Debating the Performance Characteristics of a Non-Existent Chinese 5th Gen Fighter

In my formative years as an aspiring defense analyst, the military balance bean counting game was dominated by main battle tanks: how many could NATO field to meet a dreaded Warsaw Pact armored blitzkrieg across the North German Plain.

Today, the bean counting game is 5th generation fighters: how many we’ll have versus how many the Chinese will have. Of course all of this is based on some rather spurious projections because with our own constantly fluctuating Joint Strike Fighter program we don’t know for certain how many 5th gen fighters we’ll field in another decade, let alone how many the Chinese might be able to build.

We do know this: the number of 5th gen fighters in the Chinese inventory is zero.

U.S. aircraft manufacturers have wrestled with the complicated components of stealth, such as radar absorbent coatings and the complexities of the aircraft’s shape, for many decades. The F-22 program began in the 1980s; it was given Milestone I approval in 1986.

Yet, some assume China is on the cusp of mastering the complexities of stealth on an industrial scale. A recent Reuters story breathlessly claimed that China is developing a 5th generation fighter that “may rival within eight years Lockheed Martin Corp’s F-22 Raptor, the premier U.S. fighter.”

It’s based on testimony from Wayne Ulman of the Air Force National Air and Space Intelligence Center to the congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. “It’s yet to be seen exactly how (the next generation) will compare one on one with say an F-22,” Ulman told the commission. “But it’ll certainly be in that ballpark.”

Ulman’s prepared testimony was a bit more cautious: “a next-generation fighter (referred to as the XXJ) should be operational around 2018.”

The Reuters article goes on to say that this “intelligence” contradicts statements made by SecDef Robert Gates last year in front of the Economic Club Of Chicago that China is “projected to have no fifth generation aircraft by 2020,” and only “a handful” of them by 2025.

At the same commission hearing, RAND’s Roger Cliff said the only tangible evidence of a Chinese 5th gen aircraft are “photos of an alleged full scale mockup,” which have been around for some time. “The full-scale mockup photo suggested an aircraft with a reduced radar cross-section, though perhaps not in the class of the U.S. F-22 and F-35.”

Defense analyst and consultant Loren Thompson penned a recent piece in The Diplomat saying China is a long way from fielding an F-22 equivalent. “Not only does China lack the necessary experience or expertise in a number of relevant technologies, but it has never demonstrated the system-integration skills required to bring all those technologies together in a functioning airframe.”

He goes on:

“Because the US military has invested decades in understanding how adversaries might seek to foil the stealth features of its aircraft, it’s likely to figure out how to destroy or disable fifth-generation fighters long before the Peoples Liberation Army does. Despite its recent economic mis-steps, America still accounts for nearly half of all global military spending, and its investment in military technology is many times that of China. So not only will it probably find early answers to any tactical-aircraft challenge posed by China, but it already is devising fixes to vulnerabilities Chinese scientists may have identified in the F-22’s defences.”

— Greg Grant

  • Brian

    Just because you can see a component, does not show you to build one. Copying is very hard….

  • John Moore

    Well when u steal the tech and reverse engine it all it is easier cheaper and faster to field a new weapon.

    Thats all they do is steal tech and have caught up so fast because of it.

    Don’t trust them I tell ya

    • Ryan

      However, the downside of reverse engineering is that you are only able to copy a design. Reverse engineering does NOT necessarily teach the principles that went into a design. It teaches the hows, but not the whys.

      The consequence is that 5th gen fighters may be largely unachievable for the Chinese because they cannot understand the whys. As the article mentioned, 5th gen fighters require an integration of principles that is significantly more difficult to balance than any previous fighter generation. Without a thorough understanding of the whys, the Chinese may be stuck at the mockup stage for decades.

      Eventually, cheating off the kid next to you catches up to you and burns your ass when you need to produce on demand.

  • JEFF

    I don’t think the Chinese will achieve a 5th gen fighter for a long while. Even if we handed them the tech, it would take them 8 years alone to build up the infrastructure that surrounds subsystems and components. I think the far more likely threat will be when China builds many more gen 4.5 fighters. You don’t need 5th generation fighters to target saturate our air force.

