J-20 Watch, Cont.
By Taylor Marvin
Barron’s has an article on Chinese military modernization efforts by that takes a very paranoid view of the J-20:
“Highlighting one of the fastest military buildups in history was China’s debut of its stealth jet just hours before the January visit to Beijing by outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The fighter will rival the U.S.’s F-22 Raptor, the world’s only operational stealth fighter. Larger than the F-22, with bigger fuel tanks, it will fly higher, faster and with less chance of detection. It’s one of many Chinese weapons that will impede the U.S. military’s ability to roam freely in the region.”
China didn’t debut a stealth jet in January, it debuted a stealth jet prototype. There’s an important distinction. The development cycles for modern combat aircraft are measured in decades, and even if the Chinese are able to field a operation aircraft derived from the J-20 it likely won’t be before the late 2010s at the earliest. We have no idea how similar an eventual operational J-20 variant will be to the J-20 we’ve seen, which makes speculating about its capabilities difficult.
Similarly, while the J-20 is much bigger than the F-22, this is more of a deliberate design choice that reflects the J-20’s likely intended mission rather than a straight advantage over the F-22. Bigger combat aircraft can hold more internal fuel and boast a longer range and heavier warload, but typically are less maneuverable. What we’ve seen of the J-20 seems to support this theory. Its large internal fuel volume and roomy internal weapons bays seem to indicate that an eventual operational J-20 would serve in the long-range interception role, possibly against US or allied surface ships, features that China’s coastal geography and the PLAAF’s lack of tankers necessitate in this mission.
The rapid modernization of the PLAAF will certainly impede the US military’s ability to operate in the western Pacific. However, Barron’s hugely overestimates the threat posed by the J-20. The assertion that the J-20 is stealthier than the F-22 is completely unsupported, and very unlikely. The designers of the J-20 prototype we’ve observed seem to have focused most of their stealthing efforts on the aircraft’s front half, and the tail and round exhausts of the J-20 are likely highly detectable. The J-20 does appear very stealthy when viewed from the front, and this suggests that when faced with a choice between stealth and affordability the PLAAF has focused on minimizing the J-20’s detectability by fixed radars. This supports the idea that the J-20 is primarily a strike and interception aircraft, a mission completely distinct from the all-around stealthy F-22. The J-20 is a major step forward by the PLA, and an eventual operational variant will likely significantly enhance the capabilities of the PLAAF. However, depicting it as an immediate threat is an overreaction, and China’s lack of experience operating world-class combat aircraft will likely decrease the operational effectiveness of any Chinese fifth generation fighter that actually emerges from this program, if any. China’s on its way to a more capable military. But any examination of just how difficult it is to run advanced aircraft development programs on time and on budget suggest that the Chinese will have a difficult time adopting the J-20 for operational service.
Note: Previous Prospect coverage of the J-20: