The Chinese J-20 stealth fighter during one of its first flights in 2011. Photo credit: Dr Carlo Kopp, AirPowerAustralia.
When the Chinese J-20 (J-XX, XX-J) fighter first flew in January 2011 – during then Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s visit in China – Western “analysts” and defense bureaucrats, including Gates himself, dismissed that aircraft as a non-threat. They claimed it would not be a threat, was not a surprise to the US, and would not enter service until the late 2010s or even the early 2020s.
But they were wrong then, and they are wrong now. Back then, credible analysts such as IASC’s Richard Fisher and AirPowerAustralia’s Dr Carlo Kopp and Chris Mills warned that the J-20 was a very low observable (i.e. extremely hard to detect) plane, owing to its designers’ strict adherence to the rules of designing stealth aircraft; and that further, the aircraft, owing to its large size, would be able to carry a very large fuel and weapon load and thus carry out air superiority and theater strike missions throughout the First and Second Island Chain in Asia – that is, as far as Guam and the Marianas (with aerial refueling).
It is this second camp, of those who were very concerned about the J-20 threat, who have been proven right.
By now, three years after it first flew, the J-20 has been developed into an even deadlier, more survivable fighting machine.
Newer radar-absorbing coating has been applied, and engine exhaust nozzles have been hidden, to reduce the J-20’s already small radar signature even further, thus making it virtually undetectable by radar. New, more powerful and more reliable engines, have been added. And most worrisome, an electro-optical targeting system – stolen from the F-35 program, whose computers were hacked and designs stolen in 2007 by Chinese military hackers – has been added, giving the J-20 a new, powerful sensor.
This was made possible by a theft of F-35 technology from Lockheed Martin and DOD networks by Chinese hackers. The most serious attacks of this type, compromising the F-35 along with dozens of other top-drawer US weapon systems, occurred in 2007 and 2013. Crucial missile defense systems, such as the THAAD and the PATRIOT, have also been compromised, which will enable the Chinese to defeat these systems. The Washington Free Beacon‘s Bill Gertz has documented this theft meticoulously here.
However, the J-20 will be far, far more capable than the F-35, and a serious rival for the F-22. It will have a max speed well in excess of Mach 2, have a ceiling of up to 65,000 feet, have a low wing loading ratio, a high thrust/weight ratio, and will be able to carry large weapon and fuel loads. Thus, it will be something the DOD has long dreamed about – a high-speed, high-altitude, maneuverable fighter which will also serve quite ably as a theater strike jet (a la the F-111 Aardvrark) at thousand-mile ranges.
- National Air Defense: In this role, the J-20, having access to dozens of semi- or fully hardened, and a number of super-hardened, airbases throughout China would defend the country’s airspace, intercepting nonstealthy US aircraft and cruise missiles like the JASSM and the Tomahawk.
- Expeditionary Air Superiority: In this role, the J-20 would gain air superiority over foreign air forces in the skies above foreign countries (e.g. Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan) and contested territories (e.g. the Senkaku and Spratly Islands) in the early hours and days of a conflict, allowing the PLA to operate in the warzone freely.
- Expeditionary Theater Strike: In such a role, the J-20 would serve as a one-for-one equivalent of the proposed FB-22 stealthy theater attack jet, i.e. as a stealthy regional striker designed to surpress enemy air defenses and destroy an opponent’s vital assets. US and allied airbases, naval stations, supply depots, command centers, and ground bases would all be targets for the J-20.
- Electronic Warfare Aircraft: In this role, the J-20 would jam and defeat the radars of an opponent’s aircraft, ships, and ground air defense systems in a manner similar to that of the EF-111 Raven, the EA-6B Prowler, and the EA-18G Growler, but with a huge range and endurance the latter two aircraft lack, and with stealthiness that all three of those aircraft lack.
