China ‘Knows What It’s Doing,’ Pursuing Fighter Similar to NGAD, Kelly Says

China’s approach to developing a sixth-generation fighter is similar to that of the Air Force—a family of systems with an “exponential” improvement in stealth over current platforms—and China both knows how to pursue that technology and is moving rapidly to develop it iteratively, Air Combat Command chief Gen. Mark D. Kelly reported. His priority is for the U.S. to get that technology first.

Though he said he could only speak in generalities due to the sensitivity of the topic, Kelly told reporters at AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference that “by and large,” China views sixth-generation air dominance “greatly the way we see it: an exponential reduction in signature, exponential acceleration of processing power and sensing, and the ability to … iterate” improvements using open mission systems and “essentially, [the ability to] reprogram at the speed of relevance.” The Air Force’s sixth-generation fighter is known as the Next Generation Air Dominance platform family systems, or NGAD.  

Kelly said he’s determined that “we get to sixth-gen air dominance at least a month prior to our competitors.” Of China and other potential adversaries, he said, “They’re not dummies. They know what they’re doing.”

While Kelly could not give detailed information on what the Air Force knows about China’s efforts toward an NGAD-like capability, “I can tell you what’s not happening—they’re not having a debate over the relevance of sixth-gen air dominance. And I can also tell you, they’re on plan. Absolutely.”

The National Air and Space Intelligence Center, Kelly said, reports that China’s approach to developing advanced aerospace technology is highly iterative.

“We, as a nation, tend to let go of the trapeze and kind of make a leap for the next rung,” while “our Chinese ‘frenemies’ tend to iterate—5.1, 5.2, 5.3. They tend to iterate what they have, and morph and evolve.” This was China’s approach to building its fourth-generation fleet, he said.

“They started with Su-27, morph into Su-30, then their own J-16, Su-35,” he said, ticking off the upgrades and advancing versions of the Russian Flanker series of fighters that China purchased and then built indigenously.

“Then they build on that technology base,” he said. The Su-35, designed by Russia but which China has certainly tweaked to its own specifications, is “a good airplane,” Kelly acknowledged, calling it a fourth-generation airplane “with fifth-gen avionics [and] fifth-gen speed.” These aircraft will “make it a little easier when they go off the rung” to their next fighter.

“That’s an iterative plan to get to sixth-gen,” Kelly said. “We need to get there before they do. It won’t end well if we don’t.”

In his speech at ASC, Kelly said “China is building a first-rate air force … When it comes to a nation’s blood, treasure, and stature on the globe, the only thing more expensive than a first-rate air force is a second-rate air force.”

He also said the F-22 must be kept credible and relevant to a modern fight right up until the Air Force makes a “hot handover” to the NGAD. That will happen in roughly 2030.