China has unveiled preliminary designs for a sixth-generation fighter, something comparable to the US’s Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter. Unveiled at the Zhuhai Air Show, the fighter model was tailless, and appears to feature stealth technology.
China Goes NGAD
The head of Air Combat Command, General Mark D. Kelly, said that the Chinese are indeed working to build a sixth-generation fighter, and that the Chinese are working to keep pace with the US – who hope to field a NGAD fighter before 2030.
Kelly addressed the media recently, stating his belief that China looks at sixth-generation air power “greatly the way we see it: an exponential reduction in signature, exponential acceleration of processing power and sensing.” Said another way, China’s sixth-generation fighter will incorporate stealth technology and will rely heavily on software and avionics to function as one node in a digital network – like the current fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II – which allows the pilot to accumulate and process information much more quickly than pilots in other platforms. The result is, ideally, increased situational awareness and decision making.
Kelly emphasized that China is well positioned to work on a sixth-generation fighter. “They started with Su-27, morph into Su-30, then their own J-16, Su-35.”
Beyond NGAD: China’s Military Gets Stronger in the Air
China has done an excellent job of transitioning from an importer of foreign fighter jets, into a developer of homegrown fighter jets. China received exported Su-27s from Russia before building the Su-27 under license as the J-11 and J-11A. China also exported Su-30MKKs from Russia. Overtime, China began depending less on imported Russian aerospace designs and instead began building Chinese-designed airframes, with Chinese-designed engines and avionics. The Chinese then converted the Su-30MKK into something of their own, the J-16. And China converted the Su-33 into the J-15.
China has also developed a fifth-generation fighter, the entirely capable Chengdu J-20. The J-20 is an all-weather, twinjet stealth aircraft designed to achieve air superiority and conduct precision strikes. The J-20 was the world’s third-ever fifth-generation fighter to achieve operational status, following the F-22 and the F-35. To date, the Chinese have built 208 J-20s, meaning they have more J-20s than the US has F-22s.
Kelly believes that the experience China has gained through tinkering with Russian jets and now building jets at home in China will leave the Chinese well-positioned to develop a sixth-generation fighter. Yet, Kelly did not share many details about what the US knows about the Chinese sixth-generation efforts. He did offer one tidbit, however, stating that China’s next jet will have an “exponential” improvement in stealth relative to existing jets. Kelly declined to state approximately when China’s sixth-generation fighter would be ready to fly, but he said they were essentially on schedule. Further, Kelly believes China “is building a first-rate air force.” Kelly emphasized that the US needs to build a sixth-generation fighter before the Chinese do. “We need to get there before they do,” he said. “It won’t end well if we don’t.”
China’s Military Might Makes America Nervous
China’s intense, ongoing military build-up has much of the international community spooked. Aside from building high-quality fifth and ‘NGAD’ sixth-generation aircraft, the Chinese Navy is expanding at a historic rate. Relatedly, China is pushing outward, making territorial claims, especially in the surrounding seas. China’s Indo-Pacific neighbors, like Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, are especially concerned and still looking to the US for assistance. US efforts to “beat” China to a sixth-generation fighter would help to assuage fears in the Indo-Pacific of Chinese ascension, while serving as a token that the US is still a capable ally. Regardless, China’s rise seems inevitable – which a new sixth-generation fighter further suggests.
Harrison Kass is the Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken.