By Taylor Marvin
First off sorry for the long break. I hope that everyone had a good time over the holidays, and students enjoyed their time off!
From Danger Room, somewhat credible photos have surfaced of a development prototype of China’s advanced stealth fighter-bomber effort, the J-20. As Bill Sweetman points out, this aircraft is large, with ample internal space for the large fuel requirement for long range naval operations. This hints at the aircraft’s likely intended role- the main sphere of China’s strategic interest is the Pacific, and with China’s limited naval aviation and arial refueling assets long-ranged naval patrols require an aircraft with sufficient range to operate from shore bases. This is particularly interesting when combined with China’s carrier ambition. China seems to have recently embarked on concrete steps to acquire at least one nuclear aircraft carrier this decade, and it’s easy to speculate on the long-range, large-winged J-20’s potential as an eventual naval fighter. There are good reasons to doubt this- it would be much cheaper for the Chinese to purchase Su-33 naval fighters the Russians are eager to export. However fielding a domestic stealthy fighter would offer a substantial lure to Chinese military decision makers.
However, this aircraft really isn’t a reason for the US or its allies in the Pacific to be alarmed. Developing a modern fighter aircraft takes decades and almost unimaginable funding- it’s important to remember that the US’s modern F-22 was designed to confront the Soviets and first flew decades ago. Despite the Chinese government’s vast financial resources and ability for focused efforts in a way only an authoritarian government can it’s also worth noting that it lacks much of the experience running large defense acquisition programs that are second nature to the US. In short squadrons of J-20s are at least a decade off, and only if the program can build and maintain the momentum to be successful at all. While the Chinese government, with its long leadership tenures and single party, is probably better suited to keeping decades long programs running than America’s democratic, fractured government there’s still a decent chance that a risky, ambitious domestic program like this might eventually be phased out in favor of purchasing proven, if less capable, existing Russian aircraft.
Additionally the J-20, or at least this version of it, isn’t really comparable with the F-22. It appears that its designers made a deliberate choice to sacrifice cutting edge stealth for more proven, simpler features. The round exhaust nozzles, visible in the top photo, aren’t stealthy features but do hint at greater maneuverability than the F-22’s angular and very stealthy exhaust design.
Additionally the canards clearly visible in the above image probably aren’t stealthy at all. However the aircraft’s angled forebody and likely internal weapons storage and large internal fuel capacity are stealthy features. There also seems to be a fuselage bulge located in front of the intakes, visible in the above photo, a stealthy feature found the cutting edge F-35. These compromise between bleeding-edge stealth and practicality seems to hint at the J-20s potential to be a production machine. Instead of dreaming up something too advanced to ever be produced the prototype’s designers seem to have stuck to a design that China’s industrial capacity has some chance of producing in the next decade. Overall these features hint at an aircraft more comparable to a larger F-35 than F-22 and optimized as a multirole rather than pure air-superiority machine. This makes sense. Given how unsustainably high the cost of modern combat aircraft have risen the F-22 is likely the last purely air-to-air maned machine we’re going to see- single role aircraft are just too expensive to be practical even for the US. Ultimately it’s too early to speculate if this version of the J-20 will ever grow into a production aircraft, and what its impact could be on the balance of power in the Pacific and Chinese-American relations. However it does hint at just how seriously Chinese leaders take their global power ambitions and ability to plan for the long game.