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.
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.
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(spread across all branches) apart from their competitors in Russia and China — all three nations rely heavily on long outdated platforms that have been in service since before their pilots were born.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.
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.
It’s tougher to nail down a similar figure for Chinese aviators for a few reasons. The first is that China tends not to make such information publicly available, and the second is that the People’s Liberation Army-Air Force is currently amidst a massive overhaul of their flight training operations — but the sparse details of that overhaul actually paint an even worse picture for China, if their pilots were to face off against Americans in the skies over the Pacific.
According to a Rand Corporation analysis of the PLA-AF’s pilot training transition, Chinese fighter pilots have been trained to follow orders relayed from senior leaders on the ground — unlike American fighter pilots, who usually take their cues from the senior pilot in the group during combat operations. China began to recognize how poorly this methodology translated to a dynamic battle space during training, when rapid shifts in targeting data resulted in confusion and frequent misses, attributed to a lack of leadership at the point of conflict. Now, Chinese aviators are being given a great deal more autonomy in their operations, but the process is still in its early stages and it will likely be years before their training regimen begins producing well-rounded pilots that don’t require command hand-holding.
In other words, despite the attention we award new tech when it hits the world’s stage — wars are ultimately still won and lost by the men and women in the fight, and no one’s pilots are more experienced that America’s.