to execute with more autonomy and we have to teach them how to do so in training.

The second aspect of training that must change is developing a fifth-generation fighter pilot’s ability to solve problems against a peer adversary. With advances in enemy technology and capability, the US and its allies no longer enjoy a clear advantage in air combat. This parity with our adversaries means we have to outthink them to win. The information is not clear, the tactics are not fixed, and the solution lies on a spectrum. There are many right answers and many wrong answers, all with varying degrees of benefits and tradeoffs. Operating in this environment for the first time in combat without preparing this way in training would surely lead to failure.

Preparing fifth-generation pilots to outthink a peer adversary requires accelerated learning. New fifth-generation fighter pilots will be expected to make decisions that previously were made by pilots with thousands of hours of experience. To make up for this gap in experience, fifth-generation pilots must learn faster. Humility (for both the instructor and student) is a prerequisite to accelerated learning. Admitting that you do not know all of the answers while being willing to do your best to find the solution is something that is easy to say but tough to do.

Starting with a foundation of humility, a growth mindset is the next component of accelerated learning. Someone with a growth mindset sees failure as part of the learning process. Someone with a fixed mindset sees failure as a reflection of their character and intelligence. The latter shuts down when confronted with their own failure while the former sees the failure as a valuable learning opportunity. A fifth-generation fighter pilot with a growth mindset will learn much faster than one with a fixed mindset.[4]

The final part of developing a fifth-generation pilot’s problem-solving ability against a peer adversary is a debrief with “why” questions. “Why” questions get to what each pilot is thinking. This focuses learning on the thought process that led to the decision, not the decision itself or the outcome. The end decision and outcome of that decision are both less important than how the pilot got to that decision. This is something that is difficult to do in practice because we all want to know whether we won or lost. Professional gamblers know this trap well and call it “resulting.”[5]

Resulting means judging a bet on what the outcome ended up being instead of the thought process behind it. In any betting situation or tactical aviation problem, there are always factors that cannot be controlled. Maybe the thought process and decision were correct, but other factors drove the outcome to a poor one. Conversely, maybe the outcome was great, but the thought process was faulty (also known as “better lucky than good”). It is difficult to know the exact nature of the problems that fifth-generation fighter pilots will face in the future, so improving their thought process with the use of “why” questions in the debrief will best prepare them for these challenges compared to simply knowing that problem A is solved by answer B.[6]

The third aspect of training that must change is updating our threshold for what is basic for a fifth-generation fighter pilot. This component includes updates to both training resources (what we train with) and training methods (how we train).

Improving training resources includes advancements in air and surface threat replication, incorporation of friendly assets into training scenarios, integration with other services/nations/domains, etc. This also includes improving the quality and capability of the simulators and other virtual training options. Improvements in training resources raise the level of basic for a fifth-generation pilot.

Along with continuing to improve our training resources, our training methods must also evolve. Current flight reconstructions typically spend the majority of time figuring out the results of air-to-air, surface-to-air, and air-to-surface shots. This reconstruction is done using tools first developed in the 1980s and there are many errors and approximations that sometimes result in false conclusions. Additionally, during live fly, the time spent trying to accurately simulate these shots many times overrides executing the gameplan. We have to change these methods to increase the quality of our training and focus on what’s important – tactical execution. Improving the methods we use to simulate and debrief weapons employment is one example of raising our threshold for basic fighter pilot training.

Implementing the Pillars of Training Modernization

An example of each pillar can help clarify what it looks like in practice. An example of the first aspect of increased autonomy would be flight leads using the concept of Mission Type Orders (MTOs). MTOs direct “what” to do without specifying “how.”[7] For example, instead of #1 directing “4 set up an orbit at point Bravo, jam the north SAM and keep an eye on the trail element of the strikers,” #1 can simply say “4 SEAD.” With the latter guidance, #4 can better execute the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses role during a dynamic engagement and #1 can spend time on more important tasks than directing the individual actions of a flight member. Taking this concept one step further would be the flight lead not having to say anything at all because all flight members were included in mission planning and have an accurate understanding of their roles and responsibilities.

One example of the second pillar, problem solving against a peer adversary, is the inclusion of all flight members in mission planning decisions. Traditionally, the flight lead makes all of the important gameplan decisions, sometimes consulting with the element lead (#3). Fifth-generation flight leads should consider including their wingmen in gameplan decisions during mission planning. At worst, a wingman offers advice with little value and flight leads still retain the ultimate authority for decision-making. At best, wingmen come up with a line of thinking that is different from the flight lead and offers more insight into the solution to the problem. Four minds are better than one when going up against advanced adversaries in future air combat scenarios. The added benefit of actively including wingmen in decision-making is revealing everyone’s thought process. The wingmen get to see how a more experienced fighter pilot thinks about a problem and the flight lead gets to see their wingmen’s gaps in understanding.

