By Peter Suciu
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has bold ambitions as it tries to become a true global superpower. To achieve this it has sought to build a world-class blue water navy that projects power in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond. Likewise, Beijing has focused on developing a domestic aircraft program that isn’t reliant on Soviet/Russian designs.
This has resulted in the FC-31 Gyrfalcon, a twin-engine fifth-generation aircraft, which is now in the prototype stage – but there are already rumblings that China could be looking to be among the nations now engaged in developing a 6th-generation fighter. Given the state of the efforts around the world to design and produce such an aircraft, China may be facing a Sisyphean effort.
It was just last week, at the Farnborough International Air Show that the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced that a flying demonstrator of the UK-led Future Combat Air System (FCAS) – also known as the Tempest – would be unveiled within the next five years. Yet, that announcement coincided with the news that the Franco-German-led competing 6th-generation program – also known as FCAS – could risk cancelation. Delays with the program, and disagreements over the direction the project should take, have been seen as a major concern.
There have even been rumours that the two European efforts should merge – and already the Japanese have sought to partner with the UK-led program.
Where Does That Leave China?
Given the state of the progress being made – or not being made as the case may be – in Europe, China may be hard-pressed to develop such an aircraft. Unless of course, it employs hackers to “glean” details from the FCAS efforts or the United States Air Force’s Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program.
It is already widely suspected that China stole design elements from the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II. Thus, while Beijing has touted its abilities to domestically develop modern aircraft, it still has received “help” from the west!
Reports of a 6th-generation Chinese fighter were first reported in 2019 by the state-run Global Times, which stated boldly, “China will not fall behind in the global race toward 6th-generation fighter jets.” The outlet further cited a media interview with Wang Haifeng, a chief architect at Chengdu Aircraft Research and Design Institute who was involved in the development of the J-20 stealth fighter.
“China’s tradition is to have one generation in service, a new one in development, and a next-generation under study,” a military expert told the Global Times, as was the case with Chinese aircraft carriers. “Now that the J-20 is already in service, the development for a new aircraft is also underway.”
That is certainly ambitious, but China hasn’t exactly proven to the world that its fifth-generation aircraft is on par with the U.S. aircraft it may have copied. Beijing has long touted the capabilities of the J-20 “Mighty Dragon,” the twinjet all-weather stealth fighter aircraft developed by China’s Chengdu Aerospace Corporation. However, those capabilities have also been long been questioned by western observers, who suggest that Chinese aircraft couldn’t actually take on the United States military’s F-22 or F-35.
“The F-22 likely significantly outperforms the J-20 in almost every aspect of combat capability,” Justin Bronk, an air combat expert at the Royal United Services Institute, had told Business Insider.
In other words, the J-20 may look capable, but looks can be deceiving.
Moreover, even if China is able to field a 6th-generation aircraft by the mid-2030s – an ambitious goal – it likely would still lag behind what the UK or U.S. might have in service by then. Beijing will likely continue to play catch-up even as it attempts to make its great leaps forward.