China’s Sixth Generation Fighter Tech Demonstrator Already Flying? The Latest Look From the 611 Institute

New footage of a tailless fighter in flight being observed on a monitor in China has raised speculation that the country has a technology demonstrator for its J-XX sixth generation fighter program already operational. The footage was reportedly taken at 611 Institute, a part of the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation which developed the J-20 fifth generation fighter currently serving in China’s air force. Although it remains uncertain whether the image seen is a technology demonstrator airframe of a successor to the J-20, or else a computer generated image, the appearance of what appeared to be a demonstrator airframe in October 2022 indicates that it may well be the former. Flying a technology demonstrator for a sixth generation fighter would align with estimates for Chinese progress in development of a new generation of combat jets, with the East Asian state expected to bring such an aircraft into service at approximately the same time as the United States Air Force does – with concerns repeatedly raised by U.S. officials that the Chinese program could produce an operational fighter first. The U.S., for its part, is thought to have flown its first technology demonstrator for its rival Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) sixth generation fighter program in 2020, with this having been reported in September that year. This would make a Chinese flight some time in 2022 far from unrealistic even for more conservative estimates of the country’s progress in development.

China and the United States have emerged without near peer rivals in the development of post fourth generation fighters, and while Russia has developed a fifth generation fighter the first full squadron will enter service several years behind its competitors and with inferior electronics, avionics and stealth capabilities. The Chinese J-20 and American F-35 are currently the only fifth generation fighters in the world in mass production. Where development of the first fifth generation fighters stalled considerably in the United States during the 1990s, due to contraction of the defence budget and industrial base and a degree of complacency following the USSR’s disintegration, China’s emergence as a leader in key areas of research and development and as a larger spender on defence acquisitions has made development of next generation aircraft today far more urgent for both sides.

The new Chinese fighter design is notably tailless, which is expected to be a defining feature of sixth generation fighters to radically improve their stealth capabilities. The aircraft has also been speculated to use retracting canards, allowing it to retain very high manoeuvrability but also improve its stealth profile when they are not deployed. The technology demonstrator appears to have no canards whatsoever, although the J-20 notably does which contributes to its significant flight performance advantages over the F-35. The first sixth generation fighters are expected to become operational around 2030, and further widen the gap between the rest of the world and China and America. American sixth generation fighters are expected to cost several hundred million dollars per aircraft, and be acquired in very small numbers, although precedents set by the efficiency of China’s combat aviation sector in other programs indicates that it could well develop a comparable aircraft at a fraction of the cost.