We truly live in amazing times. If you were to tell me a decade ago that China would have developed its own indigenous stealth fighter I would have laughed and asked what straight to VHS sci-fi video they saw that plot on. What a difference a decade can make.
There had been rumblings about China’s 5th generation fighter program for years, even Defense Secretary Robert Gates himself had addressed the issue in a “this is no big deal” sort of way, it was always off in the future, a possibility not a eventuality, and not of any great consequence to America’s defense posture. At the same time we saw the Bush administration all but cancel the F-22, cutting its production numbers to a point that the whole fleet was almost unviable, then punting the decision to close the production line to the incoming administration. Meanwhile the F-22 was proving itself as downright game changing in large-scale air exercises, racking up unheard of kill ratios against pretty much everything the USAF aggressor community could throw at it. Then the Obama administration, mainly driven by Robert Gates, made it clear that Raptor production would end at 187 airframes, there would be no negotiation. This was a strange reality as at the same time Russia was on schedule to fly their new stealth super fighter and rumors of China having one at least in the design stages we were shutting down our superfighter program in whole in exchange for a less stealthy, much slower ground attack platform that has the ability to also carry a very limited amount of air to air missiles, the F-35.
Then last winter, grainy images began showing up on the internet of a massive black delta-canard configured aircraft clearly taken at perimeter fence of the very much urban Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group, basically China’s equivalent to Lockheed Martin’s Dallas Ft. Worth plant and test facility. At first the giant black jet almost seemed like a movie prop. How could an aircraft this big, this unique (not entirely reverse engineered) just appear out of thin air in the middle of a Chinese city? At first it seemed many thought it was a mock-up, a disinformation tool of sorts to prod the west’s fears of China’s increasing technological superiority. It’s skin was so smooth and it’s design so ambitious that it seemed even the US Government was seeing question marks not answers in its sudden appearance. For years incredibly detailed hoaxes of China’s supposed fifth generation super fighter appeared, but none seemed to hold weight, was this just more of the same?
Then pictures came out of this machine actually taxiing under its own power and everyone’s tone changed, it appeared to be the real deal, an aircraft with a relatively unique shape and bewildering build quality. Gates continued to dismiss the aircraft in interviews, almost as if he thought it was some sort of false fighter, an apparition more than a reality. Pictures continued to appear from Chengdu’s perimeter fence of this machine doing all the tasks an aircraft does that is about to fly for the first time. What was a clear fact is that these pictures were not leaked, they were very much allowed to come out. In China you just don’t stand at a military aircraft manufacturer’s fence day in and day out taking pictures of a secret plane without repercussions. No China wanted this aircraft to be shown to the world, an unprecedented move by the historically secretive Chinese military.
Preliminary analysis of this aircraft by this author was startling. It appears the Chinese may have leveraged or even bought the defunct 90’s era Russian MiG 1.42 design plans for which to base their basic airframe design. From this basic layout they took elements of various US stealth designs to decrease the platform’s radar signature greatly, especially where it matters most, from the front. We can see the canopy and forward nose design is very similar to the F-22, the air intakes are almost an exact copy of the F-35’s divertless supersonic intake while the outer shape is very much like the F-22. The lower fuselage and weapons bay configuration is very much like that of the F-22 as well. What is not American and is very much the 90’s era MiG 1.42 prototype is the wing, canard and tail layout, although updated in an attempt to make the jet much harder to detect by radar. Further, there is wide use of edge alignment and sawtoothing on panels and doors that is a clear sign of modern stealth design techniques. What is most amazing is the quality or “fitment” of the aircraft. The seams on the bay doors and access panels are almost non-existent which is evidence of a much more advanced production capability than what China was predicted to have had. In fact many aerospace buffs and alanlyst thought there were no weapons bays on the jet at all, that is how tight the fit and finish is on this airframe. Overall the aircraft is amazingly advanced, although not as much as America’s latest Stealth airframes, but we have been doing this for 35 years and have spent massive amounts of treasure developing the technology over the decades.
Then in mid January 2011, as America’s own Secretary of Defense, the man who blew off this machine’s very existence, was meeting with Chinese heads of state and military brass in Beijing, the aircraft that nobody saw coming rocketed into the air on its first test flight. This was of no coincidence, China took advantage of a big opportunity to show the world and the US just how far they have come technologically in the last decade, uncharacteristically throwing caution to the wind as to how this “egg on the face” moment of one of America’s highest ranking officials would effect the relationship between the two countries in the future. The message was clear- China’s defense industry is no longer just focused on reverse engineering and making crude copies of Russian or Western designs, they are now peer competitors in military technology and geopolitical influence and they are not going anywhere.
