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Dismissing the Chinese fighter threat is dangerous and wrong

In January 2011, China first flew its first stealthy fighter, the J-20. Days before, Air Power Australia experts Dr Carlo Kopp and Peter Goonconducted a holistic technical analysis of it, followed by a more thorough techno-industrial-military-strategy analysis which assessed not only the J-20′s capabilities, but also its usefulness and potential missions in light of these capabilities. They concluded (emphasis added):

The Chengdu J-XX [J-20] thus represents a techno-strategic coup by China, and if deployed in large numbers in a mature configuration, a genuine strategic coup against the United States and its Pacific Rim allies. The development of the Chengdu J-XX [J-20] represents an excellent case study of a well thought out “symmetrical techno-strategic response” to the United States’ deployment of stealthy combat aircraft, which no differently to the United States’ play in the late Cold War and post Cold War period, elicits a disproportionate response in materiel investment to effectively counter.

The only US design with the kinematic performance, stealth performance and sensor capability to be able to confront the J-20 [J-XX] with viable combat lethality and survivability is the F-22A Raptor, or rather, evolved and enhanced variants of the existing configuration of this aircraft.

The US Navy F/A-18E/F Super Hornet is outclassed in every respect, and would be as ineffective against a mature J-XX [J-20] as it is against the F-22A Raptor.

All variants of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter would be equally so outclassed, assuming this failed project even progresses to any kind of actual production.

All US Air Force, US Navy and allied legacy fighters are outclassed in much the same manner, and are ineffective kinematically and in sensor capability against this class of threat system.

From the perspectives of both technological strategy and military grand strategy, the J-XX [J-20] is the final nail in the coffin of the utterly failed “Gates recapitalisation plan” for United States and allied tactical fighter fleets. Apologists for the “Gates fighter recapitalisation plan” will no doubt concoct a plethora of reasons as to why the J-XX [J-20] should be ignored, as they did exactly one year ago when the Russians unveiled the T-50 PAK-FA stealth fighter.

Those last words were prophetic.

Shortly after the J-20 first flew, a large group of pseudo-experts – some supporters of deep defense cuts with an agenda to deny and downplay threats to America, others being delusional megalomaniacs who don’t believe America could ever lose its military edge to other countries – began an unyielding spin campaign (which continues to this day) of downplaying the J-20′s capabilities, utility, impact, and prospects for production, and thus downplaying it as a threat to US air superiority.

But in doing so, they displayed their ignorance of defense issues, including the facts about the J-20. So, using Kopp’s and Goon’s work as the primary source, I’ll state the facts here (in a condensed version compared to the lengthy analysis Kopp and Goon have written) and refute some of the false claims made by deniers to downplay the J-20.

What are the J-20′s characteristics?

Little is known for sure about the J-20 in open literature, but it is known that the J-20 is a 70 ft long, twin engined Mach 2 class capable aircraft with long wings, large weapon bays, and quite likely, a large fuel load and much room for capability growth. Moreover, as images and videos of it revealed, its designers followed all the cardinal rules of stealth design (including stealth shaping) – and, as experts like to say, stealthiness depends on “shaping, shaping, shaping, and materials”. There are no surfaces that allow an easy radar wave return, not even its canards, which improve its aerodynamic performance and make it even more efficient in supersonic flight than it would be without canards. It’s clear that the J-20 was designed in accordance with the stealth shaping rules employed by the Raptor’s designers.

What are its capabilities?

Based on what is known for sure and on the known capabilities and utilities of similar aircraft, the J-20 will be capable of a wide number of roles, including medium range bombing, long range interception, air superiority, escort of other aircraft, AWACS/tanker killing, long range recon, electronic attack, and anti-satellite attack. In other words, missions of which the F-15 and the F-22 are also capable (except EW, which they can’t do).

Basically, a fighter/attack jet with the fuel load, efficient engines and design, range, and payload as large as the J-20′s gives you the capability to strike a lot of targets out to the Second Island Chain and conduct the full range of the above-listed missions by virtue of that range and payload as well as the J-20′s stealthiness, albeit some of them, such as recon, would require a specialized variant.

What are the deniers’ claims?

The deniers claim, inter alia, that:

  1. The J-20 lacks engines sufficient to power this plane; Russian AL-31F engines, even their 117S variant, are insufficient, and the Chinese are not capable of producing sufficiently powerful engines themselves.
  2. The J-20′s canards are inconsistent with being stealthy (i.e. with a very low radar signature).
  3. The J-20 will be primarily a bomber, not a fighter.
  4. The J-20 is unlikely to enter service in the stated 2017-2019 timeframe because the F-22 took over 15 years to develop and field, and so will the F-35.
  5. It’s unlikely that more than a few hundred J-20s and more than a few hundred Sukhoi T-50 PAKFAs will be produced, while the US will, by the 2030s, have 2,600 F-22s and F-35s.
  6. The J-20 has traditional, round engine nozzles and no thrust vectoring places.
  7. The J-20 is 70 feet long, “big for a fighter”, claims defense issues ignoramus David Axe.
  8. Chinese fighters are low-grade copies of Russian fighters.