An example of the third pillar, changing our definition of basic, is exposing fifth-generation pilots to scenarios that can test many of the topics covered in this article. This exposure includes situations that involve problem-solving against a peer adversary, executing with constant shifts between tactical and operational decision-making, being stressed at a proper level for learning, and operating with more autonomy. Basic course (B-course) student participation in Flag-level Large Force Exercises (LFEs) is one way to achieve this level of training.

Flag-level LFEs are exercises that most closely replicate combat sorties in a major conflict. They include fifty or more friendly aircraft, multi-domain integration, and professional adversary forces. These factors are usually too expensive and cumbersome to incorporate into daily training sorties. Flag-level LFEs were the ultimate test of a pilot before going to combat with fourth-generation fighters. This is not the case anymore with fifth-generation fighters.

Fifth-generation B-course students have executed to a Flag-level for many years now in both the F-22 and F-35. Since 2014, the F-22 has taken B-course students to Exercise Sentry Savannah, which is the Air National Guard’s largest exercise encompassing similar numbers of aircraft and complexity as Red Flag. Building on these successes, 12 F-35 B-course students participated in Red Flag at Nellis Air Force Base in 2020 and 2021. Four were designated Exercise “Top Performers” (Top 5% of all participants) and one earned a Wing-level safety award for his handling of a major emergency during a Red Flag sortie. Major General Wills, as the 19th Air Force Commander in 2021, summed it up best:

The 62nd Fighter Squadron deployed to RED FLAG 21-2 and successfully conducted Basic Course training in the USAF’s premier training exercise. This deployment validated that “basic” in the F-35 is different than a 4th Gen Fighter.[8]

This does not mean that every F-35 B-course class should attend Red Flag. Instead, this article aims to change the reader’s threshold for the required level of training to properly develop a fifth-generation fighter pilot. Fifth-generation fighter pilots are going to be tasked with quarterbacking the most demanding missions in the most threatening environments in future conflicts. To adequately prepare them for these challenges we must expose them to the large force mission planning process, integration with other platforms, and challenging flying scenarios early in their careers. Participation in Flag-level LFEs is one way to do this, it is probably not the only way.

Changing our definition of basic fighter training is often misunderstood to mean that fifth-generation fighter pilots should be rushed into advanced scenarios. Instead, the correct use of this pillar is placing fifth-generation fighter pilots in scenarios that stress them to the optimum level for maximum learning value. As shown with F-22 and F-35 B-course student performance at Flag-level LFEs, the correct level of scenario complexity for fifth-generation pilots has increased from previous generations.

Increasing the level of basic fighter training for fifth-generation pilots is in constant competition with the need to produce more of them. The intent of this paper is not to define the optimum balance of capability and capacity for the future needs of the Air Force. Instead, this paper aims to show that the level of basic fighter pilot training must increase compared to previous fighter generations in order to compete against a peer adversary. If strategic priorities require a sacrifice to the quality of fifth-generation fighter training, then we need to do so while being fully informed to the tradeoffs involved in this decision.


Admin, tactics, and performance under stress have all been impacted by the change from fourth to fifth-generation aircraft. Our training must also evolve to maintain our competitive edge over our adversaries. The most effective way to train a fifth-generation fighter pilot for the demands of modern air combat includes increasing their level of autonomy, developing their problem-solving ability against a peer adversary, and increasing our threshold for what is basic fighter training. Making these updates to fifth-generation fighter pilot training best prepares our Airmen to succeed in the demanding air combat environment of the future.


Colonel Chris Hubbard
Chris Hubbard, Col, USAF is a career fighter pilot and Graduate of the United States Air Force Weapons School. He has commanded an F-35 Squadron and is currently a Combat Air Force Fellow at Headquarters Air Force. He has flown over 2,000 hours in Air Force aircraft, including the F-16 and F-35.

The author would like to recognize the following contributors for their inputs and guidance: Banzai Watkins, DBal Austin, Ditch Suppa, Hail Cisar, Hook Smith, Ivo Eriksen, Joker Arkema, Leeroy Esson, Mother Hubbard, Mulligan Marslender, Raw Schnell, Rodeo Meyer, Shaka Carroll, Slider Getgood and Tweac Hayes.



[1.] Heather R. Penney. “The Future Fighter Force Our Nation Requires: Building A Bridge.” The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, (2021): 9.

[2.] Ibid.

[3.] Ibid.

[4.] Carol Dweck, Mindset (New York: Ballantine Books, 2008), 6-7.

[5.] Annie Duke, Thinking In Bets (New York: Penguin Random House, 2018), 7.

[6.] Ibid, 7-10.

[7.] Air Force Doctrine Publication (AFDP-1), The Air Force, 2021, 12.

[8.] Craig D. Wills, Major General, U.S. Air Force (Ret.) “19th Air Force Situation Report to AETC Commander.” (19 April 2021), 8. Released with permission from Gen Wills.

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