February 18, 2011

Flight of the Dragon: China’s First Stealth Aircraft is Ready

(India Strategic) New Delhi. Keeping in tune with its much-debated and controversial military modernisation programme, China has rolled out its first J-20 radarevading stealth fighter in early January 2011. The J-20 took its maiden flight over Chengdu in southwest China. In fact, Beijing appears to have made it a point to announce the arrival of the J-20 with images of the stealth fighter on the tarmac at an airfield near Chengdu widely in circulation since December 2010.

  In continuance, the launch of the J-20 overlapped with the arrival of US Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, to China. Whether or not this was mere coincidence or a purported Chinese strategy, is something that can be debated upon. China’s military modernisation campaign has caused considerable ripples not just within Asia, but beyond.
Taking note of the latest Chinese action, Gates chose to express concern regarding the larger issue of China’s military modernisation programme and that the new stealth fighter was part of that campaign. Even though the J-20 would invariably draw comparison to US Pentagon’s F-22 Raptor, or the F 35 under development, Beijing still has a long way to go before it could match up to the F-22 in terms of capability and numbers. It is speculated that in any case, it could be a decade or more before Beijing could begin rolling out J-20s in sufficient numbers.
The issue is not the size and thrust of the aircraft, but how to hide the engine’s heat signatures and the aircraft’s exhaust.
Notwithstanding the technology levels though, Gates stated, "They clearly have potential to put some of our capabilities at risk.”
While addressing a Joint Press Conference with General Liang Guanglie in Beijing, on January 10, 2011, Secretary Gates commented upon the importance of maintaining an ongoing military-to-military dialogue between the United States and the PRC. Mechanisms such as the Defense Consultative Talks, the Defense Policy Coordination Talks, and the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement could serve as important channels of communication in this regard.
In line with this thought, Secretary Gates was provided a rare view of China’s nuclear and missile arsenal with a trip to the Second Artillery Corps of the PLA headquarters Stressing that exchanges such as these would help in building trust, Guan Youfei, Deputy Chief of the Defence Ministry’s Foreign Affairs Office stated, “We believe exchanges with the US in all kinds of fields are beneficial."
China has often justified its military modernisation campaign as a reasonable chain of actions undertaken to update antiquated weapons systems and equipment and thus rationalise an outdated military structure. These significantly include potentially offensive weapons such as aircraft carriers, anti-ship missiles, and stealth fighters—projected primarily to enforce Chinese claims vis-à-vis Taiwan.
The policy makers in China have frequently noted its history of vulnerability to external aggression as a reference point. At the same time, they have also expressed commitment to a ‘defensive posture’ to ensure the protection of its national sovereignty and territorial integrity.
In so far as the PLA Air Force is concerned, it aims to convert from a limited territorial defence force to a more flexible and agile force which will be able to operate off-shore in both offensive and defensive roles— the PLA Air Force has freshly inducted J-10 and J-11 fighters. The PLAAF is focusing on areas which include strike, air and missile defence, early warning and reconnaissance, and strategic mobility. The PLAAF also plays a crucial role in what is described as the ‘joint anti-air raid’ campaign—constituting the basis for Chinese anti-access and areadenial operations. In the context of China’s ‘active defence’ military strategy, though the joint anti-air raid campaign is strategically defensive in nature, it calls for attacks against adversary bases and naval forces at the operational and tactical level.
China’s J-20 gives the impression of an approximately 70+ feet aircraft. According to Rob Hewson at Jane's Intelligence, it has been reported that Russia has supplied 32,000-pound thrust 117S engines for the J-20, which would be adequate for an aircraft in the 80,000 pound class. This in turn would sum up to lower super cruise performance and agility as compared to the F-22 Raptor. However, the aircraft would have larger weapon bays and more fuel.
The J-20 is a fighter more than a bomber. The size of the J-20 has fuelled speculation that it is optimized for fast, high-altitude interception using long-range missiles. Stealth aircraft use stealth technology to obstruct radar detection by means of employing a combination of features to diminish visibility in the infrared, visual, audio, and radio frequency spectra. Although no aircraft can be totally invisible to radar, stealth aircraft prevent conventional radar from detecting or tracking the aircraft effectively, thereby reducing the odds of an attack. It is not the size but the shape that matters.
A startling aspect regarding rolling out of the J-20 came in that intelligence agencies in the West could not really keep tab and the radar-evading fighter came in much earlier than was being projected. China did not officially announce the maiden flight of the J-20, however, it certainly goes without saying that official approval was granted given that videos and pictures of the runway tests of its prototype stealth fighter were taken and widely distributed.
In what could be interpreted as a disconnect between China’s internal policy making and issues of transparency, especially on matters military, the nature and existential equations of Chinese civil-military dynamic have raised eyebrows again.
Gates called for China’s military to communicate better with its civilian leaders, thus underscoring the questions as to who actually wields greater control in China.
That the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) remains firmly in control of the PLA, is something that is broadly believed. The recent Chinese actions, such as the decision to refuse US Navy port calls to Hong Kong in November 2007—continue to raise fundamental questions about how national security issues are coordinated in Beijing and the degree of authority the PLA may or may not have to take unilateral action that affects larger Chinese national security or foreign relations.
Notably, a conspicuous omission in the White Paper was the failure by the PRC to comment on the ASAT test of January 2007—an aggressive demonstration of its technological prowess. Furthermore, China's ASAT test saw the PRC’s Foreign Ministry being ill-equipped to comment upon the event in front of the international community.
However, according to BBC News reports, Xi Jinping, who is projected as President Hu Jintao's successor, and currently the Vice President of the PRC, member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CCP Central Committee and Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission, visited Chengdu around the period when the J-20 was set for its trial run.
While breaking free from the manacles of what the Chinese term as their ‘Century of Shame’, the outlook of the political and military elites in China has been shaped with a view to build their nation towards achieving comprehensive large-scale military reach and further cement its position as a global power. Therefore, the latest J-20 induction makes it even more imperative so as to disseminate military information, given that Chinese military sophistication and its ensuing lack of transparency is growing and could well have a spillover effect in Asia.
The author is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi. She is also the author of two books namely, “China’s Military and Its Strategy” (forthcoming in 2011) and “Chinese WMD Proliferation in Asia: U.S. Response.” (2009)

1 comment:

  1. Because of China's inability to make a reliable high thrust engine I believe that the J-20 will not be operational until at least 2020 by which time the the Raptor will have undergone several modifications as well as the F-35 lemon may by that time be operational WITH A BIT OF LUCK.