Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Game Changer?

China's J-20 stealth fighter, shortly after its roll-out last month. The aircraft conducted its first test flight today, a snub (apparently) aimed at visiting Defense Secretary Robert Gates (The Diplomat photo)

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is in China, hoping to better military relations between Beijing and Washington, and improve cooperation on issues of mutual concern (read: North Korea).

But elements within the PRC government indicate they have no desire for closer ties. As Dr. Gates made the rounds in China, his hosts (or more correctly, officers working for his hosts) staged a little snub for their guest, conducting a flight test of the new J-20 stealth fighter. More from the Los Angeles Times:

China's military conducted the first flight test of an experimental stealth fighter Tuesday, apparently without informing the country's civilian leadership in advance and only hours before Secretary Gates met with the Chinese president to discuss improving military ties.


When Gates mentioned the test in an afternoon meeting with President Hu Jintao at the Great Hall of the People, it was initially clear that neither Hu nor any of the other Chinese civilian officials present were aware that it had occurred, according to a senior U.S. Defense Department official.

After confirming the test flight, Hu told Gates that it was not timed to coincide with his visit.

"He said that the test had absolutely nothing to do with my visit and had been a pre-planned test, and that's where we left it," Gates told reporters shortly after the meeting. Gates added that he "takes President Hu at his word.

If you believe the Chinese leader had no advance knowledge of the test, we've got a bridge in Brooklyn you might be interested in. The J-20 represents China's arrival in a very exclusive club: the handful of nations capable of developing--and building--a low-observable aircraft. President Hu might not have known the schedule takeoff and landing times (plausible denial), but rest assured, he knew the event was planned for today.

And flight testing of the J-20 during Dr. Gates's visit was no coincidence, either. You don't need to be a Far East scholar to understand that China was demonstrating its military and technological prowess for the visiting SecDef. Just two decades ago, the "cutting edge" of PRC military aviation was defined by clones of Soviet aircraft like the F-7. Fifteen years ago, Beijing was humiliated when a U.S. carrier battle group steamed through the Taiwan Strait during a period of heightened tensions between Taipei and Beijing. China took a hard look at its military inventory and capabilities and decided to close the gap.

Since then, the PRC has made amazing progress. The PLA has more than 1,000 short and medium-range missiles aimed at the island, and they've fielded a new missile capable of targeting our carrier battle groups at sea. China's Air Force has also been modernized, with the purchase (and co-production) of advanced, multi-role SU-3o Flanker fighter jets. And, with the development of the J-20, China can challenge U.S. supremacy in stealth, an arena where we've had a monopoly since the days of "Have Blue."

From Beijing's perspective, there is an on-going shift of military power in the Far East, symbolized by the J-20. No wonder the jet's late December roll-out was accompanied by quickly-leaked photos of the aircraft. While the J-20 won't be operational for another 7-8 years, it represents a potential game-changer in the region, since Beijing will (likely) produce scores of the new aircraft--far more than the 187 F-22s in the USAF inventory--and possibly export the new stealth jet as well.

But is the J-20 everything it's cracked up to be? In the current issue of The Diplomat, David Axe offers one of the best assessments of the new stealth fighter and what it means, in terms of the regional military balance:

When it comes to the J-20, the outside world only knows what it can infer from about a dozen blurry photographs snapped from outside the Chengdu fence-line by Chinese aviation enthusiasts. In aggregate, the new fighter seems to be modestly stealthy and optimized for high-altitude flying and long range. By contrast, Western stealth fighters are generally tailored for radar-evasion at the expense of other qualities; Russian models, meanwhile, have tended to emphasize range, speed and heavy weapon loads.

The J-20 appears to be large. Using for scale nearby ground vehicles in some of the snapshots, Sweetman estimated the J-20’s overall length at around 70 feet. This is big for a fighter. Russia’s Sukhoi T-50—a prototype that first flew in early 2010 and could form the basis of new, operational long-range fighters for both Russia and India over the coming decade—is 66 feet long. The American F-22 and F-35, both built by Lockheed Martin, are just 60 and 50 feet long, respectively.

