“Remember the market scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark?” Stephen O’Bryan asks, referring to the sword-wielding assailant, who confronts Indiana Jones only to be shot moments later. “That’s fifth generation.”

O’Bryan, vice president of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, has been asked to define fifth generation capability a lot in recent months as politicians attempt to understand what they are buying when they consider replacements for legacy fighter jets. So the colourful movie analogy has become a simple metaphor to capture the difference between so-called 4th and 5th generation fighter technologies.

Although he now coordinates all national and international business activity around the JSF, the former U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School (Top Gun) pilot accumulated over 3,700 hours in F/A-18C and carrier variants. The differences are stark, he says.

While stealth capability reaps much of the headlines, it’s the way in which data from hundreds of sensors is processed that sets the aircraft apart. The F-35 features over nine million lines of code, significantly more than even the F-22 Raptor, which contains just over two million.

Much of the F-35 debate in Canada has concentrated on the aircraft’s delivery schedule and cost, and whether the eventual price tag might mean a reduction in the minimum 65 jets the Air Force says it needs to meet its mission requirements, or even the procurement of a cheaper alternative like the F-18 Super Hornet.

So what makes the F-35 a technological leap forward from its predecessors?

Alan Norman is Lockheed Martin’s chief test pilot and the lead for the F-35, a 23-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force with over 6,000 hours of flying time, including numerous flight tests on the F-22.

He says 4th generation or legacy fighters have reached their limit when it comes to incorporating state-of-the-art equipment. “To take that next step, that quantum leap … we needed to put together technologies in one platform that gave us very unique … capabilities. You can’t make a 4th Gen airplane do what a 5th Gen airplane does. You have to design it in from the beginning.”

In a recent webinar, Norman began with the JSF’s advanced stealth capability, from its design and engine alignment to its internal weapons bays, all of which ensure “low observability.” He noted that those design elements have been achieved without compromising the aircraft’s performance. “We’ve already been to 1.6 mock, we’ve already pulled 9 Gs [in test flights],” he said.

But like O’Bryan, he quickly focused on the fusion of sensor data. The F-35’s sensors are able to operate without pilot intervention, performing their required tasks, alerting other sensors to what they find, and integrating that information into what Norman calls “total situational awareness.”

“The pilot can come into the loop … and decide, ‘I’d rather be looking at a certain target or a certain thing on the ground and I’d like all you sensors to be helping me out with that,’ or the sensors can do things on their own,” he said. “It’s almost akin to taking R2D2 up with me and having him run all my little systems that I used to have to run in a 4th Gen airplane. That frees me up to be a tactician versus a technician. I can worry about what I am doing in the battle space versus how I am operating my systems.”

That information can also be passed back and forth between pilots and with ground stations. “I can see what they see, they can see what I see. That opens up the airspace in a completely different way then we have done before. In essence, I have become a supersonic node in the information highway.” That same sensor capability also applies to system diagnostics and maintenance.

All three variants of the F-35 are also distinguished by their multi-mission capability, Norman said. Not only is the JSF a well-armed, formidable threat in air-to-air and surface-to-air situations, it is also an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and electronic operations platform, tasks usually reserved for specialized aircraft. “We can perform [ISR] missions that we never could do before with a fighter.”

Bill Gigliotti, a Top Gun graduate and an F-35 test pilot with over 6,000 flying hours, notes that all missions can be performed without reconfiguring the jet. “On a single sortie, the aircraft can execute all these missions: a young fighter pilot of the future [might] encounter air-to-air threats and be an air dominance fighter while gathering that ISR, providing electronic attack, doing command-and-control (C2) back to ground forces and [C2] assets that he is supporting while prosecuting an air-to-surface target.”

“In fact,” adds Norman, “we can help legacy fighters on our side do even better because we can pass information to them that they can’t get on their own.”

The question facing governments from Canada and Australia to Turkey and Japan is, of course, is that “quantum leap” worth the price?