What If the Su-57 and J-20 Fighters Aren't Really Stealth?

November 20, 2023 Topic: military Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Su-57RussiaChinaJ-20Stealth Fighters5th Generation Fighters

What If the Su-57 and J-20 Fighters Aren't Really Stealth?

Though the Chinese J-20  and Russian Su-57 aircraft are likely highly-capable warbirds, some U.S. aviation experts have suggested they shouldn't rightfully be considered "fifth-generation."

J-20 and Su-57 Might Have a Problem: Beijing and Moscow have increasingly close military ties, sharing hardware and technology. Each has also touted the capabilities of their respective latest jet fighters – even as some experts have continued to downplay the purported attributes.

China's Chengdu J-20 "Mighty Dragon"

The Chengdu J-20 Mighty Dragon can trace its origins back to the J-XX program of the late 1990s, which was actually a series of efforts initiated by Beijing to develop an indigenous fifth-generation fighter. It resulted in the Shenyang FC-31 and later the J-20 Mighty Dragon, but it can be questioned how original the latter aircraft actually is – given that it borrowed liberally from other warbirds. 

This included the double-canard design from China's own J-10, an aircraft in service in China since 2005.

It has been further suggested that the development of the J-20 was only made possible due to efforts by Chinese hackers to steal critical details regarding the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and, later, the F-35 Lightning II. The appearance and profile of the aircraft is far from the only similarities between the two fifth-generation fighters. In fact, the development of the J-20 only really began in earnest after the F-22 was unveiled. However, a copy of a fifth-generation fighter does not actually make it one.

Russia's Sukhoi Su-57

Moscow has also flaunted the capabilities of its Sukhoi Su-57 (NATO reporting name "Felon") in recent years, so much so that some Russian aviation experts have suggested its capabilities exceed those of even the United State Air Force’s F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II.

Mikhail Strelets, the chief designer and director of the Sukhoi Design Bureau,  said in a 2018 interview that the Su-57 incorporates the functions of the U.S. F-22 and F-35 fighter planes but outperforms them. The Su-57 is capable of effectively accomplishing missions to destroy both air and ground targets as compared to the US aircraft that are focused only on specific tasks, the Sukhoi chief designer added.

Those sentiments were shared by Russian military expert Alexei Leonkov, who told Tass, "The Su-57 outshines them by now in terms of the amount and diversity of armament. On top of that, the latest solutions, such as the second pilot as a system that facilitates aircraft control and combat operations, a spherical all-around radar that 'sees' everything and cutting-edge electronic warfare systems aboard the Su-57 leave the U.S. rival far behind."

J-20 and Su-57: Not Really Stealth Fighters? 

Though the Chinese and Russian aircraft are likely highly-capable warbirds, some U.S. aviation experts have suggested they shouldn't rightfully be considered "fifth-generation." Of course, this does require noting that the fifth-generation label was only adopted by Lockheed Martin as a marketing term, aimed at differentiating its new stealthy F-22 and F-35 fighters from competitors including those produced by NATO allies.

As TheAviationGeekClub.com reported, the Chinese and Russian planes fall even short of some of the capabilities that are expected with a true fifth-generation fighter. Author Dario Leone cited the insight of Adam Daymude, a former U.S. Navy aviator.

"Both are twin-engined, twin-tailed. Good start. Both have canted vertical stabilizers, though the J-20 is more so. Most likely a point to the J-20. They both have blended fuselages, point to both. Now let’s look at angles. On the J-20, I count at least 7. The Su-57 has at least 8 I can see. And we won’t even address the front of the fuselage where the cockpit is because you’d need a supercomputer to figure out that part’s stealth features. And those canards on the J-20 are a problem," Daymude wrote in a Quora thread discussing the fighters.

Daymude noted that while the J-20 and Su-57 have a reduced RCS it likely isn't in "the same league as a Raptor or Battle Penguin," while he added that the engines in the respective jets fall even shorter. But he also suggested that the J-20 and Su-57 are still a big forward – just not to the true fifth generation.

"I'd put them in the gen 4.5, or maybe 5-, series of aircraft. I can't place them in 5 because I have too many questions on their stealth capabilities," Daymude concluded.

Author Experience and Expertise

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.

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