- Long Range Reconnaissance/Intelligence Aircraft: In this role, the J-20 would be used to collect radar, imagery and electronic intelligence, emulating aircraft such as the RF-111C/D, the RF-4, the RA-5C, and F-14 TARPS but with the advantages of a) range and endurance (lacked by the latter three aircraft types) and b) stealthiness (lacked by all of these legacy aircraft types).
- Anti-Satellite Weapon Launcher: The J-20 could also be used to launch anti-satellite missiles to loft them into the Low-Earth Orbit and kill US satellites there. Aircraft can be used for this purpose – the USAF experimented with such missiles in the 1980s under the Reagan administration; however, since then, the USAF’s ASAT weapon program has been killed.
A “standard” multirole variant of the J-20 could execute the first three missions easily. The latter three could be easily performed by specialized variants. Such variants could be developed on the J-20’s basis easily, with only slight modifications to the aircraft’s design, as was done with the F-111 and the F-4, both of which have spawned several different designs.
So the J-20 will be capable of executing all the above missions, although some of these will be performed by specialized variants into which the J-20 will certainly evolve.
But its primary mission will likely be that of delivering air superiority – in Chinese as well as foreign airspace. That being said, what aircraft does the US have at its disposal to stop this highly capable Chinese fifth generation fighter (and its smaller 5th generation cousin, the J-31)?
The only Western (not just American – WESTERN) aircraft capable of competing with and defeating the J-20 is the F-22 Raptor, or to be more precise, evolved and enhanced variants of the existing model of this aircraft.
The F/A-18E/F Super Bug is not, has never been, and will never be even close to competitive with the J-20. Designed and built as a naval strike jet, it is too heavy and sluggish, too slow, too low flying, and armed with too weak a radar to compete with the Chengdu stealth fighter.
The F-16 and the Eurocanards (the Typhoon, the Rafale, the Gripen) will be totally outclassed by the Chengdu aircraft, being too slow, too low-flying, and in the F-16’s and the Gripen’s case, equipped with pathetically weak radars.
The F-35 will be similarly so outclassed… assuming, of course, that this failed project even progresses to any kind of large-scale production and operational status.
Which is a big if. For the F-35 program has seen such dramatic cost overruns, delays, and design flaws being uncovered, that this utterly failed, budget-busting aircraft will not enter service for many years, if ever.
But even if it suffered no cost overrun or delay, even if it entered service tomorrow, it would STILL be decisively inferior to the J-20, the J-31, the Flanker family, the J-10, and even obsolete, third-generation Chinese fighters like the J-7 and the J-8.
The F-35 Junk Strike Fighter is a heavy, sluggish, unmaneuverable, underpowered, and underarmed flying pig which is decisively inferior to virtually all other fighters in the world – those in service and those in development – contrary to the gloating Lockheed Martin paid propaganda being spewed by 60 Minutes.
That ridiculous programme – which routinely spews garbage nonsense on military (and nonmilitary) affairs – recently hailed the F-35 as exactly the right aircraft for the military, which, we are told, will utterly defeat the Chinese and the Russians in any air war with them.
But 60 Minutes is dead wrong. It will be the F-35 that will be utterly defeated in a future air war with the Chinese or the Russian air force.
Because the F-35 is decisively inferior to all fighters operated or being developed by Beijing and Moscow (as well as the Typhoon, the Rafale, the Gripen, and legacy US fighters such as the F-15 and the F-16).
And how is it inferior?
In the Beyond Visual Range (BVR), i.e. long-range, combat regime the F-35 cannot fly fast enough or high enough to propel its missiles beyond their nominal range. It can eke out only Mach 1.61 and climb to no more than 43,000 feet. (Lockheed Martin claims its ceiling is actually 60,000 feet, but the F-35 has never been tested at that altitude; and even if it were, that is still a lot less than what Russian and Chinese fighters, as well as the F-15 and the F-22, can perform.)
By contrast, the F-15, F-22, and the PAK FA can fly as high as 65,000 feet; the J-11 Sinoflanker and the Su-27 at up to 62,523 feet; the carrier-capable J-15 Flying Shark, at up to 65,700 feet; the MiG-31 high-altitude fast interceptor can climb even higher, to 67,700 ft!
