Fighter aircraft are increasingly important symbols of military power. Their multiple roles and advanced technology make them valuable assets for global powers. In the 2020s, these aircraft are more than military displays. They serve various strategic roles in state militaries, including early warning, electronic warfare, nuclear weapons delivery, and combat.
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Fighters have been decisive in recent wars like the Gulf War and NATO-Libyan War, leading to increased global investment in them. Advanced air defense systems to counter them are also being developed, particularly in tension-filled regions like Europe and Northeast Asia.
Despite rising geopolitical tensions post-February 2022, producing modern fighter aircraft is a slow process due to the time required to scale up. Change in production quantities is gradual.
Fighter programs, planned meticulously over decades, are the most expensive weapon initiatives. They are a distinct asset type in defense production. Despite production slowdown, it’s important to monitor which fighters are being largely acquired by global air forces. This gives insight into the prevailing programs and rapidly increasing fighter types.
First: 48 F-35s
The F-35 has long been a leading fighter in the U.S. Air Force, with minimal competition from the F-15EX fourth-generation fighter. The F-35, the only fifth-generation fighter in the Western world, stands out significantly. Originally created as an alternative to the F-22 Raptor, the F-35 has become a category of its own, especially with the early termination of the F-22’s production. The F-22 has therefore missed the latest advances in key technologies.
The F-35A is considered the ideal fighter for the 21st century, particularly in scenarios where it is more likely to penetrate enemy ground-based air defenses than engage in air-to-air combat with peer-level fighter jets.
Although the F-35, developed under the Joint Strike Fighter program, may not be the most agile or air combat-optimized fighter, its cost-effective stealth capabilities make it a widely used asset. It is being produced on a large scale, although it is not yet ready for high-intensity combat. Because of its distinguished position among NATO-compatible aircraft, the F-35 has been successful in export markets, especially in Western-aligned countries, specifically in Europe.
Second: Approximately 42 J-20s
The F-35, a fifth-generation fighter jet, has a notable competitor in the J-20. This twin-engine aircraft places importance on stealth and is a major contender to the F-35, especially its latest variant, the J-20B. Introduced by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force in 2016, the J-20 was created in anticipation of a large fleet of F-22 fighters from the U.S. Air Force. However, when fewer F-22s materialized, the J-20 gained an advantage over its competitors, including the F-35.
The F-35, being a smaller aircraft not meant for air superiority missions, falls short when compared to the J-20 in terms of speed, range, altitude, and capacity. The J-20 also has an edge due to its advanced avionics features and weapon arsenal. This has prompted the U.S. to invest in projects like the AIM-260 missile.
In production size, the J-20 surpasses other heavyweight fighters, matching the target scale for the F-22. It’s the first non-U.S., non-Russian jet fighter seen as a significant player in the air-to-air arena. Various versions of the J-20 have been ordered by its producing country’s air force, demonstrating its popularity. These include the basic J-20, the J-20A with improved engines and stealth capabilities, the two-seater J-20AS, and the J-20B with enhanced stealth features and more powerful engines. The WS-15 engine gives the J-20 unmatched thrust among fighter jets globally, extending its range, and allowing for better weapon integration and high-speed flight.
Third: Approximately 42 J-10Cs
The J-10C, a PLA Air Force fighter jet, has been widely acquired since its 2018 release, with nearly 50 purchases each year until 2021, when production shifted to satisfy Pakistan’s demand. This lightweight, single-engine jet is a ‘4+ generation’ and is comparable to the F-35A in overall performance.
Although the J-10C lacks stealth, it offers high availability, easy maintenance, excellent flight performances, and advanced weaponry. Its design emphasizes low operational costs and minimal maintenance needs. Even with these features, the J-10C outperforms the Russian Su-35 and the local J-16 in simulated battles.
The J-10C, like similarly sized aircraft, has a short range and smaller radar and weapons payload. However, it provides an efficient, low-cost way for Chinese fighter units to modernize to the latest avionics, weaponry, and flight performance standards. It outperforms the J-7 and J-10A fighters it replaced and has significant advantages over most fighter classes the PLA Air Force might face in battle.
Fourth: Approximately 40 Su-30/34/35 Flankers
The Su-27 Flanker, a fourth-generation heavyweight air superiority fighter, was introduced into the Soviet Air Force and the Air Defence Forces in 1984. Due to Russia’s economic contraction and reduced defense budget in 1992, the Defence Ministry reduced the acquisition of other fighter classes. But the Su-27 continued to operate efficiently across Russia’s vast territory.
Despite being outnumbered by NATO, the Flanker’s superior performance was seen as an advantage. In the past three decades, the Russian Air Force’s reliance on the Flanker design has grown. The majority of fighter acquisitions have been Su-30M2 and SM multirole fighters, Su-34 strike fighters, and Su-35 air superiority fighters, which are manufactured at facilities in Irkutsk, Novosibirsk, and Komsomolsk on Amur.
Even though they have different capabilities and low parts commonality, the Flanker classes offer complementary capabilities. However, the acquisition scale of these classes is still lower than in same-class in the U.S. and China. This showing the reduction of the Russian Air Force’s fighter fleet.
Initially, it was anticipated that Flanker would acquisitions series stop in the early 2010s, about ten years after the introduction of the fifth-generation MiG 1.42. However, due to Russia’s difficulties with operationalizing a fifth-generation fighter, the reliance on Flanker variants has continued.
Fifth: Approximately 28 J-16s
In the late 1980s, Moscow improved its security ties with China and supplied them with the Su-27 Flanker, its first foreign recipient. China went on to acquire a large fleet of these aircraft including nearly 100 Su-30 variants and licensed the domestic production of the Su-27.
China bought more Su-27s than the Russian Defence Ministry could afford. Most of these planes went to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force and Navy. Interestingly, Chinese versions of the Su-27 outmatched the Russian ones due to advancements in technology. The introduction of the J-16 in 2014 was a significant milestone.
The J-16 outperformed the Russian Su-34 and Su-35 in many aspects, despite having lesser range and engine power. Its superior performance was due to the use of composite materials, AESA radar, advanced warfare capabilities, and sophisticated weaponry. China has been acquiring J-16s at double the rate of Russian Flanker models. The J-16 is versatile, balancing air superiority and strike roles. However, the emergence of the J-20 has led to a decrease in Chinese investment in Flanker type aircraft.
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