GAME CHANGER?: CHINA’S F-35 (F-60 / J-21 / J-31 / FLATBED FIGHTER) EMERGES!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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…

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17 Responses to GAME CHANGER?: CHINA’S F-35 (F-60 / J-21 / J-31 / FLATBED FIGHTER) EMERGES!

  1. Nicky says:

    It would be a game changer if the China floods the market with low cost Stealth fighters to countries that can’t afford US Stealth technology. It would force the US and it’s allies to come up with the latest and greatest stealth technology. Countries that get Chinese made stealth, would get 1st gen stealth from China and not the current stealth tech from US. It would force the US to commit to Stealth technology and put the legacy systems like the F-15, F-16 aside for stealth.

  2. sidius says:

    The Ucav are not the response its a terrible mistake and a suicide, USAF must push the téchnology with high supersonic and hypersonic weapon to win a futur major conflict.You can’t win a war with poor subsonic ucav who are to low to fight with this kind of fighter.Usaf must start a 6th gen fighter now with disruptive téchnology you don’t win a war with poor remote airplane.

  3. nico says:

    On some of the Chinese forums, you can see a little bit better, sharper images, different angle. If it is a real airframe, I think it is sort of a demonstrator, you can see a significant gap in diameter between the engines installed and the airframe, I am guessing the Chinese are using proven engines for now, not the ones intended latter on. From head on, it is a 100% copy of the F35, which has to make you wonder what capability advantage it has that the Chinese are unaware of!

    I know China still has some problems with modern fighter engines but the gap will close rapidly with Western powers, you figure that they have everything on the avionics via spying so what is the advantage the USA has with the F35?

    As for what Sidius says, hypersonics and 6th gen fighter, new bomber is all very nice and true, do you have a trillion to spare?

  4. Bill says:

    I am not sure what purpose does it serve to use terms like “game changer” in relation to a complex apparatus coming from a country like China.

    1. A potential war with China is decades removed. First an alliance needs to happen to acquire natural resources currently under Russia’s control.

    And more practical:

    2. Knowing the present level of Chinese manufacturing and experience with stealth (coating) we can safely assume to what degree will this aircraft be able to evade radar(s).

    3. Having an aircraft is only half of the equation. The other is pilot and the support staff. Both can and should be evaluated by the volume of training and, more importantly, combat hours.

    4. First: “I think it is clear stupidity on behalf of these nations who are focusing on getting the F-35 on their ramps as soon as possible and some incredible salesmanship by Lockheed and the DoD for selling them a machine that will soon be antiquated via better alternatives.”

    Then :”This actually sets China up for the possibility of robust international sales to countries who cannot afford the F-35…”

    Which one is it?

  5. RBBailey says:

    It looks like a cross between an F-22 and the JSF.

    Have they previously had all the ‘stickers’ on their planes?

    Do you think the gaps around the engines could be the room needed for thrust vectoring?

    What differences do you see in the ‘truck jet’ vs. this one?

    Also, how much of a difference will the pilot interface make on this generation of aircraft? i.e., imagine this particular jet has the same stealth and performance stats as an F-22. One must really begin to consider the ability for the pilot to strap the thing on and fight effectively. I think software pilot interface engineering will become as important as stealth engineering in the near future. It’s a good thing the F-35 is said to be easy to drive.

  6. nico says:

    If you look closely at the top picture, you will notice a significant diameter difference between what look like Russian RD33s and the airframe. It could be simply for added cooling, IMO, I think that the Chinese are late on the more powerful, bigger engines and decided to go forward testing with the RD33s. Lastly, as RBBailey noted, the Chinese could be planning for TVC down the road. The Chinese seem to go more with the Russian spiral development way, look at how much they changed the J10A to the J10B. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if this is what will we see with J20 and J21.

    So far, I have seen people talking about maybe this been the Chinese version of the battle between YF22 vs YF23. I will go on a limb and say this is more the Chinese hi lo mix of the future. The Chinese seem to me to have gone for more differentiation than the US, the high end J20 really looking like the long range interceptor/deep strike (kind of a F14/F111 combo) where the low mix J21 looks more toward WVR and CAS,etc….(kind of F15C/F35A combo).

  7. dolan says:

    The passive radar will end all those stealth dreams of the current and the next super power.

  8. Avia2l says:

    Any chance to re-open Raptor’s production line and a export downgrated version to your allies in the region?

  9. It doesn’t look as a mockup. Too good small details are visible at the first photo. A prototype, I think. Besides, what’s the use of towing the mockup along the airfield’s taxiway?
    Remember that half a year before the J-20′s maiden flight, the mere rumours circled the Internet about it, which the serious analysts didn’t believe in. Dealing with China, You are quite right, nobody can predict nothing.
    The only thing that can stop China from immediate massive production of the 5th generation fighters is the lack of engines. They have already copied the best Russian engines, but cannot get the same characteristics due to the poor metallurgy, which does not permit to reach the adequate stechiometry of fuel burning, and, thus, the extra thrust. They are dependant from the deliveries of Russian and Ukrainian engines.
    But the plane looks much more potent, as a dogfighter, then F-35, which is, to my opinion, too fat, due to its praised ‘versatility’.
    Good luck, men!