As for speed, the MiG-31 again beats all other contestants, as it can fly at up to Mach 2.83 (nearly three times the speed of sound) at high altitudes; the F-15 at Mach 2.5; the carrier-capable J-15 at Mach 2.4; the Su-27, MiG-35 and J-11 at Mach 2.35; the Su-35 and the MiG-29 at Mach 2.25; the J-7 and the Su-30MKK at Mach 2.0.
In addition, the F-35 is stealthy only from the front and only in the S, X, and Ku radar bands. In any other radar band, such as the L-band or Very High Frequencies (at which most Chinese AWACS aircraft operate), the F-35 can be detected just as easily as legacy aircraft.
To make matters worse, the F-35 can carry only four air-to-air missiles in its stealthy mode. That’s the maximum it can carry in its internal weapon bays (thus enabling it to be somewhat stealthy). Add any external stores to it – missiles, bombs, or fuel tanks – and it becomes even more radar-transparent than it already is.
This will force F-35 operators into a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” choice:
a) Use the limited space in the internal weapon bay of the F-35 solely for long-range AMRAAM missiles, thus not taking any short-range, infrared-guided Sidewinder missiles and forcing the F-35’s pilot to rely solely on his 20 mm gun in close-range combat (in which F-35 is also decisively inferior – see below); or
b) Take a combination of AMRAAMs and Sidewinders into the bay (say, two of each), bearing in mind the fact that the AMRAAM has a less than 25% effectiveness rate (Probability of Kill), so you need four AMRAAMs just to shoot down one hostile aircraft.
In short, the F-35 is a non-player in the BVR combat regime.
In short-range (Within Visual Range) combat, the F-35 will be similarly so outclassed by foreign fighters. In this type of combat, the most important factor is an aircraft’s agility and maneuverability – how easily and how quickly can the aircraft turn and evade enemy fire. That determines whether the aircraft will be a constantly ducking, turning, running-away player or a straight, level-flying target.
And the F-35 will certainly be the latter.
For it is so heavy and sluggish that even without weapons, it cannot turn smoothly.
Its wing loading ratio (the burden that the aircraft’s wings must carry) is a horribly high 529 kgs/sq m. That is, every square meter of its wings has to carry a burden of more than half a ton!
All of its competitors have a much lower wing loading ratio. For example, the lightweight J-10B has a wing loading ratio of just 381 kg/sq m, while the J-11 and the Su-27 have an even lower one at 371 kg/sq m. Similarly, typical USAF air superiority fighters also have low wing loading ratios: the F-22’s is just 375 kg/sq m, while the F-15’s is even less at ust 358 kg/sq m!
Thus, in any close-range air combat, which is by far the most frequent type of air warfare, the F-35 would be easily out-turned, out-maneuvered, out-flown, and shot down by Russian and Chinese aircraft, be they J-10s, J-11s, Su-27s, Su-30s, or J-7s.
As Dr John Stillion and Scott Perdue – both veteran USAF pilots – rightly wrote in 2008, the F-35 is “double inferior. (…) Can’t climb, can’t turn, can’t run.”
“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.
The extant IADS technology base of the US Army and Navy and their sister services in Pacific Rim allied nations will be largely ineffective, requiring the replacement of most if not all acquisition radars with VHF-band AESA technology replacements designed to defeat S/X/Ku-band stealth capabilities.
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.
The material reality is simple. If the United States does not reverse course in its tactical air fleet and air defence recapitalisation planning, the United States will lose the Pacific Rim to China, with all of the practical and grand strategic consequences which follow from that.”
As WGCDR Mills rightly wrote, Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s decision to kill the F-22 Raptor’s production at just 183 aircraft in 2009 was an utterly foolish and suicidal mistake.
That mistake MUST be reversed IMMEDIATELY.