China racing for 6th-gen fighter edge over USUS downplays Chinese fighter advances but the balance of Pacific airpower may have already shifted in China’s favor
By GABRIEL HONRADA
OCTOBER 1, 2022
Concept art of China’s 6th generation fighter. Photo: Facebook / Tactical Report
China claims to be making steady progress on its 6th generation fighter jet, potentially tipping the Pacific air balance of power in its favor vis-a-vis the US if it fails to keep pace with its rival program.
While there is no universally-agreed definition of what constitutes a 6th generation fighter, the type will likely feature advanced and emerging technologies such as modular design, machine learning, artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality, drone swarms and optionally-manned capability.
A September article from Air and Space Forces Magazine mentions that China is working hard to develop its 6th generation fighter as a response to the highly-classified US Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, with Chinese efforts mirroring the same “systems-of-systems” approach of the US Air Force, says General Mark Kelly, head of the force’s Air Combat Command (ACC).
At the annual US Air Force Air, Space, and Cyber Conference this September, Kelly noted that China sees 6th generation air dominance as featuring exponential increases in signature reduction, the exponential acceleration of processing power and sensing capabilities, the ability to iterate improvements using open mission systems and reprogram at the speed of relevance.
Kelly claimed a very narrow US lead in 6th generation fighter development, stating that the US may get 6th generation air dominance just a month before its competitors, emphasizing China’s concentrated focus on achieving these same capabilities. He also noted China’s incremental approach to its fighter program, contrasting it with the leapfrogging system used by the US.
In a September article for The Warzone, Thomas Newdick noted that China had earlier acquired Su-27 heavyweight fighters from Russia and used those jets to make its improved copies. He mentioned China’s initial acquisition of the Su-27 from Russia allowed it to make enhanced J-15 and J-16 copies.
Furthermore, China’s purchase of the Su-35 has given it insights into 5th generation technologies such as thrust vectoring engines, electronic warfare systems and weapons.
As such, it is plausible that China will use its own J-20 5th generation fighter as a technology base for its 6th generation fighter. In addition, Asia Times has previously reported that the J-20 could, in the future, be upgraded with technologies found in 6th generation fighters such as directed energy weapons or optionally manned capability.
However, China’s efforts to do so may be hamstrung by its handicaps in manufacturing jet engines, with Chinese models reportedly suffering from short lifespans and low power output. As a result, China currently relies on Russian engines for its J-20 fighters, a vulnerable technology and supply chain gap in one of its most advanced military aircraft.
However, China may be close to solving its jet engine woes. In March 2022, South China Morning Post reported that China’s J-20 had been tested with the new WS-15 afterburning turbofan engine, increasing its maneuverability and combat capability.
The article also stated that China would replace all Russian AL-31F engines fitted to J-20s with domestic WS-15 engines, which may signify China’s growing confidence in its jet engine metallurgy and manufacturing methods.
Kelly notes that this incremental approach could allow China an easier transition from 5th to 6th generation fighters. In contrast, US and UK 6th generation fighter programs aim to leapfrog China and Russia’s 5th generation fighters.
In a July 2022 article for 1945, UK Air Chief Marshall Michael Wigston notes that his country is taking a revolutionary approach by looking at a game-changing mix of swarming drones, unmanned aircraft and a next-gen manned platform. He emphasizes that the UK’s 6th generation fighter program emphasizes weapons, battlespace connectivity and how information is moved through the network.
But in the same article, Brent Eastwood takes a skeptical view of 6th generation fighters, asking if they are even necessary for modern warfare. He notes that the F-35 is already an international program and that its capabilities may preclude the need for a 6th generation fighter.
He cites the case of Israel, pointing out that its F-35s give it air dominance over the Middle East, including against potential adversaries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which operate Western fighters such as the Eurofighter Typhoon, F-15, and F-16.
However, the capabilities of these 4th generation Western fighters are known in tests against the F-35, in contrast to those of China, whose fighters’ capabilities remain largely unknown save for its low-end export models, which represent the cream of its crop.
Eastwood also mentions that despite a plethora of 6th generation fighter concepts, such aircraft may offer only marginal improvements to 5th generation fighters despite their massive price tags.
He also notes that US 5th generation fighters such as the F-35 are perhaps already sufficient to achieve air superiority, and it would be wiser to purchase more such airframes instead of developing an all-new 6th generation fighter.
As such, the US remains confident in its leading position in fighter technology. In a September article in The Warzone, US Air Force head of Pacific Forces General Kenneth Wilsbach stated that China’s growing fleet of J-20 fighters is “not anything to lose sleep over.” He also noted that the US closely observes how China employs its J-20 fighters.
Similarly, US Air Force Chief of Staff General Charles Brown downplayed China’s J-20. He stated that the US had opportunities to observe the type in close encounters with F-35s in the East China Sea, noting the impressive command and control associated with the J-20.
However, he emphasized that while the US learned a lot from these encounters, the J-20’s capabilities were “nothing he would worry too much about.”
Despite Brown and Kenneth downplaying the J-20, the article notes China’s improvements in air-to-air missiles were a concern for the US, prompting efforts to develop its AIM-260 Joint Advanced Tactical Missile (JATM).
Furthermore, Brown emphasized that if the US continues to work on its NGAD program it will be able to maintain its airpower advantage over China.
However, even if the US manages to field its NGAD fighter, the balance of air power in the Pacific may already have shifted in China’s favor.
Asia Times has previously reported that US fighter forces in the region are struggling with insufficient aircraft numbers, aging airframes and undertrained pilots, assessing that such a force is inadequate to maintain conventional deterrence against China.
Even if the US chooses to scale up fighter production, speed up the development of next-generation airframes and accelerate pilot training, the US risks mistaking quantity for capability.
US officials downplaying China’s 5th and 6th generation programs by pinning their hopes on the NGAD project, which is still very much a work in progress, hints at a denial of a fighter gap wherein China has potentially already eclipsed US airpower in the Pacific.
China claims to be making steady progress on its 6th generation fighter jet, potentially tipping the Pacific air balance of power in its favor vis-a-vis the US if it fails to keep pace with its riv…