It can be said that a fleet of fifth-generation stealth fighters can be the very hallmark of a top-notch air force. For quite some time the US Air Force was the only member of the elite club, with its F-22 Raptor and F-35 fighters dominating the skies since their respective inaugurations in 2005 and 2015, until the J-20 shot China into the same league this year.
Russia is apparently stuck in its decades-long development endeavor for the Sukhoi Su-57, with a slew of technical glitches, design flaws and accidents that may ground the fighter for a number of years to come.
Japan has also been following the trend to develop fifth-generation fighters with its X-2 Shinshin, albeit at an early stage, with the prototype’s maiden flight in April 2016.
The KF-X, South Korea’s second fighter development program after the FA-50, in collaboration with Indonesia is making headway, though experts say the fighter’s stealth capabilities can only be categorized as “4.5th generation.”
Fifth-generation fighters must meet criteria ranging from stealth to high maneuverability, particularly short-field capabilities, advanced avionics, networked data fusion from sensors and avionics, and multirole capabilities.
Nations eager to launch their own cutting-edge tactical fighter aircraft must have resolve and deep pockets.
The F-22 program cost a grand total of US$60 billion, from blueprint to mass production, and it has been reported that India is considering pulling out of co-funding for Russia’s Su-57 program as the investment now looks like a “black hole.”
The reason countries still hold on to their various fifth-generation fighter programs is all about posture, as no major power can afford to lag behind in the race to develop super-fighters, even if that means pouring in substantial resources with no guarantee of surmounting the high technical and financial threshold, PLA Daily noted in an editorial in a feature about the J-20’s inauguration in April.
Meanwhile, it has also been revealed by China News Service on its affiliated WeChat account that China may be considering sharing its J-20 technologies with allies such as Pakistan, amid the latter’s long-running feud with India as well as the strained Sino-Indian ties following a stiff face-off since June on the Doklam Plateau, a border area claimed by both Beijing and New Delhi.
Beijing may also want to compare notes on fighter development with Moscow and invest for a stake in the Su-57 program, with is now running on a shoestring budget, in exchange for the latter’s expertise in aerospace and rocket and missile development.