Since the beginning of the Cold War the number of countries able to independently produce fighter aircraft has declined sharply, with advances in technologies and growing complexity and cost meaning that today only China and the United States can produce their top fighters without any foreign technologies or components. As fighters have become more sophisticated and costly with each generation, the numbers produced have contracted significantly. The most produced first generation fighter for example, the MiG-15 of Korean War fame, saw over 17,000 built the large majority in the Soviet Union. Such numbers were reached despite its technologies being superseded by the newer MiG-17 just three years after it entered service. By contrast the most produced fourth generation fighter, the F-16, has seen under 4,500 airframes built, despite having been in production for well over 45 years. In the Cold War years fighter production was dominated by the Soviet Union followed by the United States, with the USSR vastly outproducing the rest of the world in each generation, until the fourth generation where the production run of its most widely manufactured fighter, the MiG-29, was cut short by the state’s disintegration.
From the world’s second largest economy and largest defence spender, Russia’s much diminished economic status in the 21st century and smaller defence budget has meant that its fighter production is today dwarfed by the world’s two leaders China and the United States, which are respectively the world’s largest and second largest economies and spenders on defence acquisitions today. This status is reflected in the rankings of Chinese and American fighter programs in terms of the quantities being produced. Although China lacks the large network of overseas clients that the United States has, or that the Soviet Union once had, the needs of its own fighter fleet alone have been sufficient to propel it to leadership in the quantities being manufactured, with this paired with a comfortable qualitative edge over producers other than the United States leaving the two to compete effectively in a league of their own. A ranking and examination of the four fighters currently being produced on the largest scales provides strong indications of this, and is given below.
1: Lockheed Martin F-35 – United States – Approximately 140 Per Year
The largest weapons program in world history, the F-35 has seen production numbers gradually increase since the class first entered service in 2014, with 141 airframes produced in 2022 – one airframe short of its production target. The large majority of these were F-35A fighters, with a small number coming from the specialised F-35B and F-35C variants respectively designed for vertical landings and aircraft carrier operations. The massive production scale of the F-35 dwarfs all other fighter programs, and has been facilitated by multiple factors. One is that the aircraft is the only one of its generation in production in the Western world or by any Western-aligned state, allowing it to consistently win all contracts where it is offered to countries operating at NATO standards whether they are Japan, South Korea, Australia, Finland, Switzerland or members of NATO itself. Furthermore, the F-35A’s acquisition cost is relatively low and comparable to American heavyweight and European medium weight fighters from the fourth generation, as it was designed as a single engine relatively inexpensive counterpart to the larger twin engine F-22.
The lack of U.S. Air Force orders for any other fighters for over a decade has effectively given the F-35 access to the entire Air Force budget for tactical fighter acquisitions. The last F-16s were delivered in 2005, the last F-22s ordered in 2008, and nothing else was funded until a small number of modernised F-15s were purchased from 2019. This combined with its dominance in foreign markets, with Japan planning to field over 100 and Britain, Finland, Australia and several others all planning fleet sizes well over 50, has ensued that the F-35 is produced on a truly massive scale. The fighter is nevertheless still considered far from ready for high intensity combat, with the Pentagon accordingly refusing to approve it for full scale production – which could otherwise take the numbers built to above 170 per year. With approximately 800 performance defects remaining, and new ones beginning to be discovered, the F-35 has been widely criticised in particular for its reliability and engine issues, although the sheer scale of the program and the lack of post-fourth generation alternative has made it effectively too big to fail.
2. Chengdu J-10C – China – Approximately 50 Per Year
Entering service in 2018, the J-10C fighter provided a revolutionary improvement over previous J-10 variants and has accordingly been procured in much larger numbers. Comissioned a year after the J-20 fifth generation fighter, the ‘4++ generation’ lightweight jet integrated truly fifth generation level avionics and weaponry including the PL-10 infrared guided air to air missile and the PL-15 AESA radar guided long range air to air missile. These features have led it to be perceived as a leading challenger in air to air combat even against opponents twice its size such as the American F-15 and Russian Su-35, with the J-10C seen to potentially hold an edge over both. The fighter has been produced at a rate of around 50 airframes per year, allowing facilities at Chengdu to fulfil a Pakistani order for 32 airframes in well under 18 months.