I’ll refute each of these false claims in turn:

  1. The J-20′s engines are sufficient to power this plane. How do we know? Because it already has flown multiple times and hasn’t crashed. It’s as simple as that. Moreover, the Russian AL-31F 117S engines (originally designed for, and used on, Su-35 fighters) that were probably supplied for it are sufficient to power it fully – just not to extract its full potential, as Kopp and Goon have stated. A single AL-41F117S engine provides 142 kN (31,900 lb) of thrust; since the J-20 is a twin-engine fighter, you can double that to 284 kN. But if you think that’s not enough thrust, fear not. Vladimir Putin, who seems to be hell-bent on harming the US in every we he can and to harbor irrational hatred toward America (he blames all of Russia’s problems on the US), will be quite happy to supply NPO Saturn (formerly Lyulka) AL-31F and AL-41F engines to the Chinese, who are now testing their own supersonic, thrust-vector-control WS-10G engine, and have pre-G variants of the WS-10 already in service on their J-10, J-11, and J-15 fighters*. By the time the J-20 enters service (2017-2019), the WS-10G will almost certainly be ready for use. A single WS-10G engine produces 155 kN (35,000 lb) of thrust; double that for a twin-engine fighter. (WS stands for Woshan, which simply means a “turbofan engine” in Chinese.)
  2. The J-20′s canards are not inconsistent with stealth performance, and neither is any part of the J-20′s planform. Moreover, the canards are only a stopgap measure used on J-20 prototypes and are unlikely to be used on final design aircraft.
  3. The J-20 will be every bit as much a fighter as it will be a bomber.  Its large size does not inhibit it in any way from being a capable fighter, and its large weapon and fuel loads will actually come in handy in A2A combat. They will also be useful for the interceptor role. The F-22 is a large fighter like the J-20, and larger than the F-35 – yet it’s the one optimised for air superiority, while the F-35 is optimised for ground attack.
  4. The long development time of the F-22 and the F-35 is the result of DOD bureaucracy, tons of overregulation, 40 committees setting (and changing) requirements, and, in the F-35′s case, misdesign and inefficiency of the US defense industry. The idea that China’s highly efficient defense industry is unable to quickly develop and produce next-gen weapons just because the US defense industry is so inefficient is absurd. Even Bill Sweetman admits that: “I would submit that the simplistic approach—comparing this aircraft to the YF-22 or X-35 and therefore projecting an (Initial Operating Capability) well beyond 2020—is philosophically wrong, dangerous and stupid.” Even David Axe admits that (and thus contradicts himself): “China has proved capable of producing new weapons quickly and in large numbers. Beijing’s Type 022 missile boat, designed for coordinated attacks on US aircraft carriers, first appeared in 2004. Just three years later, the Chinese navy possessed a whole flotilla of 40 Type 022s.”
  5. Any idea that the Chinese or the Russians, once they field their 5th generation stealth fighters, will suicidally stop producing them at a few hundred aircraft is absurd, ridiculous, foolish, and naive. The Russians, in fact, plan to produce hundreds of them, and India plans to produce further hundreds. China’s production figures are unknown, but Kopp and Goon – two credible analysts – say China will likely produce “hundreds”. Indeed, striking so many bases and shooting down so many aircraft in the Western Pacific will force China to produce many hundreds. Furthermore, the Air Force Association projects that the J-20 will be produced “in quantities rivalling F-35 production estimates.” China, India, and Russia can clearly afford to do so, because 1) in those countries, $1 can buy much more than in America; and 2) these 5th generation fighters will be relatively cheap, costing well below $100 mn per copy. Furthermore, both fighters will be exported and be available to anyone able to pay for them. Vietnam is likely to be the first non-Indian export customer. Meanwhile, what is America doing? It has killed the F-22 at just 187 aircraft. The F-35 has been delayed many times and won’t achieve IOC until the late 2010s – maybe 2016, maybe 2017, maybe 2018, maybe 2019, maybe never. The entire program may not survive the next few years (and will certainly be killed if sequestration goes through). Orders for it have been cut and may be cut further even if the program survives. Furthermore, America’s Pacific allies may withdraw from the F-35 program (if it isn’t killed), and they plan to procure no more than ~150 of them. (Only two are F-35 customers: Australia and Japan.) So it’s quite likely that when the PAKFA and the J-20 achieve IOC, America’s only 5th generation fighters will be its F-22s. Any projection of 2,600 fighters by the 2030s is wildly speculative and will likely be proven wrong.
  6. This is technically true, but only of the prototypes. It’s important to remember that the aircraft examples of the J-20 we’ve seen so far are prototypes, and that final design aircraft will likely have all of these problems solved. We should not delude ourselves that the Chinese won’t do that and don’t know about these issues.
  7. The J-20 is not too big for a fighter, although it is certainly large – about the size of an F-111. However, its size likely won’t prevent it from being a successful fighter; otherwise, the F-22 couldn’t be, as it is significantly larger than the F-35. The J-20′s size will likely be a strength, not a weakness: it will allow for a large fuel and weapon load, necessary for long range interception and air dominance missions, similar to an F-15, which has an unrefueled combat radius of 1,967 kms. The J-20 can serve as a long range interceptor, air superiority fighter, and theater strike aircraft without modifications, and its large size makes it “a natural candidate for lateral evolution” into the reconnaissance, electronic warfare, and ASAT missile-launching aircraft roles, as AirPowerAustralia rightly says.
  8. This is utterly false. Modern Chinese fighters are high-quality aircraft and are, in most respects, superior to the F-15, not to mention, of course, the F-16, the F/A-18 Bug, and the Super Bug. Once again, defense cutters are deluding the American people into a false sense of security. When the J-20 enters service, it will render every Western fighter except the F-22 and the F-35 irrelevant, impotent, and useless.

