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.
“The Su-57, Russia’s fifth-generation fighter jet comparable to China’s J-20 and the U.S.’s F-22, is usually considered not a true fifth-generation jet because of its ‘below-standard’ stealth capability, according to media reports,” the piece reads. “This makes it at a significant disadvantage against Chinese and U.S. counterparts, some military observers said.”
While this sort of analysis is not at all uncommon in Western media, the Chinese government exercises strict control over its media mouthpieces – meaning articles like this have a bit of added weight when you consider that they had to be cleared through very strict government censorship.
“China has a long tradition of purchasing Russian warplanes, recently highlighted by an Su-35 deal,” Chinamil.com wrote. “But as the country developed its own fifth- generation fighter jet, it does not need to buy or even learn from the ‘below-standard’ Su-57.”
However, it wasn’t all bad news for the Su-57, as the Chinese analysts broke down how they felt the platform could still be effective in combat against America’s more advanced platforms. In effect, the thrust vectoring capabilities the Su-57 will ultimately have (when eventually equipped with its proper engine) will give it an acrobatic edge that China believes will be bolstered by its awareness of incoming long range missiles.
“Having an innovative aerodynamic design and capable of thrust vectoring control, the Su-57 attaches strong importance to supersonic cruise capability and super-maneuverability, and stealth is intentionally a second priority,” Wang Yongqing, chief designer of the state-owned Shenyang Aircraft Design Institute, was quoted as saying in the piece. “The U.S. concept of next-generation aerial battle stresses beyond visual range attacks, but missiles capable of delivering such attacks have to travel for a while, a time window far enough for the Su-57 to make super-maneuvers and evade them.”
It’s worth noting that China is also struggling to field the proper engines for their own fifth-generation J-20s, and those that are currently flying are actually running Russian sourced AL-31 engines.
Russia has claimed that the first production run of Su-57s will be delivered by the end of this year. Yet this time frame seems increasingly unlikely the deeper into November we go.