'We are ready to fight tonight': The F-35 stealth fighter just pulled off a massive flex that China and Russia aren't close to matching

Alex Lockie
  • Thirty-five F-35s just took off from a single runway and flew in formation in a show of combat power that Russia and China, the US's rivals, can't hope to match.
  • Hundreds of F-35s are being produced for countries around the world. Russia's Su-57 and China's J-20 have only a couple dozen airframes to show.
  • And Russia's and China's jets don't have the right engines in yet, crippling their performance.
  • Meanwhile, the F-35 is flying combat missions and supporting troops around the world.

Hill Air Force Base in Utah just held a combat power exercise with 35 F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters taking off from a single runway and flying in formation in a massive show of force that the US's rivals haven't even come close to.

The 388th and 419th Fighter Wings, the only two combat-ready units with the Air Force's F-35A variant, launched the formation on Monday to show that the most expensive weapons program in history is ready for action.

"We are ready to fight tonight, and exercising with multiple squadrons of F-35s can demonstrate our ability to defeat potential adversaries wherever they may arise," Maj. Caleb Guthmann, the 34th Fighter Squadron's assistant director of operations and exercise project officer, said in a statement from the base.

China and Russia have both tried to field fifth-generation fighters to compete with the F-35, but neither jet is anywhere close to pulling off a feat anything like the one on Monday.

Though both China's J-20 and Russia's Su-57 have been declared "operational" by their respective militaries, that operation has so far been little more than a public-relations blitz.

J-20

J-20 china stealth

China's J-20 doesn't have the proper engines yet, killing the jet's performance and preventing it from achieving supercruise.

The lack of a home-built Chinese engine for a fifth-generation fighter is reportedly "embarrassing" an air force that hopes to overtake the US military.

China has a few dozen or so J-20s in total. Experts who spoke to Business Insider assessed that the airframes it does have, such as the ones it showed off at the Zhuhai Air Show, were preproduction and not ready for combat.

Read more: China's most advanced stealth fighter shows off its weapons for the first time, revealing some serious heat

"We do not know of more than four production machines at any location. Four in a line unit, four in an R&D unit. If five are at any location, that is news by itself," Lawrence Trevethan, a researcher at the China Aerospace Studies Institute, which works with the US Air Force, told Business Insider.

Su-57

Su-57 T-50

Russia called its Su-57 "combat proven" after a few days of dropping bombs on unprotected enemies of President Bashar Assad in Syria, but that jet too fails to reach the bar of real operational status.

The combat carried out by the Su-57 could have been done by any number of 1970s-designed, Soviet-built Russian jets stationed in Syria and did not vindicate any of the stealth or fifth-generation claims from Russia.

Read more: Get up close and personal with Russia's only 5th-generation fighter during a low-level photo shoot

Additionally, a maximum of 12 Su-57s exist in the world. The Su-57 also doesn't have the final engine installed, and Russia hasn't even bothered to order any to give its combat brigades.

In short, the world has been promised three new fifth-generation fighter jets by the end of this decade, and as of November, only one is a real production aeroplane: the F-35.

F-35 versus J-20/Su-57: Who would win?

The US has 91 F-35s, international partners have 28, and 22 have been sold to additional countries.

A month before the November elephant walk, the Hill Air Force Base fighter wings flew the plane's 10,000th sortie.

In total, the US has ordered more than 2,000 F-35s to fly from land, aircraft carriers, and even improvised or short runways.

F-35 pilots have had years of practice developing new tactics and training regimens for jets that don't fly like anything else before them.

While the F-35 awaits software updates - it will be continually upgraded and modified throughout its life span - it's already at sea aboard the USS Essex carrying out combat missions in Afghanistan.

Russia and China frequently talk up the theoretical and future capabilities of their nascent aircraft, but today the answer to the question of who would win, the F-35 or the J-20/Su-57, the answer is simple and clear.

The F-35 wins because it's a real program and a real aircraft that's ready to defend its country. Until China and Russia sort out their engines and actually build the planes, they're not worthy of a mention in the same breath.