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The 11 most game-changing aircraft of the 21st century

Business Insider logoBusiness Insider 8/06/2015 ARMIN ROSEN, AMANDA MACIAS AND JEREMY BENDER

Two F-35B aircraft fly in formation over Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., in September 2013. © Provided by Business Insider Two F-35B aircraft fly in formation over Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., in September 2013. Today's most sophisticated aircraft are the stuff of science fiction.

In a few years, drones that can fit in the palm of a person's hand and 117-foot-wingspan behemoths capable of launching satellites into space will both be a reality.

At the same time, drone and advanced fighter technologies will spread beyond the US and Europe, and countries like China, Russia, and Iran may have highly advanced aerial capabilities.

Here's our look at the most game-changing aircraft of the past few years — and the next few to come.

1. F-35 Lightning II

The F-35 may cost as much as $1.5 trillion over its entire lifetime. But it's also supposed to be the most fearsome military aircraft ever built, a plane that can dogfight, provide close air support, and carry out bombing runs, all with stealth capabilities, a high degree of maneuverability, and the ability to take off and land on aircraft carriers.

It hasn't quite worked out that way so far, and problems with everything from the plane's software system to its engines have both delayed its deployment and made its costs spiral upward. And it isn't nearly as effective at close air-support as existing platforms, like the A-10.

But the US has over 1,700 of them on order. Like it or not, the F-35 will be the US's workhorse warplane for decades to come.

2. F-22 Raptor

© Provided by Business Insider The predecessor to Lockheed Martin's F-35 Lightning II is the single-seat, twin-engine F-22 Raptor, currently the most advanced combat-ready jet.

The US solely operates the world's F-22's thanks to federal law that prohibits the jet from being exported. Lockheed Martin built 195 jets before the last one was delivered to the US Air Force in May of 2012. Despite the program's cost and the jet's advanced features, it saw combat for the first time relatively recently, during the opening phase of the bombing campaign against ISIS.

3. T-50

© Provided by Business Insider Russia's Su-50, also known under the prototype name of the T-50 PAKFA, is the Kremlin's fifth-generation fighter, and its response to the F-35.

Although still in prototype, Moscow believes that the Su-50 will ultimately be able to outperform the F-35 on key metrics such as speed and maneuverability. However, the stealth capabilities of the Su-50 are believed to be below that of the F-22 and the F-35.

The Kremlin plans on introducing the Su-50 into service by 2016. Once the plane is combat-ready, it will serve as a base model for the construction of further variants intended for export. India is already co-designing an Su-50 variant with Russia, and Iran and South Korea are possible candidates to buy future models of the plane. 

4. Chengdu J-20

© Provided by Business Insider The Chengdu J-20 is China's second fifth-generation fighter in development and a potential game-changer in East Asia.

The J-20 bears striking resemblance to the F-35, due to Chinese reverse engineering and extensive theft of F-35 data. Once completed, the J-20 is assumed to have stealth capability along with the range needed to reach targets within Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam from mainland China.

As of January 2015, Beijing had developed 6 functional prototypes of the aircraft, with new prototypes being released at an increasingly quick pace. The final iteration of the aircraft is expected to be released and combat-ready sometime around 2018.

5. Eurofighter Typhoon

© Provided by Business Insider The Eurofighter Typhoon is a twin-engine multi-role fighter that was originally developed to be the primary aircraft of Europe and NATO.

The fighter jet is Europe's largest military program and was founded by four core nations: Germany, Spain, United Kingdom, and Italy.

In 2011, the Eurofighter was deployed to its first combat mission, to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya during the NATO bombing campaign in the country. In total there are currently 402 Eurofighter jets designed for the Austrian, Italian, German, Spanish, United Kingdom, Omani, and Saudi Air Forces.

The Eurofighter has been called Europe's version of America's most expensive weapons system, the F-35 Lightning II.

6. MH-X Silent Hawk

© Provided by Business Insider The military's secret MH-X Silent Hawk program was only publicly disclosed after an accidental crash during the SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 1st, 2011.

It is unclear when the US Army Operations Security's top-secret helicopter program began and how many of these stealthy aircraft are currently in service.

While the Silent Hawk appears to be a highly modified version of the widely known UH-60 Black Hawk, there are no unclassified details about this secret helicopte

7. X-47B

© Provided by Business Insider The Navy's X-47B is a strike-fighter-sized unmanned aircraft with the potential to completely change aerial warfare.

Northrop Grumman's drone is capable of aerial refueling, 360-degree rolls, and offensive weapons deployment. It's carried out the first autonomous aerial refueling in aviation history, and has taken off and landed from an aircraft carrier.

It cruises at half the speed of sound, and has a wingspan of 62 feet — as well as a range of at least 2,400 miles, which is more than twice that of the Reaper drone.

8. Stratolaunch

© Provided by Business Insider The Stratolaunch will be one of the astounding planes ever built.

Currently in its development stage, the plane will serve as a midair launch platform for vehicles capable of carrying satellites into orbit. The aircraft, whose 117-foot wingspan will be the largest of any plane ever built, will fly to an altitude of 30,000 feet, and then angle upward before blasting its payload into space.

The plane would be a relatively cheap and reusable launch vehicle for satellites, and would revolutionize how hardware and possibly even human beings can access orbital space. It could fly as early as 2016.

9. X-37B

© Provided by Business Insider The Air Force's secretive space drone returned from a 2-year mission in October of 2014. It wasn't clear exactly what the X-37B was doing up there, but it was re-launched on May 20th, for another extended stint in orbit.

With the X-37B, the Air Force essentially has a reusable satellite that it can control and call back to earth. The ability to re-equip an orbital platform for specific mission types gives the US military unprecedented flexibility in how it can use outer space — and its long periods in orbit and re-usability are impressive engineering feats to boot.

10. Nano Hummingbird

Matt Keennon, NAV project manager, showcases AeroVironment's Nano Hummingbird Unmanned Aircraft in New York, NY USA, July 13, 2011. © Paul Taggart/Bloomberg Matt Keennon, NAV project manager, showcases AeroVironment's Nano Hummingbird Unmanned Aircraft in New York, NY USA, July 13, 2011. These tiny, DARPA-developed surveillance drones could become future military staples. Small enough to evade enemy detection or fire, the Nano Hummingbird can fit in the palm of your hand, and relay images and intelligence from above ground-level.

Most surveillance drones, like the RQ-4 Global Hawk, are sizable aircraft that fly at altitudes of 60,000 feet. Aircraft like the Nano Hummingbird, which is light, stealthy, and easy to launch, could be a routine part of a future combat soldier's arsenal.

11. Iran's drones

© Iran's drones Iran has been under sanctions and a western arms embargo for much of the past 30 years, something that's denied Tehran the chance to obtain high-quality European or American arms. But it's forced them to build their own domestic capabilities, and in 2013, Iran debuted an armed drone eerily similar to the US's Reaper called the Fotros. It's unclear if the Fotros is battle-ready, but, Iran and Hezbollah, Tehran's proxy militia in Lebanon; along with the Sudanese military, already fly Iran's Ababil-3 surveillance drone.

Iran's drones aren't "game-changers" because of their high quality, but because of what they represent: even countries chafing under international sanctions can develop their own drone technology with enough patience and technological expertise. The Fotros and Ababil-3 suggests that an era of widespread drone proliferation is just around the corner.

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