The Chinese aerospace firm responsible for China’s premier fifth-generation platform, the Chengdu J-20, has announced plans to field a new “sixth-generation” fighter by 2035. This announcement comes on the heels of a joint French and German endeavor to field a “next-generation” fighter that was announced last week, as well as the U.K.’s announcement last summer that it was seeking partners to help develop a new “Tempest” fighter program.
According to Chinese officials, the forthcoming sixth-generation platform will be superior to the best fighters of the fifth-generation, the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which are both aircraft in America’s arsenal. There’s just one problem with the recent flurry of “next-generation” fighter announcements: there’s no real substance to any of these claims.
In Chinese government-owned media outlets like the Global Times, you can find a laundry list of capabilities a sixth-generation fighter might have, but to date, might is really all anyone is able to muster. There are, of course, a number of very good reasons for this. The first is that China’s next fighter platform, like so many others around the world, currently exists as little more than a line item on project projections. China’s announcement truly indicates a willingness to allocate funding into the development of new fighting technologies aimed not at improving existing platforms, but rather at fielding a new one. Still, nothing about that specifically suggests the new aircraft will offer such groundbreaking advancements that it would warrant a new generational moniker.
Even the exact parameters of what defines a fifth-generation fighter are subject to debate, due in no small part to the fact that there are no governing bodies that make these sorts of determinations. The “generation” a fighter belongs to is really determined by industry-wide norms, but the specifics of each generation can vary wildly from organization to organization or nation to nation. As one example, it is widely accepted in the aerospace industry that a fifth-generation fighter must have a stealth design, data fusion and networking capabilities, and a power plant that is capable of super-cruising, or maintaining supersonic speeds without the use of the jet’s afterburners.
However, despite those standards being generally accepted by the aviation community, neither China’s nor Russia’s “fifth-generation” fighters actually meet all three criteria. Both the Chinese J-20 and the Russian Su-57 have been hampered by engine issues that prevent either platform from super-cruising, which means these fighters will still have to trade between speed and loiter time in a way America’s fighters do not.
So China’s claims of developing a sixth-generation fighter are, at best, a bit of extreme optimism and, at worst, an intentional effort aimed at misleading the world at large about the Chinese military’s capabilities. Thus far, the nation has failed to field a truly fifth-generation platform, so making predictions about fielding technology so disruptive that it’s a full generation ahead of a fighter like the F-35 makes for a lofty goal indeed.