At the Air and Space Force Association’s recent Air, Space and Cyber conference, U.S. Air Combat Command chief Gen. Mark Kelly gave the latest of several warnings that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force could become the first service in the world to field sixth-generation fighter aircraft – thereby overtaking the United States.
“I cannot tell you today what’s going on in China except they’re planning for their 20th National Party Congress [in October],” Kelly warned. “But I can tell you what’s not happening. They’re not having a debate over the relevance of six-gen air dominance. And I can also tell you they’re on track.”
The competition between rival sixth-generation programs pursued by the world’s two largest economies and defense spenders was close enough that Kelly set a goal of inducting such fighters into the U.S. Air Force “at least a month prior to our competitors,” a goal that contrasted with the lead of several years that the U.S. had comfortably achieved in previous generations.
Developments in fighter aviation since the beginning of the Cold War can broadly be divided into six generations, with most major players having reached the fourth by the 1980s while the U.S. Air Force introduced the world’s first fifth-generation fighter into service in December 2005. Each generation has provided very significant advantages to its operators in comparison to fighters from prior generations. The fifth generation introduced such technologies as AESA radars and stealth airframes, while the sixth is expected to enjoy a leap in avionics and greater reliance on unmanned “wingman” drones and directed energy weapons.
Although the sharp decline in post-Soviet Russia’s economy and high-tech and defense sector from 1992 fueled confidence in the West that U.S. fighters would not have peer rivals for the foreseeable future, the rise of China’s defense and broader tech sectors in the 2010s ended such hopes. China’s armed forces have since 2020 outspent the U.S. military on acquisitions, with R&D in areas with key military applications such as artificial intelligence being pursued on a far larger scale. These emerging disparities are only set to grow. The two powers are effectively in a league of their own in combat aviation as reflected by the lack of serious third party competition in developing sixth-generation fighters, and by the fact that they are the only two to field squadrons of indigenous fifth-generation fighters.
Regarding the possibility of China being the first to field a sixth-generation fighter, Kelly previously highlighted in February 2021: “What I don’t know … is if our nation will have the courage and the focus to field this capability before someone like the Chinese fields it and uses it against us.” He warned that despite the Pentagon’s “keen focus” on development, “[W]e just need to make sure we keep our narrative up and articulate the biggest benefit we’ve had as a nation to have leading-edge technology ensuring we have air superiority.”
Although it is far from certain which country will be the first to field sixth-generation fighters and what kind of capability advantages each will enjoy, there are multiple indications that China could have a significant lead. One of several factors pointing to this is how much more quickly and efficiently it has been able to develop new generations of weapons systems, including fighters.
The first technology demonstrator for the United States’ first fifth-generation fighter program flew in September 1990 – over 15 years before the aircraft could join the U.S. Air Force as the F-22 with an initial operating capability. By contrast, the first technology demonstrator for development of its Chinese counterpart, the J-20, flew in January 2011, a mere six years before the fighter entered service in March 2017.
The United States’ second fifth-generation fighter, the F-35, also saw a period of 15 years between its first technology demonstrator flight in October 2000 and its entry into service in 2015 due to significant delays to the program. This was despite F-35 development benefiting tremendously from technologies already operationalized on the F-22. Similar trends can be observed across high end weapons systems in the two defense sectors, whether comparing the U.S. Zumwalt and Chinese Type 055 destroyers, or the Littoral Combat Ship and Type 054 frigate.
The United States has struggled with large clean sheet weapons programs since the end of the Cold War, although the contraction of its defense sector and broader industrial base in the 1990s did not appear at the time to pose a major threat largely because the industries of its only peer competitor, Russia, were deteriorating exponentially faster. While the gap between the U.S. and Russian defense sectors is only expected to grow, China’s rise and its emergence as the leader in R&D in many key areas of high tech, as well as in spending on acquisitions, has placed it on track to lead the world in the capabilities of its weapons systems. This supplements the strong lead already demonstrated in how quickly it can bring new systems into service, a growing number of which have no counterparts in foreign arsenals.
The consequences for the balance of power in East Asia and beyond are significant, affecting potential hotspots from the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea to the Korean Peninsula and Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.
The decision in June to abandon ambitious and unorthodox development plans for the United States’ sixth-generation fighter, which would have seen it follow the precedent set by the Century Series fighters in the 1950s, with airframes being radically redesigned several times each decade, may have been an indicator that close competition was leaving little room for experimentation. This closely coincided with reports that the fighter’s engineering, manufacturing, and development phase had begun, although a more recent statement by Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall confirmed that these were premature.
While the outcome of the race to the sixth generation will not be apparent until close to the end of the decade, the fact that the U.S. lead has diminished to the extent that it could now very realistically fall behind provides one of many indications of the emerging trends in technological competition between the two countries as China takes the lead in a fast-growing number of areas.