The J-10C, much like the F-35, is a lightweight single engine fighter designed to combined sophistication with low manufacturing and operational costs, although it is very significantly less costly particularly in terms of its lifetime operational expenses and weights little over half as much as its American counterpart. The aircraft lacks the F-35’s advanced stealth capabilities, but has significant advantages in its weaponry, availability rates, and all aspects of its flight performance. The fighter plays a much less central role in the Chinese fleet, which has balanced acquisitions between multiple fighter classes from different weight ranges, although large scale production has allowed the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force to bring more squadrons up to a cutting edge level quickly without significantly increasing their operational expenses or lowering their availability rates. This is something the F-35 program has in most cases fallen short of achieving.
3.. Chengdu J-20 – China – Approximately 32 Per Year
The only fifth generation fighter both in production and fielded at squadron level strength other than the F-35, the J-20 is manufactured at Chengdu alongside the J-10C and has seen its production facilities expanded significantly since the first units were delivered to the PLA Air Force in 2016. Over 200 are currently thought to be in service, while the production scale of approximately 32 airframes per year is expected to continue to increase possibility bringing it much closer to 50 per year. Unlike the F-35, the J-20 is a heavyweight twin engine fighter designed to maximise performance and form the elite of the Chinese fleet. The aircraft can thus supercruise and carry significantly larger sensors and a heavier weapons payload than the F-35, while benefitting from much higher operational altitudes and greater levels of manoeuvrability. The J-20 is expected to see multiple variants enter service, with a twin seater first unveiled in October 2021 and expected to serve as a drone controller, while a modified version with improved stealth capabilities was first seen in December 2022.
4.. Shenyang J-16 – China – Approximately 30 Per Year
A second Chinese heavyweight fighter class which is estimated to have entered service around 2015, the J-16 is the latest and most advanced in a long line of derivatives of the Soviet Su-27 Flanker design which first began production in China in the mid 1990s. The J-16 has been produced on a much larger scale than any other Flanker derivative in its time, and benefits from much higher use of composite materials and more sophisticated weapons, sensors and avionics than those models in use in Russia. The aircraft has been produced on a scale of approximately 30 per year, although production facilities are shared with other Flanker derivatives. These include the J-11B, which saw its last units produced in 2018, and the J-11’s carrier based derivative the J-15 which remains in production on a small scale for the Navy. The J-16 is perhaps the most capable pre fifth generation heavyweight fighter in service worldwide, although it is rivalled by the American F-15EX, the J-15B, and the upcoming Russian Su-35SM. None of these, however, are in production at even half the scale. Combined with the J-20 and several older models, massive J-16 production has been key to allowing China to field a larger heavyweight fighter fleet than Russia and NATO combined.
5. Chengdu JF-17 – China and Pakistan – Approximately 22 Per Year
Coming from a very light weight range comparable to the Swedish Gripen, and below the F-16 and J-10, the JF-17 was developed for export primarily for the requirements of the Pakistani Air Force. Pakistan thus had significant inputs in program development decisions, and produced a large portion of fighters domestically. Production in China began in 2007 and in Pakistan the following year, with the Pakistani Air Force already fielding over 140. Further units have been exported to Myanmar and Nigeria. The latest variant, the JF-17 Block III, is currently in production and has capabilities very significantly ahead of its predecessors including an AESA radar and avionics and weaponry highly comparable to those of the J-20, J-16 and J-10C. The fighter has lower operational costs and maintenance needs than the J-10C, and is much cheaper to produce, but has a far inferior flight performance. JF-17 production was expanded in the late 2010s, and is expected to increase significantly further as the Block III variant is not only acquired in greater numbers by Pakistan, but is also expected to be much more competitive abroad. Myanmar has sought a deal to licence manufacture the aircraft which could facilitate medium scale production in the country, with foreign interest expected to grow once the Block III variant becomes fully operational in Pakistani service.