Last week, China released a video that showed seven of their fifth-generation J-20 stealth fighters flying in formation, suggesting to the world that China’s most advanced warplane may have finally moved into mass production. The stealth platform, which is believed to be based on stolen plans for America’s F-22 Raptor, has run into a number of snags along the way — including many problems with the engine designed specifically for the fighter. Concerns about the J-20’s WS-15 engine left most assuming that production wouldn’t really begin on the J-20 until next year.
But then, it’s still possible that it won’t. Although it’s unusual to see seven of these jets flying side-by-side, it’s widely believed that the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group had completed a total of 20 or so J-20s, most of which were flying with the older, less efficient WS-10B or even Russian-sourced AL-31FM2/3 engines. It stands to reason that all seven of the fighters shown in this video could be from that initial batch.
But with all the discussion about Russia’s new plans to put their own stealth fighter into production (the long-troubled Su-57) and now China’s J-20 popping up in increasing numbers… it becomes easy to lose perspective on the global race for fifth-generation supremacy.
Fighter generational distinctions aren’t as hard and fast as many like to think. The dividing line between a fourth generation and fifth generation fighter is more cultural construct than it is a hard line in someone’s rule book. Many manufacturers, contractors, and aircraft operators often do put down what sets one generation apart from another in black and white, but there’s no requirement that all of these organizations use the same list of capabilities. That’s why today, some would tell you that all it takes to build a 5th generation fighter is a design that was purpose-built from the ground up to be stealth, while others will add the requirement for networking capabilities, and some others will demand super-cruise capabilities as well (or the ability to maintain supersonic speeds without the use an afterburner). Currently, the only operational jet on the planet that hits all three of those wickets is the F-22 Raptor, as even America’s trophy-horse F-35 is too “husky” (as one pilot put it) to stay supersonic without draining their fuel tanks with an afterburner.
The point of all that is to say that, there are really two different fifth-generation fighter races going on right now. They overlap to a great degree but succeeding in one doesn’t necessarily mean victory in the other. The first race is the obvious one: trying to build as many of the best possible fighters as possible to counter the growing fleets of high-end fighters being built by the competition. The second race, however, is all about perceptions. Russia’s Su-57 production is less about standing toe-to-toe with Uncle Sam’s F-35s than it is about securing outside customers for the platform. Selling off a hundred stealth fighters could inject some much-needed capital into Russia’s ailing defense apparatus.
China, perhaps better than any nation on the planet, has leaned into this era of perception management to great success. China’s global strategy to usurp the United States as the planet’s economic, cultural, and diplomat leader may include heavy investments in things like film and pop-culture, but it also requires the ever-present threat of force. China, like the United States, can only defend its far-flung interests through the threat of force projection — something China is woefully lacking at the moment. That’s why China is not only fast tracking the development of things like stealth fighters while some ground troops are still riding horses, and it’s also why China has already announced plans to field their best fighter on their forthcoming aircraft carriers. Force projection is all about the perceived threat of violence as a preventative measure in modern diplomacy, and it will remain that way until the world’s largest powers find sufficient reason to go to war again.
So, with an appreciation for why it’s so important for both China and Russia to garner as much attention with their fifth-generation fighters as possible, it’s time to inject some much-needed perspective into the discussion. China’s J-20 is believed to be based on the F-22, true, but it’s also believed to be far more detectable on radar than the F-22. Likewise, experts assessing photographs of Russia’s Su-57 have stated that the production tolerances that are visible on the aircraft suggest that it’s not all that stealth either. America, it would seem, has retained its hold on the lead when it comes to stealth production and methodology. So, with all other things being even, it would seem that America’s F-22 and F-35 fleets have a leg up on the competition in terms of observability, but that wouldn’t matter much if they were outnumbered.
But then, that’s where the real perspective comes from. While it is now rumored that China may have started production of their J-20s, as far as we know, the nation only has 20 or so of these platforms, most of which are running old Russian engines. Russia has only around a dozen Su-57s, most of which are also running older, outdated engines (except for one).
The United States has a total fleet of 187 F-22 Raptors (though far fewer than that are currently operational) along with more than 420 F-35s in the hands of American and allied air forces. Lockheed Martin managed to deliver 91 new F-35s from its factories last year and will only see production uptick from here. In total, America plans to have 1,763 F-35A (conventional takeoff variant) fighters alone, with other orders going to the Navy and Marine Corps. All of that is to say that while America may not be the only nation with fifth-generation fighters in the skies anymore, it remains so far in the lead that it will take years for even China to catch up.
That isn’t to say that there will never come a time when Su-57s and J-20s represent real threats to American or allied aircraft in the skies over Europe and Asia, of course, but in this era of treating foreign policy news like it’s all the preamble to a heavyweight fight, it’s helps to get the tale of the tape right.