China wants an intelligent next-generation fighter even as its current J-20 warplane is still under development.
Jet fighters have entered, in technological terms, what can be described as the fifth-generation, explains Popular Mechanics (PM). Lockheed Martin F-35, for example, is a fifth-generation fighter. There are no sixth-generation fighters flying, much less in service right now, notes the report.
The J-20 has been under development for over 20 years now, but the fighter's designer Yang Wei said that China has the technical expertise to build whatever type of aircraft it wants.
One of the first steps toward this would be to expand the J-20 into a family, or platform targeted towards future development. "We are not complacent about what we have achieved. We will develop the J-20 into a large family and keep strengthening its information-processing and intellectual capacities. At the same time, we will think about our next-generation combat plane to meet the nation's future requirements," said Yang to the People's Daily, a state-run news outlet.
A sixth-generation fighter would have features and characteristics that include in-built stealth, supersonic cruising abilities as well as technology that is now considered to be emerging. It may have laser weapons, advanced communications, networking, active defense and AI support, as well as drone interface with the ability to control swarms of drones, explains PM.
Tech like this is still under development in different parts of the world and to be battle ready, will take another decade or so. Considering it took China over 20 years to develop the J-20, the next-generation of fighters is likely to take just as long.
This puts the next fighter around the year 2030, which is also the time frame within which advanced AI and laser weapons could become powerful enough to handle warfighting duties, notes the report.
"In the past, we had to follow others' paths when it came to designing military aircraft because our research and development capabilities were primitive in this regard, but now we have become capable of designing and making what we want to have," asserted Yang.
He added that the J-20 will be developed into a large family of aircraft as the twin-engine aircraft is quite large and has the potential for additions and growth in the coming years. On whether the J-20 is a long-range fighter or a long-range attack aircraft, Yang says that it is likely to grow into both types.
The report mentions that although China does not have an air-launched nuclear warhead, the J-20 could be designed to carry China's first "aerial-delivered" nuclear warhead.