    I think we should have simply settled on the F22 to fill both its role and that of the F35, purchasing it in less significant planes than we’re shooting for now and then devoted more to flexible anti-air capable alternatives.

    When we rely so heavily on something we build a house of cards around it. Maybe the trick isn’t to rely on it as much. Then you can change the game.

  • Michael

    I know production of the F-22A was cancelled. I’m hoping this fine aircraft will be resurrected (production-wise) in the form of an F-22B or C.

  • Byron Skinner

    Good Morning Folks,

    What happened to the J-10 and J-11 that was suppose to make Americans have involuntary bowel movements just a couple of weeks ago?

    The J-12xxs, yes China is recycling the number, is not even a dream yet. The failures of the J-10’s and J-11’s which basically a reengineered bast**d step son three times removed of an Israeli Lavi, US F-16, and a Su-27 with a Chinese designed and manufactured single engine was a bust that cost China the life of it’s most experienced pilot.

    Could the J-10’s and J-11’s be headed to Hainan Island the grave yard of China’s venture into aeronautics that have failed, like the pair of late J-12’s?

    China has more important things on it’s mind then to reinforce it’s role as Darth Vader in the minds of those peculiar institutions call winger think tanks.

    One of the thing’s I’m sure China is far more concerned with, is the India/Russian Federation deal to modernize 40 of its 100 Su-30MKI’s, the deal also Included India the right to manufacture 170 Su-30MKI’s modernized, The Russian Federation also sold to India the manufacturing license to the Brah Mos land attack missile system. China who’s best Attack/Fighter aircraft is 1960’s technology Su-27 and a hand full (like 48-72 planes) of unmodernized Su-30M’s could find itself in deep yogurt is things with India got to the shooting stage

    The US doesn’t need anymore 5th. generation fighters nor the F-35 which will not be a 5th. Generation fighter but at best a generation 4.5.

    Byron Skinner

  • pedestrian

    Critics play down the threat not just because of the truth, but because it is against the will of Obama administration to promote the dangers of conventional threats that may harm US-China relations. Robert Gates is nothing but a mouth piece for Obama to slash the military defense budget. Admitting the dangers of the stealth fighters in China’s hand will disturb anti-America Obama’s plan to kill our conventional defense strength and slashing the numbers of Raptors.

  • Eddy

    It doesn’t make sense that Ulman (and some of the comments here) take as a given that China’s most likely play is to invest the resources to try to match our F-22s with an equally stealthy gen 5 fighters. Seems to me the better analogy is the German experience on the Eastern Front in WW II. The Germans turned out increasingly exquisite, increasingly expensive tanks in fewer and fewer numbers (Panther, Tiger I, Tiger II, Maus etc…) and the Russians overwhelmed them with swarms of inferior but good-enough T-34s (we, of course, did the same with even less capable Shermans and Hellcat tank destroyers).

    • Day

      very true but the T-34 was ahead of its time in a few ways (ie sloping armor)

    • Benjamin

      The Russian T-34 was one of the best if not the best tank of WW II.

      Also if you are talking about U.S. inferiority in tanks during WW II don’t forget the Grant. The thing was riveted together.

    • Timmyaki

      Eddy's absolutely correct. Why would they invest all this time and money reaserching and developing, when overwhelming numbers will do the job? Eventually our jets will have to land and one of there one hundred jets will destroy it on the ground.

      Reminder Korea- Not every Chinese had a weapon some were just there to block bullets…..

      • blight

        Well we belong to a casualty-averse society. If we lose a dozen aircraft, they’ll all be recalled and there will be Congressional hearings into why we cannot defeat ten thousand enemy aircraft at once. If Iron Man can defeat hundreds of enemies at once, why can’t the Air Force? Dun dun dun…

  • EJ257

    US strategy of late seems to be about letting our allies carry some of the burden. Any chance Japan, SK and Singapore will get some F-22s…? I know Japan has been asking for them. If the crap hit the fan and we suddenly find out we need more Raptors how quickly can they start rolling off the production line again?

    • Greg

      What type of rex do you have?

      Back on topic: The chinese can’t even build a proper jet engine, or maintain quality for their 3.5 i mean 4.5 generation planes. Why would we think they could build a stealth fighter?

