SMARTER. Better informed. Highly automated.
China is striving to prepare for combat. And its new stealth fighters are on the front line.
This will allow it to “seize air superiority” in the Asia-Pacific, state media claims.
And it’s thinking further ahead.
Beijing state media mouthpiece Global Timessays the National People’s Congress (NPC) deputy and chief designer of the new J-20 stealth fighter, Yang Wei, told a press conference he would “create more surprises.”
“There will be more surprises in future fighter jets, which will be more mechanised, information-equipped and smarter,” Yang told the gathering.
“Such a jet could function in many areas, in many battles, and we’ll have our own ‘Trump cards’.”
His J-20 design is already undergoing upgrades, the report says, with new high-thrust engines and next-generation electronics topping the priority list.
“The advanced series could help China seize air superiority in the Asia-Pacific region and safeguard national security when facing containment from the US, Japan, Australia and India,” military analyst Song Zhongping is quoted as saying.
But Beijing is not placing all its eggs in one basket.
China’s next generation of stealth fighters is already being designed, and it insists this will leapfrog Beijing from being a “follower” to a “leader” in their development.
Last year, China made a significant step forward in its bid to equal — and eventually surpass — United States air superiority.
According to Beijing’s state media, its first stealth fighter entered fully operational, frontline service in October.
This puts it in second place.
Before now, only the United States has had a fully operational ‘fifth generation’ fighter — the F-22 Raptor.
Russia’s stealth fighter — the T-50 PAK-FA — appears to have stalled in its development. And the US ‘export’ stealth fighter, the F-35, continues to suffer protracted delays.
But the J-20 will now likely become a regular feature in the games of cat-and-mouse being played out over the South China and East China seas.
And it’s likely the most capable aircraft deployed by any nation in the region — giving it a significant edge over the Japanese, Korean and Indian air forces.
So what exactly is the J-20, and how does it compare with other modern combat aircraft?
According to Washington defence think-tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS): “Designed for enhanced stealth and maneuverability, the J-20 has the potential to provide China with a variety of previously unavailable air combat options and enhance its capability to project power.”
OUT OF THE BLUE
The Chengdu J-20 is not only China’s first operational stealth fighter. It’s one of its first fully indigenous combat jet designs.
Its appearance in 2011 stunned the military aviation world.
Earlier home-built aircraft either owed much of their design to Russian sources, or were direct copies.
That China was able to advance so far, so fast, in its quest to attain “fifth generation” stealth fighter capability seemed virtually impossible.
But it was done. And now it’s operational.
China declared the first deliveries of operational J-20s were made to the People’s Liberation Army Air Force in March last year. It took part in a major military parade in July. In October, state media declared it operational and “officially commissioned into military service, releasing a promotional video boasting of its capabilities as it celebrates the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China.
International defence analysts have since tracked recent video footage of its first operational deployment to the borders of India.
WHAT IS THE J-20
The multi-role J-20 offers the People’s Liberation Army Air Force the ability to penetrate defended airspace to deliver its payload of weapons.
It also allows the fighter to range deep over the Pacific — unseen — to intercept the radar and refuelling aircraft so vital to the tactics of its contemporaries.
It offers key modern features including stealth, advanced digital avionics and supersonic cruising speeds.
Its designer, Yang Wei, says its canard configuration (with small fins in front of the main wings) gives the aircraft improved stealth while maintaining manoeuvrability and supersonic speeds.
“The design allows the J-20 to fly further and with greater bomb load,” he told the Global Times.
It can do all these things because it claims to be a “fifth generation” aircraft design.
“The J-20 is the first Chinese aircraft to fit this description, and it may serve as a critical asset for both the air force and the navy,” the CSIS report reads.
CSIS analysis of China’s large (20.5m long) stealth fighter shows it to be — at least on paper — a true competitor to the United States’ older F-22 Raptor stealth fighter.
It also appears to be possibly somewhat superior to the F-35 Lighting II strike fighter (which, despite its protracted development, still is not in truly operational service).
The extent of such performance, however, is yet to be tested. Exactly how effective is its stealth design? What is the actual performance and reliability of its engines?
These questions are yet to be answered.
A look at the J-20’s shape and configuration offers some clues — and questions.
“I’m puzzled by its design,” senior defence research scientist at the think tank CNA and fellow at the Wilson Center Michael Kofman recently told Business Insider. “You see how large it is? It’s got so many surfaces, and a lot of them look pretty reflective from the sides too. I’m pretty sceptical of the stealth on that aircraft.”
STATE OF THE ART
The J-20 is powered by two jet engines, like the F-22 but not the F-35. This gives it both extra power as well as the ability to survive an engine failure.
Unlike the F-22, these are set well back in the airframe.
This leaves ample space within the aircraft’s body for three large internal weapon bays — vital for stealth aircraft to remain invisible while carrying weapons. Two of the bays are smaller, capable of carrying air-to-air missiles. The larger third bay can hide heavier anti-ship or air-to-surface missiles and bombs.
But, like Russia, its engines appear to be the J-20’s Achilles heel.
“I suspect that the J-20 probably has great avionics and software but, as always, has terrible engine design,” Kofman says .
“In fact, Chinese low-observation aircraft designs like the J-31 are flying on older Russian Klimov engines because the Chinese can’t make an engine. Others are Russian saturn engines, or Chinese engines based on western designs.”
And engine performance is a defining feature of 5th generation designs.
It allows fighter aircraft to cruise at supersonic speeds without the use of fuel-hungry and highly visible afterburners.
To remain reliable, such designs requires a degree of manufacturing precision and technical understanding not yet widely available.
The F-35, and to a lesser extent the F-22, have only small interior weapons bays — meaning they must either go into combat with only a limited number of missiles, or give up much of their stealth advantage when carrying extra or larger weapons under their wings.
And like the F-35’s much-touted ‘advantage’, it appears to have full 360 degree infra-red/electro-optic detection systems allowing the pilot to look in any direction and “see” what is there.
That the J-20 was capable of situation awareness, information warfare and cooperative combat shows China’s aviation industry has progressed from a “follower” to a “leader,” Yang said.
But the J-20s stealth appears to be limited.
Analysts argue that the fighter appears to have only its front profile optimised for a low radar reflection signature. From the sides and rear, it is likely to look larger.
But to anything less than the most modern radar and infra-red sensors, it is still likely to be very hard to “see”.
It’s a point Beijing analyst Song reinforced, stating: “Carbon fibres not only provide the fighter with greater stealth, but can also reduce the aircraft’s weight to allow more weapons for greater attack power”.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN
The J-20 is an “advanced aircraft to improve its regional power projection capabilities and to strengthen its ability to strike regional air bases and facilities … The PLAAF … views (this) technology as a core capability in its transformation from a predominantly territorial air force to one capable of conducting both offensive and defensive operations.”
That is, at least, the opinion of the US Department of Defence.
The aircraft’s size, range, payload — and stealth — is what makes this possible.
It is suggested the J-20s radar profile would make it an invisible interceptor — dashing out unseen to shoot down opposing aircraft.
But it would be another matter against ships, such as the US Navy’s carrier strike groups. The J-20 would possibly be able to dash into strike range largely unseen before unleashing its unseen missiles.
This is a nightmare scenario for the United States Air Force and Navy, both of which rely heavily on extensive support from its limited fleet of tankers and radar aircraft to enable its aircraft to reach their targets. And US aircraft carriers must already sail dangerously close to hostile shores for their aircraft to be effective.
But the J-20 would likely have only a limited ability to penetrate deep within hostile territory, before sensors detect its vulnerable sides and rear.
“Many details regarding the J-20 remain unknown,” the CSIS report observes.