In 1983, the United States put the world’s first operational stealth aircraft, the F-117 Nighthawk, into active service, beginning a monopoly on low-observable aviation that would stretch until 2017 when China finally broke that streak with the Chengdu J-20 Mighty Dragon, with Russia’s Su-57 Felon following closely behind.
Today, America’s lead in low-observable aviation remains palpable, with two operational stealth fighters and the world’s only fleet of heavy payload stealth bombers, but the rest of the world is working toward closing the gap. Thirteen American allies now operate their own F-35s, and several new stealth platforms are in active development within the secretive confines of R&D facilities all around the globe.
Here’s a brief summary of stealth aircraft in development around the world, and how they’re intended to stack up with the few platforms that are already flying.
Stealth development is often classified and, at the same time, some countries exaggerate their progress for geopolitical reasons. So, while we’ll do our best to manage both in this article, but as such, it should not be considered exhaustive.
The United States
The U.S. has at least three new stealth aircraft in active development â€” two fighters and one bomber.
Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD)
The U.S. Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance program aims to field a replacement for the world’s first operational stealth fighter, the legendary F-22 Raptor. This new jet will fill the air superiority role and be purpose-built to dominate air-to-air combat for years to come, even as new stealthy competitors emerge.
While few firm details have been released about this new fighter, the Air Force did acknowledge that a technology demonstrator already flew back in 2020. This new jet is expected to be even stealthier than previous stealth aircraft, potentially thanks to advanced radar-absorbent materials and the omission of a conventional vertical tail surface. The NGAD fighter is expected to operate alongside a constellation of drone wingmen that will leverage artificial intelligence to execute complex operations after taking their cues from the NGAD pilot.
The Navy is also developing a new stealth aircraft in their F/A-XX fighter, which is expected to emerge in the 2030s as a replacement for the venerable F/A-18 Super Hornet and fly alongside F-35Cs for decades to come. This program is expected to share a number of common systems with the Air Force’s NGAD effort, though the aircraft themselves will likely be different. Yet, an emphasis on modular system design in both Navy and Air Force efforts will allow even dissimilar-looking fighters to share a great deal of commonality internally.
This fighter is also expected to fly alongside drones, and will almost certainly place a large emphasis on increased payload capacity and unrefueled range, all with an eye toward offsetting the strategic advantage China’s long-range anti-ship missiles have created in the Pacific.
The world got its first glimpse of Northrop Grumman’s B-21 Raider last December, set to replace America’s heavy payload stealth bomber, the B-2 Spirit, and the supersonic B-1B Lancer bomber, in the coming years. The B-21 is being built by the same firm responsible for the B-2 Spirit, and according to claims, represents a generational leap ahead in low observability.
The B-21 Raider is smaller than the B-2 it will replace, but what it lacks in payload capacity it aims to make up for with mission versatility. Not only is the B-21 designed to be optionally manned, but as what will likely be the stealthiest aircraft in history when it enters service, the Raider is also intended to serve as a high-powered sensor node for networks, an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platform, and nuclear weapon delivery vehicle that will bring the airborne leg of America’s nuclear triad into the 21st century.
China was the second country to field its own stealth aircraft, thanks in no small part to a great deal of espionage and intellectual property theft. Today, there are at least two more stealth aircraft in development, headed for Chinese runways in the years to come.
Shenyang FC-31/J-31 Gyrfalcon
Many have accused China’s J-20 of being little more than an amalgam of design traits borrowed from America’s F-22 and F-35 and Russia’s defunct MiG 1.44 program and China’s next stealth fighter, the Shenyang J-31, appears to be more of the same. But just because China has a tenacity for advancement through theft doesn’t mean this new fighter can be readily dismissed.
This twin-engine fighter is likely headed for service aboard China’s growing fleet of aircraft carriers, which currently operate the often-troubled Shenyang J-15. The J-31 (sometimes called the FC-31 or the J-35) first flew in 2012, and there are at least three aircraft prototypes already built. Once fielded, this aircraft would represent a significant leap in China’s carrier capability set, though the nation’s diesel-chugging carriers will still be relegated to operations near friendly ports.
While rumors have swirled about Chinese stealth bomber programs since the late 1990s, discussion about the H-20 began to heat up in July of 2014 when the state-run China Daily newspaper highlighted the nation’s efforts to field an â€œintercontinental strategic bomber capable of penetrating an enemyâ€™s air defences.â€ The article outlined the need for a bomber that could carry 10 tons of ordnance for a minimum of 8000 km (4,970 miles) without refueling.
In 2018 China seemingly confirmed that its forthcoming H-20 stealth bomber would leverage a flying wing design reminiscent of Americaâ€™s own B-2 Spirit. In a video released by the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), an aircraft that looked like a flying wing sat under a drop cloth in a strikingly similar presentation to Northrop Grummanâ€™s own SuperBowl commercial featuring the forthcoming B-21 Raider.
A Pentagon assessment released in 2021 indicated that this new stealth aircraft likely meets or exceeds China’s intended aims, though it appears as though this platform will be closer to the B-2 in capability than America’s forthcoming B-21.
Russia’s stealth efforts have long been hampered by the nation’s struggling economy and international sanctions, which have only intensified since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February. Nonetheless, there are at least two stealth aircraft currently in development for the Russian Federation, though it’s unclear if either will ever ultimately fly.
UAC Su-75 Checkmate
In July 2021, Russian aircraft manufacturer UAC unveiled the nationâ€™s newest stealth fighter, the LTA Checkmate, at the MAKS air show at Ramenskoye airfield near Moscow.Â The unveiling received massive global exposure, with Russian officials claiming this new fighter would not only compete with stealthy platforms like the F-35, but also do it for as little as $30 million per airframe.
