As previously reported on Fighter Sweep, Hill Air Force Base in Utah was the scene of a spectacular display of technology and air power earlier this week, with a whopping 35 U.S. Air Force F-35As taking to the sky in rapid succession.

This training exercise, commonly referred to as an “elephant walk,” is intended to demonstrate the U.S. military’s capacity to launch a significant wave of air power in rapid succession; though as many have pointed out in the days since Hill’s F-35 display, it’s also a powerful PR tool.


Fielding not one but two fifth-generation fighter wings with only seconds between launches may not be the most practical drill in modern warfare, but it does send a significant message to allies and potential opponents alike. With the F-35 entering into combat operations first with the Israeli military and then the U.S. Marine Corps earlier this year, this elephant walk and its ensuing publicity could be seen as a staunch reminder that the United States remains the premier air power in the world.

Although China’s J-20 technically entered into service earlier this year, China has thus far produced only 20 or so operational fighters — and none of them are equipped with their fifth-generation WS-15 engines. China’s current J-20s employ older, Russian-sourced engines that are not capable of maintaining supersonic speeds without keeping their after burners engaged — failing to meet a commonly accepted requirement to be considered a true fifth-generation fighter.

Likewise, Russia’s Su-57 also lacks that same super-cruise capability — but it seems unlikely that the fighter will ever be produced in sufficient numbers for that to matter. Russia announced earlier this year that they would be limiting their order of Su-57s to only a dozen — making their “fifth-generation” fleet little more than a token capability for the sake of diplomatic posturing.

Pilots from the 388th and 419th Fighter Wings taxi F-35As on the runway in preparation for a combat power exercise Nov. 19, 2018, at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. (USAF Photo)

In fact, if you were to take all of China’s functional J-20s and all of Russia’s operational Su-57s and put them on the same air strip… you’d still be hard pressed to field a comparably sized elephant walk. If those who claim this week’s F-35 display was nothing but a ham-fisted PR move are right — admittedly, it was a pretty good one.

With Russia and China potentially years ahead in the development of hypersonic missile technology, Russia deploying 100-megaton doomsday subs, and China about to begin testing their own deep penetration stealth bomber, maybe the U.S. Air Force just wanted to send the world a reminder that the American military is no slouch.