  10. what says:

    What happens when a RCA vehicle travels out of radio range? Probabaly the same thing that happens when China shoots down all the satellites, no one is left minding the store. The advantage UAV’s offer diminish when tangeling w/ another super power. UAV’s are not the answer to combat rising China avionics.

  11. aviationintel.com says:

    Avia2l-Thanks man!

    Nicky- Disagree, it is clear that China is not designing 1st gen LO platforms. Maybe they will feature greater signature than the F-22 & F-35 but that does not mean that are using 1st gen stealth techniques, in fact I can assure you that. I also disagree with a stealth manned fighter race, there are more creative and cost effective ways to obtain supremacy, especially when it comes to capability mix etc. Also, America’s data-link and multi-platform sensor fusion capabilities will mitigate LO designs to some extent. Stay tuned for more on this.

    Sidius- When you are very LO, almost no heat signature, have long range, EM silent, relatively expendable and built in far superior numbers why do you need to go head to head performance-wise with super fighters? What is more dangerous, a massive wolf or a pack of smaller wolves? Further, range is an absolute necessity vis a vis China, goodluck packing super performance into something with a 1500mile combat radius. Also, such weapons are cost prohibitive in large numbers. I am all for slapping the “SIX GENERATION” sticker on an FB-22 and calling it a day. Remove the TV and the vertical tails, stretch it, and upgrade the motors, add conformal wing bays etc but this is in smaller numbers for a high-low mix.

    Nico- On the engine gap, probably a fairing will be put into place reducing the circumference to the engines are place holders/not fully installed. On avionics, no, they lag behind, but you can hedge that capability deficit via inventory numbers.

    Bill- 1.) Then why do anything at all?
    2.) A substantial reduction in RCS is somewhat alarming no?
    3.) Numbers mitigate even training, yet nobody is telling the PLAAF pilots are no good.
    4.) Which one is it? Well these nations are not cancelling their F-35 orders because of my website, so there obviously is still a demand. China could sell the F-60/J-21 to any player with money, I don’t see what your question is? Nor do these folks have many other advanced jet fighter options, and especially not UCAVs like the west.

    RBBailey- Yes it does have some traits as both, still, its an F-35 in size. Eventually sure this aircraft could feature TV but I doubt that is the gap issue, see my earlier comments. As far as the tuck jet and this one, I would imagine they are the same although I have not sat down and analyzed it out. Pilot interface is a big deal, but once again numbers can help overcome such disadvantages. Still, the F-22s interface is decades old really, and the F-35 does represent a whole new level in automation and pilot interface. Still, even if this aircraft can match a super hornet eventually in pilot interface that would be a huge deal.

    Nico- I HIGHLY doubt that this is a flyoff competition type deal. Infact, those folks who say that is what is happening are often wrong on all fronts, although they remain popular in the aviation journalism field. Size/fuel fraction alone these are different animals. Kinda like the J-10/JF-17 on a much high-end scale. And no, a stealthy airframe would not be primary used for CAS and WVR combat.

    Dolan- Yes, but not just passive radar, other components as well, stay tuned for a huge post on this that has been in the works for 4 months.

    Avia2l- Under a non-Obama admin its possible, however who knows how likely. Export version, possibly but once again it would cost money.

    Ivan- We shall see, yes it does have some big surfaces, JSF concept without the detriment of STOVL

    What- Autonomous UCAVs do not have to be in communications with control stations, they would go EM silent at a certain point and prosecute a fixed target or one of opportunity. The Predator “man in the loop” concept is a totally different concept compared to a cutting edge UCAV’s ability to prosecute a mission on its own. How do UAVs diminish in value during peer state conflict? In fact I would say they greatly increase in value when going to war against a foe with a modern integrated air defense system located far from home.

  12. Bill says:

    @avintel

    Thank you for taking time to answer.

    1. Not sure if it is intentional or not but the tone of your post(s) reads like the conflict with China is about to start tomorrow and that, somehow, West and its allies are already at the disadvantage. I was simply trying to put things into a broader context.

    2. True. How significant impact that can have is what we disagree on.

    3. As for numbers, are you trying to tell me that China with its experience in manufacturing military aircraft can somehow out produce West, US and European alies Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy, and it’s allies on the East (Japan, Australia, India) altogether over a prolonged time period?

    This on top of the current inventory and the fact that China needs to import all major resources (oil, gas, iron etc)? The routes can be easily shut down. Remember, experience, skilled labor, know-how, resources and sheer MONEY are all in West’s favor. These are no plastic toys and t-shirts we are talking about here :)

    4. Let me clarify. You first made point that the JSF is not only expensive but will soon be antiquated. The Chinese equivalent is likely to be cheaper but hardly on the same level in terms of overall package (components, performance etc). Meaning it will get “antiquated” even sooner.

