The United States introduced the world to the concept of stealth-integrated “fifth-generation” fighters decades ago when the first F-22 Raptors took to the sky. Since then the U.S. has remained at the forefront of this new generation of fighter, but efforts from both Russia and China to close this capability gap have resulted in a fifth generation competition.
Today, all three nations claim to have operational fifth generation fleets. But only the United States has a sizeable enough quantity to really put them to good use — China’s F-22-based J-20 and Russia’s stealth acrobat Su-57 both exist only in token fleets of fewer than 20 aircraft for each nation.
Russia’s Su-57, in particular, has had a troubled development timeline. It began its life as a joint venture between Russia and India until Indian officials decided to pull out of the program following rumors that the “stealth” jet wasn’t actually very stealthy at all. Despite Russia’s claims, it appears it has yet to master the art of mass production of aircraft panels with tight enough tolerances to reduce radar returns, thus making the Su-57 more “stealthy” than it is stealth.
China has a long history of purchasing (and stealing) air frame designs from other nations — especially Russia. In fact, China recently purchased a small fleet of what may be Russia’s actual best fighter, the highly maneuverable fourth generation Su-35. This long standing, though sometimes tumultuous, military relationship has prompted many to wonder aloud if China might be interested in purchasing Su-57s as well. Russia would certainly be eager to fill such an order, as the injection of funding into the program could help in getting its own fleet of Su-57s off the ground. However, a recent analysis published by Chinese government-owned media outlet Chinamil.com seems to deflate any Russian hopes of Chinese investment.