Of course, the unveiled aircraft was nothing more than a wooden mockup, and to date, there hasn’t been any appreciable forward movement in the Checkmate program. Russia has continued to struggle to fund the production of its first stealth aircraft, the Su-57, and is likely hoping foreign investors will come to fund further development on the Checkmate. In recent Russian media coverage, it even appears the government is reluctant to even refer to the Checkmate as a stealth fighter at all, which may be truly damning. The Su-57, which they often call “stealth,” actually has a radar cross-section believed to be similar to a number of currently-flying 4th generation aircraft like the Super Hornet.
Tupolev PAK DA
Like China, Russia is also looking to field its own heavy payload stealth bomber to counter the threat posed by America’s B-2 and B-21. The Tupolev-led effort has been dubbed the PAK DA, was projected to make its first flight this year, but that timeline has almost certainly collapsed due to Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Analysis of the PAK DA is limited by the fact that this bomber doesnâ€™t really exist yet, and as such, it may be subject to both intentional propaganda and unintentional misconception in open-source outlets.
According toÂ TASS, a media outlet owned by the Russian government, the new bomber will utilize a flying wing design much like Americaâ€™s B-2 Spirit and forthcomingÂ B-21 Raider. It will be a subsonic platform with heavy payload capabilities that will include cruise missiles, precision bombs, and hypersonic weapons. This bomber, if it ever manifests, will aspire to match the B-2 in capability.
Turkish Aerospace Industries TF-X
Late in 2022, Turkey gave the world its first look at its prototype TF-X stealth aircraft, which aims to be the nation’s first indigenous 5th-generation fighter. Using that fighter designation offers us some insight into the level of capability this program aims to field which may be comparable to existing stealth fighters like the F-22 and F-35, rather than something much more advanced that might be touted as “6th generation.”
This program has been underway since 2010 and Turkey intends to unveil its first completed prototype sometime this year. Turkey had plans to purchase F-35s to operate alongside its homegrown fighter, but after those plans fell through, concerns were also raised about the nation’s ability to source American-made 5th-generation engines. As such, this aircraft may be forced to fly with older engines, compromising some degree of its low observability. Turkey hopes to have this fighter in service by 2028, but that timeline is admittedly optimistic.
South Korea and Indonesia
KAI KF-21 Boramae
The KF-21 is an unusual entry in this list because it does not currently boast some of the capabilities that are really sort of required among stealth aircraft, like the ability to carry its munitions internally. However, the South Korean-led effort has fielded an aircraft that is undoubtedly stealthier than any 4th generation fighter, and it’s possible that transitioning to internal payloads may yet occur in later iterations of the fighter.
The KF-21 made its maiden flight in July of 2022 and conducted its first supersonic test flight just last month. The KF-21 Block I aims to field an air superiority platform to replace very dated F-4 and F-5 fighters still in service, with Block II aiming to increase the platform’s capability set to make it a truly multi-role platform.
UK, Italy, Japan (and maybe Sweden)
Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP) â€” BAE Systems Tempest
The U.K.-led Tempest program was recently merged with Japan’s F-X program to produce what has been called the Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP). This effort aims to field a 6th generation fighter by 2035, leveraging some of the same capabilities touted in America’s NGAD and F/A-XX efforts, like AI-enabled drone wingmen.
This stealth aircraft is slated to replace the U.K.’s Eurofighter Typhoon fleet, as well as other jets in service for Italy, Sweden, and Japan. When it was announced that the U.K. and Italy were partnering with Japan, Sweden was oddly left out of the announcement, so it’s unclear if Stockholm remains as invested as it was in 2020 when it signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the program.
For now, there are several new technologies mentioned as possibilities for Tempest, from adaptive cycle engines to directed energy weapons, but like NGAD and other “next-generation” fighters in the works, it’s hard to say exactly what capabilities this fighter will bring to bear until the program has matured (or when more information comes to light).
France, Germany, Spain
Future Combat Air System (FCAS)
Initially, a partnership between France and Germany that began in 2017, Spain recently joined this program that aims to field a 6th generation fighter akin to those under development within allied nations like NGAD and Tempest. Similar to those platforms, this next-generation stealth aircraft will leverage drone wingmen that take their cues from a crewed primary fighter.
The first test flights of the FCAS platform are slated to take place in 2028 or 2029, but it’s unclear if that goal is oriented toward a technology demonstrator that may or may not resemble the fighter’s actual final design. Like American efforts, this program has been touted as a “system of systems,” highlighting its focus on network connectivity and data fusion with uncrewed platforms. A full-scale mock-up of this fighter was unveiled in 2019, but as noted by the Warzone, that mockup was likely a representation of just one of a number of potential designs.
Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA)
India’s first indigenous 5th generation fighter program, dubbed the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), reportedly went through the critical design review stage last December and aims to fly its first prototype in 2028. Once again, that 5th generation designation offers some insight into the ambitions of this program â€” seemingly aiming to field a broadly capable stealth aircraft that leverages some degree of data fusion, but without the cutting edge tech under development for so-called “6th generation” fighters.
India was an early partner in Russia’s Su-57 Felon program, then known as the PAK FA, before backing out of the effort, seemingly as a result of underwhelming stealth performance from the Felon.
India wants to offset China’s strategic edge in stealth aircraft that was created by the J-20 and is being compounded with the J-31, and is invested in fielding a low-observable jet that can stand and swing with its rival’s.
Feature image courtesy of BAE System
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