Forget the F‑22 or F‑35: Is China Building a 6th Generation Fighter?

 In Land, China, Air, Forces & Capabilities, FVEY

While the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force oper­ates the Chengdu J-20, the world’s third oper­a­tional fifth-gen­er­a­tion stealth air­craft after the United States’ Lockheed Martin-built F‑22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, it had only built around fifty or so of the air­craft as of last year. Few details are known about its speed, stealth per­for­mance or maneu­ver­abil­i­ty and it is unclear if the J‑20 is a true rival of the F‑22 or F‑35.

For that latter reason China has report­ed­ly been among the nations leapfrog­ging the fifth gen­er­a­tion and is now seek­ing to devel­op a sixth-gen­er­a­tion air­craft. To date little is known about this fight­er of the future, but reports sug­gest that China plans to field it as early as the 2025 to 2030 time­frame.

That would be quite ambi­tious to say the least.

The British-led Tempest Program, which was announced by British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson in July 2018 at the Farnborough Airshow as part of the nation’s Combat Air Strategy, won’t deliv­er a fight­er until at least 2035 while some reports sug­gest it could be well into the 2040s before the air­craft is in wide­spread ser­vice.

Major defense con­trac­tor BAE System is leading development with the Royal Air Force, with Rolls Royce con­tribut­ing engines, European firm MBDA inte­grat­ing weapons, and Italian com­pa­ny Leonardo devel­op­ing sen­sors and avion­ics. Perhaps to devote more resources to the pro­gram, the United Kingdom even announced that it is con­sid­er­ing halving the orders for the F‑35 so that money could go towards the Tempest instead.

Catching the U.S. Lead

It is unclear where the Chinese sixth-gen­er­a­tion fight­er might be in the devel­op­ment stage, but at this point it likely trails the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) efforts, which could be well into the prototype stage. In fact, ear­li­er this month, Dr. Will Roper, assis­tant sec­re­tary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics said in an inter­view that the U.S. Air Force had already built and flown a full-scale flight demon­stra­tor.

Few other details are known about the American Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) pro­gram, but fewer details still have been report­ed about what the PLAAF might be work­ing on.

The South China Morning Post report­ed that Hong Kong-based mil­i­tary com­men­ta­tor Song Zhongping believes each coun­try was explor­ing fea­tures for their respec­tive next gen­er­a­tion of fight­ers but that it was still too early to com­pare them.

The outlet also report­ed that the China spent years devel­op­ing the J‑20 and the progress was slow going. Work began in 1997 but it wasn’t until 2011 that the fight­er first took flight and it was only in 2017 that it entered ser­vice. Experts sug­gest the speed of devel­op­ment could be much quick­er with a sixth-gen­er­a­tion fight­er.

“We have chosen and sup­ple­ment­ed some tech­no­log­i­cal fea­tures in line with var­i­ous war sce­nar­ios,” Wang Haifeng, chief design­er of Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group, maker of the J‑20, told South China Morning Post, and con­firmed that China had start­ed work­ing on a next-gen­er­a­tion fight­er. “I believe in 2035 or ear­li­er you will see these efforts trans­lat­ed into pow­er­ful weapons to defend our air­space.”

While the fea­tures and capa­bil­i­ties are com­plete­ly unknown, Wang only said that this future fight­er could uti­lize arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence (AI), fea­ture extreme stealth capa­bil­i­ties and self-adapt­ing engines, while it could be armed with laser weapons and hyper­son­ic mis­siles. All of those fea­tures sound ambi­tious but could also make for an air­craft that is com­plex to devel­op and notably expen­sive to build. Yet, because of what is at stake it seems that China won’t be alone in trying to con­struct such an ambi­tious air­craft and as quick­ly as it can.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has con­tributed to more than four dozen mag­a­zines, news­pa­pers and web­sites. He is the author of sev­er­al books on mil­i­tary head­gear includ­ing A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is avail­able on Amazon.com.

Image: Reuters

National Interest source|articles

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