  • McKellar

    I think the more important consideration right now is what kind of 5- or 4.5-gen fighter could China be developing for the export market in the near future. Gulf War I proved that poorly piloted Mig-29’s were ineffective against the US, but emerging technologies could change that balance of power. Like the Mig-15 of the early Cold War, a new, cheap, effective fighter could radically limit the ability of the US and her allies to operate with air superiority virtually anywhere in the world.

    Remember, 5-gen isn’t so much about stealth, but about aircraft that are designed from the ground up to do EW, active, passive, jamming, AWACS-hunting, electronic surveillance, battlefield management and coordination.

  • STemplar

    I don’t think the US is exactly sitting on its laurels. When you look at emerging technologies like the NCADE concept, and the tactical laser module for the bay of a B1, it is clear there is research aplenty into new ways of making life uncomfortable for the opposition and at new extreme ranges.

  • Maxtrue

    And the argument for not resurrecting the F-22 and improving on it to relieve some pressure from the struggling F-35 program and leave available our best 5th generation platform is:

    Here’s a look from Eric:…

    Given the growing threat matrix, we don’t need stealth, speed, agility and range? Maybe as an exercise Defense Tech should have a feature about the top ten threats. Let’s see how fighter superiority fit into that……

    And at 130 fighters, how does that restrict their use? Why have any at all? Then the Typhoon, PAK-FA and others can run circles arounf the F-35s.

  • Byron Skinner

    Good Evening Folks,

    On the issue of WW II German Tanks, I know I’m going off subject, again. Most of what we think we know is pure myth that is embellished in cable TV movies of the 60’s and 70’s.

    The Panzers I and II that over ran the Low Countries France were nothing more the mobile machine gun carriers. The Panzer I has a crew of two and was armed with two 7.92mm (usually referred to as 8mm) MG-34’s. They were under powered and had major maintenance problems, they also lead the invasion later on into the Soviet Union. The Panzer II was armed with an MG-34 and a 20mm Bofors cannon, with a crew of three.

    The third German Tank was the Panther and by far the most successful german Tank of WW II. There were several variants during its production life from 1942 to 1945 but a guestimate would be about 35-40,000 units of all kinds. Panthers were gunned with every thing from 7.6 cm to 12.8 cm tubes and were an equal or better one on one with the Soviets T-34-76 and the T-34-85 tanks. Their down fall in the east was again maintenance and Soviet air superiority after 1942.

    The Tigers. The Tiger I armed with an 8.8 cm. main tube was the most successful of the two Tiger tanks with about 3,500 built. It was though to heavy, to late and to few. Production was from 1942 to 1945 but after the Spring of 1944 only a couple of hundred were built. The Tiger II armed with one of three variants of the 8.8 cm. tube and was a bust. Underpowered, and to heavy. About 565 were made the Army accepted about 430.

    The Soviets. Their two principle tanks were the T-34-76, a 7.6 cm. main gun, about 45,000 produced and the T-34-85, with an 8.5 cm. main gun, with about 20,000 produced during the war and about another 25,000 produced till production stopped in 1953. The major problem with both of the Soviet tanks was a lack of anti-tank ammunition, there HE rounds had only a limited effect on the heavier German armor, which made killing the German Panther rather difficult at best.

    The US had the M-4 Sherman Medium Tank which was often referred to as a Ronson. In tank on tank at a 1000 meters or less it was no contest with the Panthers or the Tigers. For those that like such figures it took four Shermans to kill a Panther or Tiger.

    About 45,000 Shermans were made in all variants, they were mechanically sound and required far less maintenance then the German tanks and did a very serviceable job in the role of Infantry fire support, about 15,000 M-4’s in all variants were sent to the ETO. Production was stopped in 1943. It was American tactical air that made the difference for the allies in the ETO.

    The M-4’s replacement the M-26 Pershing Tank, production 1943 to 1953 came along to late to make a difference. The Pershing would have to wait for Korea and Dukeing it out with the Soviet T-34-85’s.

    The M-10 Tank Destroyer saw more useful as an indirect fire Infantry support weapon then as a tank killer. The M-26 Tank Destroyer a convertible top M-26 Pershing came along to late to matter much.