    If this is true, why would any country in their right mind wanted to purchase these in large quantities over an extended period (or as you put it robust international sales)?

  13. tomislav says:

    Main problems in the development of the F-35 are coming from systems integration and software which is also its main strenght. The fifth generation fighter is about STEALTH but its even more about system integration. On these pictures you can see STEALTH, that’s sure, but how much of it, you can’t but as I said what is under the skin you can’t see at all and that is what matters most in fifth generation of fighters. How many of you have seen the resolution of the video coming from DASS system on F-35? You think Chibese won’t face same problems Americans are facing now with the F-35? Can you compare lessons learned and history of American aviation industry with Chinese one and still say Chinese are so close to America? How many wars and expeditionary operations Chinese had in the last 50 years? I’m not American. I’m just saying, don’t think Americans don’t have their smart guys.

    • aviationintel.com says:

      Tomislav- Please read through all my JSF coverage, you will see that I sing the praises of the F-35′s avionics integration and capabilities. Still, the F-35 only carries 4 BVR missiles when not carry any air to ground weapons. After which it turns into a sensor platform that needs gas almost ever hour. I think the Chinese are not going to attempt the same feats as the F-35, they have proximity and numbers on their side. A capable LPI AESA and data link system alone would be a major advance that would translate well on the battlefield. Like I said a 70% solution at a much lower price tag gives China an advantage. Further, Chinese are masters of letting their enemies work for them, understanding the mistakes and lessons learned by others and reflecting those in their weapons, this along with espionage, ingenuity and financial commitment has what has allowed them to jump from producing MiG-21 variants to the most advanced stealth aircraft outside of the US in only 15 years time. As far as China being so close to the US when it comes to weapons technology, they are a lot closer than they were a decade or even five years ago, and that tide will not change direction. Do we really want to face a close to equal force in the future, or even one that is 70% as capable? NO WAY. That is why choosing where to sink our limited funds now via a greater vision for our military’s future is key.

  14. aviationintel.com says:

    Bill:
    1.) To act as if a conflict could not occur at any time with a country that actually can threaten the US is poor planning. Our defense posture, and all of the gear and people that make it up, takes years if not decades to procure and train, therefore acting as if we have so much time now, will make us unprepared later when there may be no such luxury.
    2.) Its not just about numebers on the books but how many aircraft can actually be deployed to the area of operations during an anti-access/area-denial scenario. For instance, RAND figured that out of 75 F-22s, over half the combat coded fleet, deployed to Guam for a conflict over the south china sea, only FOUR can remain on station at any given time continuously. These F-22s will also be totally dependant on tanker gas just a couple hundred miles away, which is a massive vulnerability. That is 24 BVR missiles. China on the other hand is fighting in their own backyard, which gives them a massive sortie rate / proximity basing advantage.
    3.) It takes months, and in some cases years, to produce a western fighter aircraft. Long lead items can range out a half decade or more. This is not WWII when one can just “fire up the industrial base.” Peer conflicts will last less time than in the past. And yes, China can build a LOT of stuff fairly quickly, sacrificing quality for numerological advantage. As far as importation, do not think that China could not massively realign its use of raw materials for a war effort and Russia would most likely be keen on supplying them oil and other materials in a time of need. This is also exactly why China should be treated as a potential future adversary, their need of raw materials and their ambitions to control their sources of these raw materials in the future.
    4.) You are looking at these systems in a vacuum or in a direct comparison scenario. I don’t blame you for this, but you need to look at the overall force structure and strategic advantages that can be leveraged. The F-35 is somewhat antiquated and ill suited for the US at this time. Its systems are cutting edge, but its concept is flawed. Especially when it comes to cost and range. So for America, and its supposed focus on expeditionary warfare in the Pacific, the F-35, especially the A model, is way to big of an investment for such an ill suited weapon system. For China, that lags behind in UAV technology, and has the advantage of proximity, an F-35 concept, even if it is 50-75 as effective as the real mccoy is highly logical as it suits their strategic position and their technological means. The same can be said for many nations who cannot afford and or are not allowed to buy the F-35. A low observable aircraft with say the latest MiG-29 like capabilities is a very attractive product.

  15. After seeing the snapshots of this beast flying, I’d say, that the F-35 is nervously smoking in the corner. I’m not speaking of avionics, but the Chinese plane is:
    -Double-engined;
    -Has spaceous twin bomb bays;
    -Is really stealthy;
    -Has enormous capacity on the removable pylons;
    -And, finally, it can be easily turned to the deck-based airplane.
    It’s really a matter to think about boosting the Air Force and Navy budgets for Russia and USA. One of the crucial points is putting the Su-50 into the series production, resurrection of the F-22 production and, at last, boosting up the tempos of F-35′s entering into service. It’s really a shame of building such a mediocre plane so slowly and ineffectively. Mind the Chinese, and think more of the final result, then of a dough.

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