Already, but Not Yet—China’s Fifth Generation Quest

Though China’s rollout of the ostensibly stealthy J-20 fighter was a notable achievement, key gaps in China’s aviation industry hinder the country’s ability to effectively field a fifth generation aircraft, says Andrew Erickson, associate professor for strategic research at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. Metallurgical skills needed to produce modern fighter engines remain a “bottleneck” to Chinese efforts, he stated Wednesday during a Center for National Policy discussion on China’s military held in Washington, D.C. China’s progress will increasingly “be defined by these few remaining areas where China really hasn’t demonstrated a full level of capability,” Erickson underscored. “Within aerospace,” he continued, “to this day, I think there’s still a significant, although rapidly diminishing legacy where missiles were prioritized . . . but not aircraft.” He cautioned that those gaps may rapidly vanish, given the caliber of China’s younger engineers. Though development is extremely uneven, characterized by both “pockets of excellence” and “adequacy,” Erickson expressed certainty that China’s aerospace research and development represents a “broad-base and very impressive effort.”