CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — Despite China’s notorious secrecy surrounding all things defense, there are indications it is making progress on a sixth-generation fighter.

Perhaps the clearest admission came from a WeChat social media post by Aviation Industry Corporation of China in January 2019. In an interview discussing sixth-gen fighters, Wang Haifeng, the chief designer at AVIC subsidiary Chengdu Aerospace Corp., said preparations were underway to research a combat aircraft that would be ready to “protect the sea and sky” by 2035.

At the time, Wang mentioned elements like manned-unmanned teaming, the use of artificial intelligence, as well as improved stealth and omnidirectional sensors.

In 2022, the head of U.S. Air Combat Command said those efforts are “on track.”

“By and large, they see it [sixth-gen fighter technology] greatly the way we see it in terms of an exponential reduction in signature and exponential acceleration in processing power and sensing, and the ability to iterate in terms of open-mission systems, to be able to essentially reprogram at the speed of relevance,” Gen. Mark Kelly said.

Fast forward to the present, and Rick Joe, who has written extensively about the Chinese military, considers the sixth-gen efforts a program of record, noting that “indicators since 2019 in the semiofficial space have only increased.” Examples include AVIC artwork depicting generic next-gen fighter configurations, academic papers, and statements from military and industry officials. In addition, satellite imagery of a tailless fighter-like airframe was seen at Chengdu Aerospace facilities in October 2021.

Joe told Defense News that demonstrator testbeds, possibly subscale versions, have already flown.

For lack of an official name, he referred to the mysterious fighter as the J-XD. “I fully expect the J-XD to have some subsystems (like engines), which will be less capable than a U.S. equivalent initially, simply because there are some domains where they are still catching up, albeit with significant closing of gaps over the past few decades.”

Joe noted that sixth-gen fighters are typically expected to include aerodynamic design and control; radiofrequency materials; flight control software; sensing technologies; data-linking and combat-management systems; weapons; and the integration of collaborative combat aircraft, or complementary drones.

“I see them as playing in the general ballpark of other nations pursuing a sixth-gen capability,” Joe said.

But when Defense News asked Brendan Mulvaney, the director of the U.S. Air Force’s China Aerospace Studies Institute, whether China currently has the capability to develop these advanced fighters, the response was slightly less optimistic for Beijing.

“Today? No. Twenty years from now? Absolutely. And we’ve seen this time and time again. We’re getting better at not ... underestimating what the Chinese system is capable of when it sets its mind to it,” Mulvaney said.

The official said mastering jet engines has been China’s bane, but it is getting better. “At the end of the day, that’s just science. I tell people that physics works the same in Berlin as it does in Beijing. So if you put enough time and effort ... you can make a good aerospace engine, especially for the military side.”

Working with drones

Mulvaney said China has described its future fighter as unmanned, but he believes the design is more likely optionally manned, as it depends on how quickly industry can develop AI systems, alongside other requisite technologies. “You don’t have to have a man [in it] and you potentially let it go off on its own, or it could serve as a loyal wingman.”

China’s drone manufacturers are ambitious, but it’s not entirely clear where that technology stands in terms of complementing a future sixth-gen fighter. Notably, Joe said, Chinese-made combat drones and collaborative combat aircraft that have appeared at air shows are “likely not representative of actual in-development [unmanned combat aerial vehicles] intended for the [People’s Liberation Army], which are almost certainly more ambitious in scope.”

He also said it’s fair to assume various sophisticated combat drones “are in advanced development/testing or even limited trial service.”

An in terms of trialing manned-unmanned teaming, China’s existing J-20 fighter could contribute, as the country developed a twin-seat version where a backseat operator can control drones. However, this variant is currently a technology demonstrator.

If the Chengdu Aerospace chief designer’s predictions of a sixth-gen fighter being operational in 2035 hold true, Joe said a maiden flight would need to take place at least five years before then, and thus a prototype would need to be ready around 2028. He expressed confidence this is possible, although Mulvaney predicted it will probably take China “until the late 2030s, if not the early 2040s,” to reveal a meaningful design.

Gordon Arthur is an Asia correspondent for Defense News. After a 20-year stint working in Hong Kong, he now resides in New Zealand. He has attended military exercises and defense exhibitions in about 20 countries around the Asia-Pacific region.

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