Size places other characteristics in context. Most current fighters are capable of attacking targets in the air and on the ground, but the design process tends to emphasize one of those roles over the other, depending on the customer’s needs. The F-22, for instance, is primarily an air-to-air killer. For that reason, the F-22 is designed to be fast, high-flying and manoeuvrable. The follow-on F-35 is a bomber first and dogfighter second, so it trades some speed and manoeuvrability for payload and range. While sluggish compared with the F-22, the F-35 carries more bombs over longer range, despite its smaller overall size.

The F-22-F-35 comparison aside, the bigger a fighter is, the more likely it is to be designed primarily for ground-attack.

Quoting veteran aviation writer Bill Sweetman (who describes the over-sized J-20 as a 'stealth F-111), Mr. Axe notes that the front of the Chinese jet is very stealthy, but its hardly a LO design from the rear. That means its is vulnerable to radar detection from that quadrant, something that is hardly desirable in a "massive furball" situation (think Day One over the Taiwan Strait). But, if you're more concerned about delivering munitions against relatively static ground targets (with marginal abilities to detect LO threats), then the Chinese design is quite acceptable.

Axe also observes that versions of the J-20 seen so far are equipped with canards. Those small winglet devices ahead of the main wing increase a jet's maneuverability at slow speeds, but they also significantly increase the aircraft's radar cross-section--hardly desirable in a "true" stealth aircraft.

The J-20 has other issues as well. The variant that flew today was powered by a pair of advanced Russian engines because China (so far) has been unable to master the sophisticated power plant technology associated with stealth jets. There is also the question of how many J-20s will eventually enter service with the PLAAF (People's Liberation Army Air Force). Some analysts believe the number will be fairly small--well below the combined F-22 and F-35 inventories of the U.S. and its allies in the Pacific. Indeed, Flanker variants are expected to remain China's primary combat jet for the rest of this decade and beyond.

Finally, there's the matter of tactical employment. Many believe that nations like India and China have closed the "tactics gap" based on the 2004 Cope India deployment, when IAF Flankers "defeated" USAF F-15s during joint training exercises. Mr. Axe correctly observes that the outcome wasn't as clear-cut as it might have seemed. American pilots flew under severe ROEs that limited the effectiveness of their aircraft and weaponry, while the Indian Air Force had no such restrictions. Many have suggested that the "exercise" was part of a larger effort to secure funding for the F-22 program. If that was the larger goal, it certainly worked.

Have China's pilots mastered the advanced tactics that optimize a stealth jet's employment? That remains to be seen. It's worth remembering that early PLAFF squadrons operating the Flanker flew them much like the F-7s (or other aircraft) previously assigned to those units. Old habits die hard, and by some estimates, it takes 20 years for an air force to thoroughly integrate modern tactics into its arsenal. By all estimates, China is still in the transition process.

One of the better cautionary notes in The Diplomat article comes from Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group. As he told a defense publication several months ago, a modern fighter aircraft needs at least eleven support systems to be effective:

[including but not limited to] sound mission planning, a talented and disciplined pilot, good maintenance personnel on the ground, accurate weapons, an advanced radar and other electronic systems inside the aircraft plus ‘off-board’ radar detection provided by purpose-built command-and-control planes and the reliable ministration of an aerial tanker.

Of all the systems required by a modern fighter, Beijing has mastered just one, Aboulafia said—and that’s the airplane’s physical structure itself, minus the engines.

In other words, China is still a long ways from claiming absolute air supremacy over east Asia. There's no assurance that Beijing will ever reach that goal, but it would be equally foolish to bet against the Chinese. Twenty-five years ago, we were introducing modern avionics to the Chinese, through the Peace Pearl program (which was eventually cancelled). Today, the PRC is producing a true, fifth-generation, low-observable fighter jet.

The J-20 may not be the ultimate game changer (as some claim), but it is a very important technological leap, setting the stage for even more advanced Chinese manned (and unmanned) aircraft in the future.


Ed Rasimus said...

I thought I was going to have to drop by and straighten you out about stealth fighters. But, you've hit the nail squarely on the head. The demo makes a political statement but the capability quotient is very low at this point. Regardless, the resources which China can bring to bear mean that shortfall might be addressed quickly.

If anyone is still asking "who will the Raptors need to fight?" I've got an answer.

PCSSEPA said...

You have to ask yourself how much of the technology that they used did we sell to them or they stole from us. Clinton's administration gave them advanced satellite technology in exchange for monetary donations. Looks a lot like the F-22 except for the canards.