In sum, the deniers’ claims – like their other claims about the capabilities and weapons of America’s adversaries, also designed to downplay and deny threats to America – are a mixture of lies, speculations, rosy projections, delusions of grandeur and invincibility, and delusions of unchangeable inferiority of adversaries. During the Cold War, many people harbored similar views about the Soviets, claiming they were inferior people who couldn’t produce any high-quality weapons, even though they often designed and produced weapons superior to their American counterparts. Today, many people harbor similar views about the Chinese and the Russians, even though Chinese and Russian defense industries have already absorbed the most modern Western technology (freely available in this globalized economy) and have already produced high-quality weapons superior to their American counterparts.

David Axe mocks those of us who warn about the J-20 thus:

“(…) the Cope India incident marked the birth of a theme—that America could no longer reliably win battles in the sky.

It’s a theme that’s never fully faded. In the summer of 2009, Gates ordered the US Air Force to stop purchasing F-22s after the 187th copy, and instead channel funding into the planned fleet of 2,400 F-35s. This switch made the United States ‘less safe,’ in the words of Michael Goldfarb, a writer for the conservative Weekly Standard. ‘This is also a very good day for the ChiComs,’ Goldfarb wrote of the F-22’s termination, using a slang term for ‘Chinese Communist.’

Six months later, the T-50 flew for the first time. Once the plane is fully deployed in squadron strength, ‘the United States will no longer have the capability to rapidly impose air superiority, or possibly even achieve air superiority,’ Kopp and Goon wrote. Goldfarb, for his part, again declared the ‘end of air supremacy’ for the United States.

Yet a year later, the T-50 has flown only a few times and there are apparently no serious plans in place for mass production.”

Aside from the fact that there are plans for T-50 mass production in both Russia and India, with about 1000 aircraft to be ordered by those two countries alone, the fact is that the threat deniers have repeatedly been proven wrong, and they will likely be proven wrong again when the J-20 enters service; and the J-20 IS a gamechanger. The J-20 will, for the reasons stated here and here, be decisively superior to the F-35 and to all legacy aircraft, including the F-15, the F-16, the Bug, and the Super Bug.  So will the T-50. Thus, unless the US resumes the production of F-22s on a large scale, it WILL lose air superiority someday. So yes, killing the F-22 made the US less safe, and the day it happened was a good day for China and Russia. It’s no coincidence that the Kremlin’s propaganda network in the US, RussiaToday, hailed that decision and downplayed the J-20: the Russians gladly welcome everything that weakens America’s defense.

When you kill the weapon systems needed to win wars, that DOES weaken America’s defense, jeopardize US national security, and create the risk of losing wars – or, in fighters’ case, losing air superiority, which is the sine qua non of any successful war.

The fact is that Kopp, Goon, and Goldfarb were and are absolutely right, and the threat deniers are absolutely wrong. Instead of continuing to blather nonsense and further spout their ignorant garbage, they should stop pontificating on issues they know nothing about and admit they were wrong about the J-20 and the PAKFA.

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About Zbigniew Mazurak