Air forces around the world have to wrestle with one simple but scary fact: Their fighters may have to go against the F-22 and, to maybe a lesser degree, the F-35, both fifth-generation stealth fighters equipped with modern, lethal air-to-air weapons and great sensors.
Here are five fighters that nations are hoping can hold their own against the kings of the skies, even if, so far, it doesn’t appear that any are up to the task:
Chengdu J-20s maneuver during a public airshow.
(Alert 5, CC BY-SA 5.0)
China’s J-20 fighter is arguably the greatest actual threat to America’s fifth-generation fighters. China has a number of fighters in development, production, and early deployment, but the J-20 appears to be the crown jewel. It’s large, but appears to be stealthy at least from the front. It can carry lethal, extremely long-range missiles, and the Center for Strategic International Studies reported as late as 2017 that it could be a full fifth-generation stealth fighter.
Now, some fifth-generation traits have turned out to be absent from the J-20, most notably the super cruise feature. But while the J-20 can’t go above the speed of sound without afterburners, it’s still likely to be dangerous. Luckily, India has claimed that the J-20 isn’t as stealthy as advertised, saying its pilots have tracked the planes near the countries’ shared border from miles away.
The Russian Air Force flies its Sukhoi Su-57 fighters.
(Anna Zvereva, CC BY-SA 2.0)
Sukhoi Su-57 (formerly known as PAK FA)
The Russian Sukhoi Su-57 is one of the few rival fifth-generation fighters that currently exist, and its creators insist that it not only rivals the F-22, but some even claim it’s better in air-to-air and air-to-surface operations. Russia really hopes this fighter can dominate the F-22 and F-35 if it ever goes to war with the west.
But the plane doesn’t appear to be all that impressive. It’s woefully underpowered, according to most experts and the Indian leaders who backed out of buying the plane (more on that momentarily), it’s not all that stealthy, and its weapons capabilities are fine, but nothing to brag about. For it to approach anything like the speed of the F-22, it needs to use its afterburners which destroy what little stealth it does have.
Even worse, Russia can’t afford the plane, opting not to buy the it in significant numbers as sanctions and low oil prices continue to cripple its economy.
Turkey is chasing a fifth-generation fighter of its own called the TFX under the umbrella of Turkish Aerospace Industries. While Turkey is a NATO member and is slated to buy F-35s, its relationship with America and the west has become more tenuous and tense, and Turkey needs its own weapons to guarantee its security as it drifts closer to Russia.
The aircraft is under development with a first flight scheduled for 2023. It’s envisioned as having a stealthy fuselage, high speed, and a focus on air-to-air operations with air-to-surface capabilities. It is supposed to be capable of Mach 2 speeds and an almost 700-mile combat radius. If relations with the west hold, the TFX will fly with Turkish F-35s. Otherwise, it will work with Russian S-400s and older F-16s.
HAL Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) model
(Johnxxx9, CC BY-SA 3.0)
India was part of the PAK FA program that created the Sukhoi Su-57, but when it got its hands on the early planes, they were underpowered and failed to meet up to specs, according to Indian military leaders. So India proceeded from the Sukhoi program and ramped up their program for a homegrown fifth-generation fighter, the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft.
The goal aircraft looks a lot like the F-22 with stealth, super cruise, dual engines, and all-weather capabilities. It’s getting high-end engines, radar, and long-range missiles. Oddly enough, those high-end engines might come from America. While India and the U.S. often have a tense relationship, the AMCA is even more likely to fly against China’s J-20 than it is against the F-22, so America wants the profit of selling engines while also increasing China’s risk.
And if F-22s do end up fighting the AMCA? Well, the F-22 is likely to win no matter what engines the AMCA gets.
HESA F-313 Qaher
Look, we’re only including this plane because the Iranian government claims that it exists and that it exceeds the F-22 and F-35, but no one who actually follows Iranian developments really believes the plane exists or that it would have fifth-generation traits if it did.
Iran unveiled the plane in 2013 and made its claims, but the plane appears to be just a mockup, it’s shape isn’t actually all that great for limiting radar cross section or for taking on enemy jets, and the plane hasn’t been seen since that first, high-profile debut. So, you know, our money is on the F-22.