China, Russia and the United States are locked in an intensifying competition to export their respective fifth-generation fighter jets, a commercial contest with crucial implications for strategic influence in key global theatres amid what some see as an emerging new Cold War.
Fifth-generation fighters – namely China’s J-20 and FC-31, Russia’s Su-57 and Su-75, and America’s F-22 and F-35 – offer several advantages over their predecessor fourth-generation fighters and are thus in high global demand.
Those new fangled, high-tech features include low-observability, advanced networking and data fusion technologies, among others.
China aims in future to export its FC-31, though it has struggled to sell its fighter jets outside a small group of client states including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, North Korea and a few African countries.
Russia has floated the idea of exporting its Su-57, and has entered into talks with the UAE to co-produce the more advanced Su-75. In contrast, the US has successfully exported the F-35, with 14 countries now using the fighter jet and 10 plus countries involved in its production.
Significantly, these fifth-generation fighters are all designed according to their respective producers’ different air defence doctrines.
Continental powers such as China and Russia emphasize ground-based air defence, with their fighters tightly integrated into their air defence networks. In contrast, expeditionary powers such as the US emphasize long-range strike capabilities and the ability to penetrate heavily defended airspace.
China is attempting to expand on this traditional premise by integrating air power in offensive joint operations, as well in defensive operations for critical infrastructure and to protect ground and naval operations.
In that sense, China views airpower as integrated with other warfighting arms. Furthermore, China emphasizes air-to-surface operations, as they are considered more effective, less costly, and less reactive compared to air-to-air operations.
China’s most advanced J-20 stealth fighter jets powered by domestic engines, made their debut at the opening ceremony of the China Air show 2021 in the host city Zhuhai, South China’s Guangdong Province.
That can be seen in the design of China’s J-20 stealth fighter, which is thought to be optimized for long-range strikes into complex air defence environments. Among its possible missions are long-range interception, surface attack and maritime strikes, all potentially crucial in any future conflict in the South China Sea.
The J-20 can also possibly conduct strikes far from Chinese mainland airbases before retreating into the safety of China’s air defence network.
Russia’s air defence doctrine follows a three-tiered approach, with a layered system creating an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) zone.
It relies heavily on surface-to-air missiles, with long and medium-range batteries providing air denial at high and medium altitudes, while the missile systems themselves are protected by gun or missile-based short-range point defence systems.
Russia’s fifth-generation fighters are integrated into this layered air defence network to hunt down hostile aircraft seeking to destroy ground-based air defences and fill in gaps in radar coverage. This means Russia’s fifth-generation jets emphasize air-to-air combat.
US doctrine, meanwhile, emphasizes joint all-domain operations wherein airpower bypasses geographical limitations, striking with precision at critical vulnerabilities within enemy centres of gravity at long ranges, short notice and for sustained periods.
In US doctrine, airpower allows the control of operations in its favour, being employed in concert with all forms of military power and integrated across multiple domains.
This is seen in the US preference for a single platform that is designed to perform a multitude of roles. The F-35 exemplifies this philosophy, with multiple variants for the US Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps with different capabilities integrated into a single base design.
However, this leaves the F-35 without any specialized role, which makes a supporting ecosystem of other capabilities necessary to maximize the F-35 effectiveness.
America’s F-35 Lightning stealth fighter in flight. Credit: UK Defence Journal
Prospective buyers of Chinese, Russian and US fifth-generation fighters must harmonize their respective military strategies, air defence doctrines, capability requirements and technical specifications in making procurement decisions.
Wider strategic and political factors also matter, as do country-specific doctrines or capability requirements that can affect the suitability of these fighters in their particular operating environment.
At the same time, defence budgets vary widely due to underlying national finances and economic situations, which ultimately is often the deciding factor in which great power a buyer chooses to engage.