Today's most sophisticated aircraft are like something out 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 including China, Russia, and Iran will have even more 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.

F-35 Lightning II

Image: Lockheed Martin

The F-35 program may cost as much as $1.5 trillion over its lifetime. But the fifth-generation fighter jet is 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 has both delayed its deployment and contributed to its astronomical price tag. And it isn't nearly as effective in some of its roles as existing aircraft. For instance, the F-35 is notably worse at close air support than the A-10, which is slated for retirement.

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

F-22 Raptor

Image: Staff Sgt. Jim Araos/USAF

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 on earth.

The US is the only country in the world that flies the F-22s thanks to a federal law that prohibits the jet from being exported. Lockheed Martin built 195 F-22s before the last one was delivered to the US Air Force in May 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 the Islamic State in late 2014.

T-50

Photo: Wikipedia/Alex Beltyukov

Russia's Su-50, also known under the prototype name of the T-50 PAK-FA, is the Kremlin's fifth-generation fighter and Russia's response to the F-35.

Though still in prototype, Moscow thinks the Su-50 will ultimately be able to outperform the F-35 on key metrics including speed and maneuverability. The stealth capabilities of the Su-50, however, are believed to be below those of the F-22 and the F-35.

The Kremlin plans to introduce 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.

Chengdu J-20

Image: Alexandr Chechin/en.wikipedia.org

The Chengdu J-20, which is currently in development, is China's second fifth-generation fighter and a potential strategic game changer in East Asia.

The J-20 bears striking resemblance to the F-35 because of Chinese reverse engineering and extensive theft of F-35-related data. Once completed, the J-20 will possess stealth capability along with the range needed to reach targets within Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam after taking off from mainland China.

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

Eurofighter Typhoon

Image: Peter Gronemann/Flickr

The Eurofighter Typhoon is a twin-engine multirole fighter that was originally developed to be the Europe and NATO's primary warplane.

The fighter jet is Europe's largest military program and was started by Germany, Spain, Italy, and the UK.

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. There are 402 Eurofighter jets designed for the Austrian, Italian, German, Spanish, UK, 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.

MG-X Silent Hawk

Image: IRNA

Iran has been under sanctions and a Western arms embargo for much of the past 30 years, something that has denied Tehran the chance to obtain high-quality European or American arms. But it has forced Iran to build its own domestic capabilities, and in 2013 Iran debuted an armed drone eerily similar to the US' Reaper, called the Fotros.

It's unclear whether 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 suggest that an era of widespread drone proliferation is just around the corner.