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In the Media

article imageOp-Ed: China’s J20 fighter, or how rumors become facts

By Paul Wallis
Jan 5, 2011 in Technology
The defence media have been speculating perhaps beyond any useful point about the sudden emergence into the visibility of China’s new Chengdu J20 stealth fighter. The rumor mill got it right, for once. Or has it? Skepticism has a place in this debate.
Previously, it’d been a joke, there were so many theories and pictures of “Chinese stealth fighters”.
For ages, now, even the photo evidence has been debated. Some people were saying that pictures of the J20 were basically Photoshop jobs. The “official” J20 isn’t getting a lot of traction in terms of shock and awe, either. It is, in fact, one of the rumored planes, and it is from ages ago. That’s a problem in more ways than one, because this particular plane has been around for a long time online. Too long, in fact, and the online assumption of infallibility is looking about as reliable as ever in terms of judging real issues.
There are plenty of issues, too, not least of which is the fact that the technology is out of whack with a lot of major operational situations and problems. The J20 is a surprisingly large plane. It’s considerably bigger than the US F22 Raptor and heavier than the Russian T50. Current consensus is that it’s designed to carry more firepower and fly longer. The response to the actual plane has been dismissive. The US doesn’t seem impressed with the J20, and doesn’t consider it a match for F22, either technologically or in terms of combat abilities.
There’s a good reason for this apparent complacency. J20 is carrying a lot of conceptual baggage, if the information about it is correct. That’s also highly debatable, because duplications between some articles and Wikipedia is pretty obvious.
The layout is a swept cutaway design, with very high powered Russian engines which are universally described as suitable for the “80,000 lb class”. The stealth component is a combination of cut and signal-splitter configuration similar in some respects to the T50 and others. The plane has forward canards, (the forward fins) an aerodynamic option for creating lift, related to particular flying modes, and not particularly stealthy in some ways.
Now the sting- According to sources, J20 also hasn’t had a test flight at this point. It’s basically a showroom model. The plane hasn’t actually done a damn thing yet. That hasn’t exactly impressed the defence community either, which seems to be at pains to belabor defects on this fledgling show pony. (It’s scheduled for flight tests in 2011, if that means anything.)
The US, of course, has another axe to grind. There’s also been considerable anger and frequent accusations of the PRC’s theft of technical information using cyberattacks. The Cold War logic, with or without a base, is in full swing. The US has also been battering away for years at China’s military programs, accusing the PRC of a major buildup.
Various sources cite a combination of the US, India and Japan as the perceived threats to China, etc. The actual strategic scenario required for that situation, typically, hasn’t been described. Nor has the PLAAF’s current situation in terms of logistic, inventory and needs apparently been considered in any depth.
Let’s start from the top:
The PLAAF currently has what could charitably be described as a menagerie of planes, including a supply of fossils which no Western air force would consider front line planes capable of operating against any modern opponent. There’s a number of new Sukhois as the best of the bunch, and a few F16/wannabe F18 equivalents, and that’s it. The “buildup” is basically a spring clean of obsolete systems with a few local policy initiatives.
The PLAAF needs better platforms capable of operating modern weapon systems.
PRC policy has always been local product for defence equipment.
The term “air superiority” for China, over its own space alone, means:
1. Covering a coast longer than the US west coast in multiple tactical and strategic environments.
2. Similar distances and situations around the inland borders.
3. Logistics to match those scenarios.
Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?
So- To do this job, would the PLAAF be naturally about to use a plane like the currently visible version of J20, which is at this stage a store dummy, and would be obsolete long before it entered service?
Known Chinese acquisitions of weapons systems and technology point to something far less theoretical than a display case fighter. The only working logic is that the current J20 model is a reasonable, not very informative, approximation of something that could carry those systems.
I saw the “rumored Chinese stealth fighter” ages ago, and this thing is essentially it. Why bother telling anyone anything, when the rumor mill has already provided the publicity? Add a bit of good CAD design, and you have a perfectly plausible, visible object to which no level of actual commitment is required.
This is a big plane, and that’s another giveaway. Russia’s T50 is a smaller plane, with far more power than it needs for its airframe, and lots of hard points. China couldn’t possibly be unaware of the design concept, which would actually suit the PLAAF far better than a sort of flying Clydesdale with a long logistic tail, big standoff weapons or not. F22 is a very high performance plane with a much simpler layout. If China were looking at air superiority, would it need to settle for something which couldn’t do the job, even on the drawing board?
J20, as it now seems to be, just doesn’t cut it as the last word on all these issues. This plane isn’t a solution to anything much. It’s highly improbable that the PLAAF is looking for purely expedient or cosmetic solutions to a real operational problem. Against 5th generation fighters, why would they want expensive cannon fodder when they can get better systems off the shelf? Why not just buy a few thousand Sukhois, or do a licensing deal with the Russians as they’ve done before?
A large number of new Sukhois would be a real threat. These planes have known logistic values, and would be very easy to incorporate into the PLAAF. They’d also get a lot of respect from the neighbors. For that sort of money and value, any prior friction about design theft would be studiously ignored by both sides.
Don’t be at all surprised to hear of:
1. A joint Russian/Chinese T50 program
2. Another Chinese design (of which there are several) miraculously becoming the frontline fighter.
3. A move to a fly by wire fighter, skipping the 4th generation stage entirely.
China has the money and the motivation to get what it wants, and if it wants the technical capacity, it can also get that. Those are the real issues, and they shouldn't be overlooked.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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