Within the defense aerospace industry, it’s not uncommon to hear terms bandied about like “fifth generation fighter” when describing America’s two crown jewel air platforms: the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the F-22 Raptor. That “fifth generation” moniker is a standard naming convention allotted to the world’s next generation platforms, and while there has been some debate as to what specifically qualifies a new air frame as “next generation,” there has been no debate as to what nations are fielding them, because up until recently, only one nation on the planet has had any, and it’s the United States.
The People’s Liberation Army in China, however, is currently amid a massive reorganization and modernization effort, which has included the launch of a number of new Naval vessels (including the nation’s second ever aircraft carrier) and perhaps most importantly, a fifth generation fighter of their own … at least sort of.
On Friday, China announced that their next generation J-20 stealth fighter has official entered into combat service. Since its unveiling, rumors have swirled that the J-20 could potentially be a match for America’s most maneuverable dog fighter, the stealth F-22 … and with good reason. Much of the J-20’s design was stolen directly from F-22 plans that were smuggled into the country by a man named Su Bin. He is now serving a 46 month prison sentence for his hand in providing China the plans necessary to field not only an F-22 rip off, but an F-35 copy as well — set to enter service soon as the J-31.
Some have questioned the J-20’s stealth characteristics as compared to the F-22 it resembles, particularly due to the front stabilizing canards that appear to be the primary aesthetic difference between the two aircraft. In any regard, however, the J-20 does appear to be a formidable fighter, perhaps ranked third globally, though such rankings are notoriously difficult to assess without seeing it square off with an opponent.
The J-20 and forthcoming J-31 aren’t China’s only advanced fighters just taking to the skies however. China has found themselves in the unique position of having both a copy-cat F-22 and Russia’s most advanced operational fighter platform, the Su-35, all in the same stable.
The Sukhoi Su-35 is widely considered to be among the most advanced fourth generation fighters on the planet. Lacking in the stealth that separates the newest fighters from their predecessors, the twin-engine, single seat fighter from Russia is thought to be among the most maneuverable fighters ever, with weapons and guidance systems that are said to be on par with many of those offered in tried and true Western platforms. With a top speed of Mach 2.25, it can pace the F-22 and outrun the F-35; with a maximum range on internal fuel tanks of 2,200 miles, it can fly further than either before even strapping on its external tanks to increase that range to 2,800 miles.
Where the Su-35 falls short of its fifth generation competitors, however, is in stealth. As a heavily upgraded iteration of what is effectively a Su-27 airframe, the Su-35 offers no stealth capabilities. In a dog fight, the Su-35’s lack of stealthiness could come in handy to an extent: allowing the platform to carry more external munitions, while the F-22 and F-35 both must rely in internal storage, dramatically limiting their air-to-air arsenals in flight.
Aviation enthusiasts have been waiting for a chance to see the F-22 square off with a Su-35 in an international brains versus brawn showdown, and if the world isn’t lucky, that may just happen over Syria … but in the meantime, China can now offer a reasonable facsimile by simply fielding their own J-20s against their own Su-35s in mock combat drills.
China’s operational use of both J-20 and Su-35 platforms means employing two of the most impressive fighters on the planet in a manner rarely seen in history. If the J-20 can approximate F-22 flight characteristics as well as it looks like it can, Chinese pilots will be able to assess the strengths and weaknesses of both platforms, using each when most appropriate, and more unnervingly, knowing how to take advantage of those weaknesses in aircraft fielded by competitor states, like the United States.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.