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.