What the J-20 Black Eagle, as China refers to its new fighter, is not is it is not an exact copy of anything. It is a semi-indigenous design that utilizes a tremendous amount of “lifted” concepts and technologies, but not a copy of a single weapon system as a whole, which is amazing. It is well-known that China has used human espionage in the past, learning many of the B-2 stealth bomber design secrets. Further, it is known that they stole terabytes of design information on the F-35 via hacking, much of which seems to be present in this aircraft design. There is also little doubt that they were able to examine the stealth Blackhawk tail lost in the Bin Laden raid and were surely allowed to take a sample of its prized radar absorbent material, one of the areas that China is known to be lacking in the most. So yes China has no doubtingly stolen intellectual property to build this machine, but they did not copy one design as a whole, which is an accomplishment in itself.
When it comes to capability this author believes China was absolutely brilliant in their design philosophy. The fighter is much larger than the F-22 for good reason, I believe this aircraft is very similar in concept to the YF-23, the loser to the F-22 during the ATF competition. The YF-23 was not as maneuverable as the F-22 but it was very fast and it had much more internal volume for gas. It was as much an interceptor as it was a fighter, whereas the F-22 could out-turn anything in the sky but it would be running its tanks empty fairly quickly in the process. Here is why this is brilliant: The Chinese know they cannot out perform our F-22 in any respect, but what the J-20 lacks in relative speed (it can probably still supercruise just closer to mach 1 as opposed to mach 2), stealth and most importantly maneuverability it makes up for in gas. In a conflict over Taiwan our aircraft would be forced to fly enormous distances using very unstealthly tankers and supporting command and control aircraft. So although the F-22s are invisible their tankers and support aircraft are not. Plus the F-22 requires fuel often, making it have to run back and forth to the tanker to stay on station and with only 187 examples planned this would only leave a handful, maybe a few dozen deployable for combat operations at any given time. Other US tactical aircraft would be operating from aircraft carriers, which are now totally vulnerable do to Chinese anti ship ballistic missiles. So what China did was they built an aircraft that could swarm or evade a thin line of thirsty F-22, destroy any non stealth platforms such as the F-15C and the F/A-18E/Fs if it had to, in effect breaking through to US support assets, mainly the vulnerable tankers and AWACS. It is much easier to shoot down the F-22s tankers and AWACS than the F-22s themselves. If you break America’s netcentric information flow you confuse and blind the fighter force to a degree. If you take out our tankers, you in effect shoot down the whole thirsty fighter force on station at the time. In other words the J-20’s genius is not in its stealth or maneuverability, its in its range and persistence, able to loiter for long periods of time and poke holes in the US’s tanker dependent defense. Further I believe this aircraft will have a secondary strike capability very similar to the F-22. It would be a very useful weapon in hitting command in control targets or air defense nodes using both direct and standoff weapons. Further, although the J-20 is advanced it surely does not cost the hundreds of millions of dollars that an F-22 does, so they would be, to a limited degree, expendable. This is a relevant strategy that balances capability and cost with acceptable expendability. This also makes sense as China’s avionics are not on par with the US, especially when it comes to AESA radar technology and sensor fusion, so there is a capability differential here that will result in lopsided losses. But remember it is about breaking though to the support assets not about taking the US fighter forces on directly, so planned attrition is a relevant tactic here. In the end yes China’s ingenuity is startling, whether this is a pre-production aircraft or even a technology demonstrator, but what is even more surprising is the brilliant strategy behind this machine’s design and even more startling is how apparent its mission appears to be; to beat America in a conflict over Taiwan.
The unveiling of this aircraft should have been another one of America’s “Sputnik movements,” a clear wakeup call to realign our priorities and weapons programs to meet this threat. The fear of a growing China with matured stealth technology, as well as its proliferation to anyone who is willing to buy it from them should be a game changer for the US. Well this moment of clarity was apparently lost on Washington. Instead we continue to hang our hat on an all stealth but all mediocre fleet of aircraft, almost trying to reach parity instead of outright superiority. This, as war game models show that time and time again we LOSE in a conflict over Taiwan with our ever shrinking tanker and network dependant fighter fleet. We can also take a lesson from the Chinese and start work immediately on an FB-22 or other regional fighter-bomber concept that takes the speed, stealth and sensor developments from the F-22 and F-35 and puts them into a larger, although less maneuverable airframe, that can carry much more gas as well as more weapons, thus giving America its much-needed persistence over the battlefield without the huge logistical liability that the constant need for tankers nearby currently presents.
In the end its the same old story, America needs to run from its “jack of all trades but master of none” procurement strategy and go back to a high-low weapons mix. Kick down the door with the F-22, FB-22, Next Generation Bomber, cruise missiles and unmanned combat vehicles and procure proven and inexpensive legacy systems to provide close air support and shallow strike once the airspace is sanitized. The problem is that soon it will be too late to make any change of course, with the closure of the F-22 production line the F-35 will become the only game in town. An asinine and scary proposition. America has to stop looking at competing with its foes and start once again being focused at defeating its foes. In the end the J-20 is yet another sign of America’s shrinking technological and military superiority. We can only hope that the J-20 will become the weapon that wakes up Washington to the fact that America’s military prowess is not, nor will it ever be, guaranteed.