    The one aspect of the German tank war in WW II is North Africa. A lot of Panthers were sent to the bottom of the Mediterranean sea. One estimate that I have seen says that as many as 1/4 of all Panthers made never saw combat. For the Panthers that made it ashore of course beside the on going maintenance problems there was the chronic supply problem that the German Africa Corp had and after October 1942 increasing American air power.

    Surprisingly German tanks were used sparingly in Northern Europe and Southern Europe after the allied invasions. After a few tank battles in July and August of 1944 in Normandy, which appear to have been a holding actions so that the Germans could regroup and get ready for the Ardennes attempt in December. German tank formation were rather rare. In the 7th. Army area in the Southern other then a German Armored Division that was trapped in Northern Italy, German tank activity was very light. Even in the critical fighting in the Vosges Mountains and the Comer pocket in December 0f 1944 and January of 1945 the Germans didn’t use armor.

    It would appear that once the Germans lost air superiority they quickly with drew their armor.

    All in all German Tanks didn’t play that big of a role in WW II. Beside chronic maintenance problems, that the German’s just couldn’t solve, there was always a shortage of fuel. One of the Germans major problems was the shortage of trucks, in the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 over 650,000 horses went with the German Army.

    Byron Skinner

    • milo

      I believe you are mistaken as to the number of panther tanks that nazi germany production in WWII. Even including prototypes and other variants, the number produced does not total 7,000.

    • Thomas L. Nielsen

      The Panther was not the third German tank. The Panzer I and II were succeeded by the Panzer III (antitank) and Panzer IV (infantry support). Both these tanks were to be succeeded by the Panzer V Panther, but the Panther was never produced in sufficient numbers to actually do this. As for the “guestimate” of “about 35-40,000 units of all kinds”, this certainly does not refer to the Panther. Most sources I’ve seen say less than 7.000 produced.

      Regards & all,

      Thomas L. Nielsen

      • chaos0xomega

        This is indeed correct. The panther was the 5th German tank design in the Panzerkampfwagen series, and was made in very limited numbers.

        That aside, Mr. Skinner makes a very good point. IN regards to current fighter jet development, the U.S. is playing the role of Germany. We are building supremely expensive, high quality beasts of war in very limited numbers. It doesn’t take much to defeat that. Either A- vastly superior numbers of inferior quality aircraft (Americans), or greater numbers of a slightly inferior design (Soviets).

        Also, in this case it is important to remember that the Americans sent thousands of shermans to the soviets as well

  • Mastro

    China imports 3M adhesives to make parts. They don’t have that adhesive technology.

    It will take some time before they can handle the 500,000 or so parts that go into a stealth aircraft.

  • charlie

    It doesn;t matter if we have the best aircraft. China is buying up all the debt of the United States, thanks to the obama /liberal policies. They will simply own us. The best thing to do is get rid of obama and the liberals and get our country back under conservative policies so we won;t be slaves to our oriental masters.

  • DualityOfMan

    If we’re lucky the Chinese will take 20-25 years to develop a new fighter just like we did.

  • Weaponhead

    If we were smart we would have made them a tier 1 partner on F-35 and then they”d be as screwed up as we are.

  • Timmyaki

    China will never develop a real stealth fighter. Not becuase they cant, but because it's not practical. Why would China try to produce one on one fighters versus our F-22's or even our F-18's? No they would never try to defeat us in one on one dogfights, they would simply build one hundred fighters for every F-22 or F-18. The simple strategy would be constantly have aircraft in the air and eventually our jets will have to land. Just like we did to the Germans with their tanks.

  • Brian Mulholland

    Byron - “The third German tank, after the Panzer I and II, was the Panther?” What happened to the PzKw III and IV? The latter was heavily upgraded, as the war went on, and stayed competitive late into the war. The Panther run was 35,000 - 40,000 tanks? I am deeply skeptical of that figure. Did you mean the sum total of German tanks produced in WWII? For that, you might be right. Neither did the Panther see action in North Africa at all. By the time it appeared on the Russian front in July 1943, there really was no African theater into which the Germans could introduce it. The production of the Sherman stopped in 1943? Don’t believe that either. Sherman production continued to the war’s end, with a variety of new turrets and in increasingly heavy armor configurations (consider the “East Eights.”)

