While the U.S. touts its 5th generation F-35 Lightning II and F-22 Raptor stealth fighter as air power ‘game changers,’ the bulk of the U.S. air combat fleet will continue to consist of 4th generation aircraft until the 2030s. And adding new (‘4th gen-plus’) F-15EX ‘Eagle II fighters is not really helping to change that dynamic.
Meanwhile, China is fielding its own 5th generation fighter, the J-20, Though U.S. experts dismiss the J-20 as not really 5th generation, and as inferior to U.S. 5th gen planes, some analysts believe the Pentagon is not adequately addressing the threat posed by the J-20 and Chinese airpower more generally.
The bottom line is that the U.S. needs to accelerate deployment of its 5th gen combat aircraft such as the F-35, and/or deploy newer advanced 6th gen aircraft and capabilities very soon, or it may quickly lose its technological air superiority over the Chinese air forces in the Pacific. However, it appears the Pentagon isn’t quite getting it.
Aviation Week (AW), one of the world’s premiere aerospace journals, notes that: “The notion that the service’s fourth-generation Lockheed F-16s and Boeing F-15s soon will be confronted by significant numbers of advanced Chinese aircraft has not sunk in.” In its recent piece, ‘Face It: China’s J-20 Is A Fifth-Generation Fighter,’ the magazine adds:
In a 2017 interview, PLAAF [People’s Liberation Army Air Force] Brigade Commander Xiao Jun agreed that the J-20’s purpose was to sweep away all fourth-generation fighters, though he added that the true strength of the aircraft was part of a broader systems of systems approach.
The AW analysis describes the J-20’s many flaws, as well as capabilities, but ultimately concludes that:
Despite these challenges, the J-20 represents a revolutionary progression of the PLAAF’s air superiority capability. Cursory pronouncements that the J-20 is inferior to U.S. fifth-generation platforms miss the mark.
In the near future, at least through 2030, the growing number of Chinese J-20s may be facing mostly U.S. 4th gen aircraft (i.e.: F-15s, F-16s and F-18s) not F-35s and F-22s. And against these aircraft, argues Aviation Week: “The J-20’s inherent benefits of LO [Low Observability] and situational awareness will similarly present a significant challenge to U.S. fourth-generation fighters.
The large-scale deployment of the J-20 must also be viewed in the context of broader Chinese capabilities, from the J-10C and DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile to improved training and readiness. Clearly, the U.S. Air Force will not retain an overmatch advantage without recommitting toward modernization…
Securing air dominance in the Asia-Pacific region has become the U.S. Air Force’s raison d’etre, and fifth-generation fighters will remain the foundation of that mission for years to come.