In national security and defense analysis circles, we tend to give China and Russia’s fifth-generation fighter programs a fair amount of real estate when it comes to headlines and think-pieces. So much so, that many could be forgiven for assuming that these two nations, both considered “near peers” to the United States in terms of military capability, have air forces that you could call “comparable” to our own.

This misconception is an unfortunate side effect of our need to pick apart and analyze the bits of information that reach us when it comes to adversary military programs. The Su-57, for instance, is Russia’s entrant into the realm of fifth-generation fighters and is often touted by the Kremlin as a worthy match for the likes of America’s F-22 or F-35. Regardless of the veracity of those claims, the truth is, it doesn’t much matter even if the Su-57 is the superior fighter — they’re only building 12 of them. With so few of these aircraft, replacement parts will come with astronomical costs and it’s likely their token fifth-gen force will only see the light of day when there’s some press to be garnered from them.

This picture shows a whopping third of all Su-57s in existence. (YouTube)

China’s J-20 is also a problem child for their military, with continued engine issues placing their F-22 rip-off’s qualifications as a true fifth-generation fighter in question. They too only currently have 20 or so operational J-20s, each equipped with an older, Russian sourced engine that results in a dramatically smaller operational range than America’s most advanced fighters.

In fact, the Air Force’s F-35 elephant walk from a few weeks ago that saw 35 of these jets launch from an air base in Utah in rapid succession wasn’t just a publicity stunt for the troubled F-35 program — it was also a message to China and Russia. The United States launched as many stealth fighters from that one air strip as Russia and China could currently field combined.

As far as messages go, this one was pretty heavy-handed. (DoD)

However, it’s not the number of advanced fighters or even the technology that can be found within them that truly sets America’s air forces (spread across all branches) apart from their competitors in Russia and China — all three nations rely heavily on long outdated platforms that have been in service since before their pilots were born. The United States is no exception, with Marine aviators still flying sub-sonic Harrier jump jets as they wait for F-35s to replace them and the airborne wing of the U.S. nuclear triad still resting on the shoulders of the B-52 that first entered into service the same year James Dean’s “Rebel Without a Cause” hit theaters. America’s aircraft, split between all four branches, may be superior in numbers and often in technology, but they are largely dated nonetheless.

So if a war were to break out between the United States and one of these nations, America’s aircraft, largely superior in both numbers and technology, would have the advantage — but America’s real money-maker in the sky isn’t its tech; it’s the training.

Here in the States, the U.S. Air Force is currently amid a push to extend pilot flight hours to 20 per month, an uptick from the previous average of 17.8. Marine Corps aviators clock an average of 14 to 16 hours a month, and Army and Navy pilots tend to fall right in that same neck of the woods. That means every U.S. military pilot spends between 168 and 240 hours per year at the stick of their aircraft. Russia, on the other hand, boasts an average pilot flight time per year of just 100 hours, though new pilots, given additional training, topped out at around 120.

An air war today would likely see much more fighting between 4th generation platforms like Russia’s Su-35 and America’s F/A-18 Super Hornet. (WikiMedia Commons)

That means, even if a Russian pilot and American pilot entered into service at the same time and flew identical jets, the American pilot would still have around twice as much experience in their aircraft than their Russian opponent when they met in an aerial battle space.