  • Byron Skinner

    Good Evening Folks,

    We have a little debate going on here on how many Panther Tanks were made in WW II by the Germans. I will support the numbers I gave in my prior post and I’m about to give from the War Department Technical Manual TM-E 30-451 “Handbook On German Military Forces” dated 15 March 1945. This manual was classified “Top Secret” in 1945, and the date it was issued was about 7 weeks before the end of the war in Europe.

    The figures that I will give are the numbers of vehicles accepted by the German Army, not actual production numbers, which by a guess appears to run about 10-15% higher. No data is given other then “Panther Tanks”. Since there were five major variants, two turret styles, and sub-variants of a-g on the Panther II, and lessor on the other Panther models. I’m assuming this list is inclusive of all variants.

    Year Number accepted by German Army
    1942 6,549
    1943 16,311
    1944 13,311
    1945 6,557

    Total 42,728

    Ok I was a few low in my guesstimate. This number fits with what we have been told were the loses on the Eastern front about 30,000 Panthers and North Africa 5,000 Panthers. There were less then 500 Panters in the December 1944 Ardenns Campaign.

    Note these number do look quite suspicious, I have no doubt that some Army clerk did a quick addition and put up a number for a year, but that’s war. That said the number 7,000 simply doesn’t fit with reported loses.

    The Panther was in North Africa, it was the tanks that that the US 1st. Armored Division and the US 1st. Infantry Division faced at the Kasserine Pass on November 8, 1942 and got their noses bloodied really bad. Note if you going to look this up on Wikipedia there are several factual errors, ex. it say the 1st. AD had three combat commands, it had two A and B., it also say Tiger Tanks were there, doubtful.

    That’s my source on this. It’s a war time US Government publication, I doubt if the numbers are more then what came off some captured documents that were quickly added up. All four factories were heavily bombed and I doubt of any real accurate production runs could be made. This is my source, what are the rest of yours?

    Byron Skinner

    • J Weich

      I think the confusion here stems from the fact that all german tanks were called Panzerkampfwagen or Panzer for short. Panzer means Panther in English. The later models V and VI also had the familiar names Panther and Tiger. The version commonly called the Panther in English was the Panzerkampfwagen V which never served in North Africa.

  • ServingTeaInBoots

    Wasn’t there a RAND study or something of how even if all of our raptors (and our other fighter assets,too?) worked 100%, they would still be overwhelmed by the sheer number of PRC fighters, whether they are MIG-15s or the latest and greatest SU-27 variety?

    I like Wired’s reporting of the RAND study, that overall, the invasion of ROC won’t succeed.

    But hey, it’s still fun to discuss?


  • Brian Mulholland

    Byron - I’m not sure which Wikipedia entry you may be checking that seems so erroneous. Searching for “Panther Tank” comes up with an entry that confirms that the Panther saw action for the first time in Operation Citadel in July 1943, not in North Africa, and gives figures for tank production that are a fraction of those you have quoted. To the same effect, Patrick Wright’s “Tank,” (Penguin Paperback, 2000) (the initial of the appearance of the Panther at Kursk; and the discussions of tanks production and quality, at least through the end of 1944, in Max Hastings’ “Overlord,” (Simon & Schuster/Touchstone, 1984). Christopher Chant, “Warfare and the Third Reich” (Barnes and Noble, 1998) supports my skepticism - and details the importance of the PzKw III and IV, the latter especially. The wartime intelligence estimate on which you rely was doubtless the best we could do at the time. By now, it’s more an illustrations of the limitation of wartime intelligence then a reliable source. Production of the Sherman stopped in 1943? Not in the least. It continued to the end of the war.
    I have never, ever seen anything in print that reflected the termination of Sherman production in 1943, or appearance of the Panther at Kasserine Pass.
    In point of fact, the invasion of Sicily in 1943 induced Hitler to start withdrawing armor from Citadel, over von Manstein’s objection, and weakened the already-stalled German effort there. The PzKw IV was the tank that mattered in North Africa to the Afrika Corps.

