It looks as if the F-60, aka the J-21, aka the “Flatbed Fighter,” China’s lower-end answer to the F-35, has come to pass as predicted by this site (see previous article here). Some people will debate the nature of this airframe- is it an elaborate mockup or an actual flying prototype? I would venture to guess that it is a prototype, especially form the elaborate control surfaces and gear installed, yet even if it is a mockup, a flying article will almost certainly follow very shortly. Additionally, because of it’s a twin-engine design and has large vertical tails similar to those seen on the F-22, many will shallowly claim that the aircraft pictured in these photographs is China’s F-22 “clone.” I can assure you that this is NOT an F-22 clone, it has those features most likely because China still lags over a decade behind the US in jet engine development, so designers had no choice but to stick a pair of motors in this jet in order to hit certain performance marks. Also, it makes sense to put two motors and massive twin tails on an aircraft that they will almost certainly adapt for carrier operations in the near future. We have also seen how china will pull certain features directly from existing foreign aircraft, such a divertless inlets and canopy configurations, although this does not mean the scale is congruent to the aircraft from which they borrowed these design “concepts” from. Furthermore, the aircraft from the flatbed and in these pictures is indeed smaller than the F-22 and from a head-on perspective it is almost an exact knockoff of the F-35. Make no mistake, this is indeed China’s Joint Strike Fighter.
These photos, regardless of their quality, really help highlight China’s vision for the future of its combat air arms, as well as its ability to compete on the world’s fighter jet export market. In many ways China has more thoughtfully applied the high-low capability mix strategy with the J-20 and J-21 than America has with the F-22 and F-35. The J-20 is a long-range heavy fighter/interceptor, meant for fighting an enemy over large distances, whereas the smaller, yet still twin-engined J-21/F-60 is meant to be more numerous in numbers and used for shorter duration missions common to light/medium multirole fighters. This is a winning dichotomy that the US dropped the ball on years ago. The F-22 and F-35 have a similar, not different, combat radius’ and the decision to include super-maneuverability over more gas and efficiency into the F-22 (ATF really) design is a mistake in this age of modern air combat and incredibly well-integrated avionics and munitions.
Overall, I would venture to guess that the fighter we see in these pictures today is an 85% solution to the F-35 that will be offered at much less than half the cost per airframe once it matures. This actually sets China up for the possibility of robust international sales to countries who cannot afford the F-35, or are not allowed to purchase it but seek many of its capabilities, especially its low observability and AESA radar (already being tested on the J-10). A export F-60/ J-21 would allow these nations to acquire a clear edge against peer states that currently operate 4th generation fighter technology. Think of the F-60 vs F-35 relationship metaphorically as a fully loaded Toyota Avalon as opposed to fully loaded Lexus LS class. The Lexus’s fit and finish may be better, and its electronic systems may be more advanced and full of features, but by and large both cars will get you to your destination quickly, safely and in a high degree of comfort. What really makes the practical case is that you can buy two two Avalons fro the price of one Lexus LS! I would venture to guess that the same will be able to be said about the F-60 vs F-35.
Pakistan in particular would find an F-60 as an ideal option to counter India’s looming T-50/PAK-FA low observable fighter. Even south American, African or some Middle Eastern air arms may jump at the opportunity to acquire low-cost stealth as they have no need for the F-35’s super-avionics suite or its massive price-tag. That is if these countries would be allowed to buy the F-35 in the first place, whereas China seems to be willing to sell to almost anyone with the cash to make a deal happen! Additionally, in an aircraft like the J-21/F-60, China may have a foreign policy weapon as much as a military one. If they were to export these aircraft to their “favored” trading partners and allies, even at or below cost, it would present the US with a widespread and dispersed threat on a threatening level that we have not seen since the Cold War. Just as the US will export its military hardware to “ring” and contain China, China could do a similar thing with the F-60/J-21, a weapon system that actually matters.
The growing evidence that the US is losing its advantage in combat aircraft design should be taken as an early warning alarm that we must totally change the rules of the game if we wish to continue winning at it. Massive investments should be made immediately in unmanned combat aircraft and advanced standoff weaponry of varying levels of capability and autonomy as currently America holds the clear advantage in this area of weapons technology. Additionally, if we abruptly switched focus away from the F-35 an onto unmanned systems China would be caught at an immediate and large disadvantage as they are clearly investing incredible amounts of national treasure into manned 5th generation fighters in the present tense. In other words, China would be deeply invested in a game for which the rules are already being rewritten by the US. In the F-35’s place should be an entirely new series of weapons that could on one hand sacrifice survivability directly for low-cost and large numbers, as there would be no pilot at risk, or on the other hand would allow for the designing and fielding of incredibly advanced unmanned systems that are literally the most survivable and deadly aircraft money can buy. Although their price tag would still be substantially less than a manned system of equal capability or even lesser capability.
Stepping back from the politics and flag waving when it comes to modern combat aircraft development, one has to be in awe of just how far China has come in less that a decade and half, and just how short America has come by comparison in that same time-frame. Sure, China stole the vast majority of the technology used in their designs from the US, but than again how stupid are we to allow such national secrets to be pilfered over the internet? And if the very essence of a design can be stolen so easily, than how can we assure these same systems are not vulnerable to electronic and cyber attack once operational? It’s time America make a 9G 180 degree turn when it comes to manned air combat systems, and step back from the F-35 and deeply into the realm of unmanned air combat capabilities. Once we are established on this new heading, we should light the afterburners and accelerate away from China as fast as economically and technologically possible, thus ensuring our aerial supremacy for decades to come. Alternatively, if we continue on the same heading we are currently on, our metaphorical pilot will fall asleep at the controls and our one size fits all fighter will run totally out of gas and fall into the South China Sea.
When it comes to China, saying goodbye supremacy and hello to parity is not an option…