  • Jimbo

    Back the original argument, it really doesn’t matter how technological or material intensive your weapons are so long as your economy can support mass production to replace your loses on the same level as your opponent. Hence the german’s lost. They could not replace men and material once lost. The allies could and still have extra

  • Byron Skinner

    Good Evening Folks,

    As usual the nameless critics come up. Hi guys. Since you lack the courage to put up you name, your opinion have rather little value. You do make some rather interesting points but without knowing who I’m addressing its nothing.

    To. Back to the original argument. All German equipment had some common problems beside they used fuel. First off their designs were overly complicated and required extensive field and depot maintenance which the Germans simple couldn’t provide.

    To compound the maintenance problem, from mid 1942 on the German industrial system had to rely increasing numbers of foreign and slave labor. There are know instances of deliberate sabotage during the assembly process and just plain old unskilled labor trying to do the work of skilled labor.

    From an economic prospective in 1939 when Hitler decided to go to war Germany was ill prepared both resource wise and in population to support such a massive effort. China today has the same problems. With a population of somewhere in the range of 1.3-1.5 billion and a fertility rate of 1.7 it would seem China is ideally positioned to enter into a major war, its not. Although with vast numbers available the PLA has chosen to down size the Army to about a million men. The problem is the skill levels and the trainability of the manpower pool. Those who can be trained are desperately required in industry which leaves a the illiterate and unskilled for the PLA.

    Meanwhile Chinese industry is lagging the west badly and to train the work force in critical skills they must be sent abroad and the majority chose not to return as Chinese citizens.

    This is more or less the problems that developed in Germany after 1933.

    A book about German wartime industry that may be of interest is “The Arms of Krupp” by William Manchester hard back 1968/revised soft cover 2003.

    Byron Skinner

  • Percy

    The biggest mistake any country or leader can make is to underestimate the opposition. Its always been arrogance that has brought nations down who were riding high. We might be technologically superior, but we have been brought to our knees more than once by a lot less tech sophiticated nations.

    On top of that China has a long and credible history in the thousands of years of strategy and tactics that we seldom know about unless you read their historical writings on war and its attending stategies. Sun Tsu comes to mind and I have been watching them do to us very subtle things that have aided in bringing us down without selling themselves out to the bankers. Its been masterful in its planning and execution. So be careful. I respect them and the history, intelligence and philosophy and human understanding they carry for millenia now that we have no clue about.

    They have a depth of understanding that our fast food society has no clue about. And you can tell by who and how our military people run our wars. Badly, I might add.

  • Byron Skinner

    Good Morning Folks,

    I’m saddened that the Chinese J-10’s and J-11’s so quickly ended up in the Louv, they did provide some good discussions with the defense ideologues. Sadly the J-12xxs is still an ideologies and winger think tanks wet dream, but hey in the mean time not all is lost, you guys still have the J-15 to be the next big threat from the PRC. The J-15 is just more evidence of the pressing need for the F-35B’s & F-35C’s. Although the J-15 has been around in “development” since 2001, it’s still alive, abet on life support but it’s still alive.

    It’s very unlikely that The Russian Federation will sell China any Su-33M’s any time soon, even if they upped their buy order. I would think India (with over a $200 billion in USD’s in defense contracts and over 200 licensing agreements with The Russian Federation) and Vietnam (with at least $30 billion USD’s in contracts, including an $11 billion nuclear reactor project, with the Russian Federation) might have some strong opinions on this.

    Byron Skinner

  • Bill

    We should cancel the F35 and offer our partner countries an export version of the F-22, I am sure they would love F-22s instead anyway. you could still use some of the R&D on making the F-22 better and we could incorperate the upgrades during production on the new F-22s to keep the cost down. The F-22 can do everything an F-35 can do plus it is alot faster and maneuvers way better than an F-35. With 300-400 F-22s and the same of F-15Es there would not be anyone we couldn’t handle. ( did i mention the F-22 has the highest hit percentage with JDAMs in the whole Airforce)

    But Mr. Gates the incompetent strongarm thug that he is , will end up buying about 150 F-35s & 300 or 400 hundred cesnas (because we don’t want our enemies to have an unfair adavantage) and the push the “6th gen” out until 2075 and let someone with a brain in there head to get this country back to where it should be.

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