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Posts tagged ‘F-22’

Is China Copying American Aircraft?

By Taylor Marvin

Image by goneless, via The Aviationist.

Last Thursday images and video surfaced online showing a test flight of China’s second stealth fighter aircraft, the Shenyang J-31. This is a significant achievement for Chinese military aviation, though it is unclear if the design will ever enter service or whether it is designed to complement or compete with China’s other stealthy design, the Chengdu J-20. Also unclear is how original the aircraft actually is: there has been widespread speculation that the J-31’s design — which is visually similar to Lockheed Martin’s F-22 and F-35 aircraft — is partially a product of knowledge stolen

At The Diplomat, Trefor Moss speculates that the J-31 is a wholesale copy of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, built from stolen Lockheed Martin blueprints. Moss goes so far as to term the J-31 as “essentially an American stealth fighter with Chinese paintwork”, and furiously argues that lax computer security has allowed the PRC to secure a stealth fighter for much less than America:

“Speculation aside, the reality is that the F-35 program is presently slated to cost $395.7 billion. China has probably spent less than 0.1% of that developing the Fake-35. Ladies and gentlemen, you’re looking at the biggest free ride in the history of national security.”

I don’t buy it. China certainly has taken advantage of lax US information security, but Moss underestimates just how difficult it is to simply copy an advanced aircraft design. While the J-31 is certainly visually similar to Lockheed Martin 5th generation fighters, consider the necessary differences between it and the F-22 and F-35: different engines, an entirely different structural layout from the single-engined, STOVL-benchmarked F-35 family, and differing internal systems. These changes are not trivial. Even if Shenyang engineers possessed detailed LockMart blueprints they wouldn’t be of much practical value when it comes to designing the J-31 — while a valuable benchmark, there are simply too many different major systems. As Feng recently wrote at Information Dissemination, “it’s very hard for me to believe that SAC can reproduce F-35 from stolen files without access to the same engines or the material or the complicated computer code that controls the whole aircraft.”

Convergent evolution often leads competing air forces towards visually similar aircraft created for the same mission. Take the F-111 and Su-24, for example. Both low-level strike aircraft, introduced in the late 1960s and early 1970s, respectively, look remarkably similar: both possess variable geometry (swing) wings, a tall single tailfin, and a side-by-side cockpit, rare for a tactical aircraft.

F-111. US Air Force photo, via Wikimedia.

Su-24M. Photo by Alexander Mishin, via Wikimedia.

The two aircrafts’ striking visual similarities led contemporary American observers to conclude that the Soviets had copied the F-111. Amusingly, as Greg Goebel notes in his excellent history of the Su-24, some Americans went so far as to be pleasantly surprised that the Soviets had tried to copy the then-notoriously troubled F-111 — if the US struggled to get the F-111 flying right, then surely the Soviets would as well. But while Soviet designers may have mined the F-111 for ideas, there’s little evidence any real copying was involved. Instead, given that both American and Soviet engineers were working with similar technologies towards the same goal, it isn’t surprising that they both landed on similar designs — just as American and Chinese engineers can be expected to do. Indeed, what was most surprising about the J-20 was how obviously different it is from anything in the American aircraft inventory.

However, there is reason to suggest that there’s more than simple convergent evolution behind the J-31’s external similarities to American 5th generation aircraft. An aircraft’s stealth is partially determined by the shape of the fuselage, was well as the surface coatings that absorb and diffuse radar waves. While China cannot know the details of American stealth coatings through anything but espionage, the low observability fuselage shapes of the F-22 and F-35 are obvious. Copying these elements — the F-22’s empennage, the F-35’s intakes — is an effective way to get some degree of stealth for less technically sophisticated developers. Given that the US has a two decades head start developing low observability aircraft, this is a smart trade for Shenyang engineers.

Does the J-31 owe aspects of its external fuselage to the F-22 and F-35: undoubtably. But this is far from saying that the J-31 is a naked copy of American aircraft. China still has a long way to go before a production aircraft derived from the J-31 enters service, if one does at all. That gives ample opportunity for delays and cost increases to pile up, degrading whatever lead the program has over the JSF, which it isn’t strictly comparable to anyway. The F-35’s STOVL benchmarked design makes it unique, and is reason enough to dismiss the idea that the J-31 is a cheap knockoff of the JSF. The J-31 will be a more affordable aircraft than the notoriously ill-conceived F-35, but that doesn’t automatically make it the deal Moss implies.

Fighter Market 2020+: Uncertainty and Not Much Else

By Taylor Marvin

Ace Flight Global reporter Stephan Trimble is at the Seoul Air Show, where he snagged this picture of a chart presented by the European combat aircraft consortium Eurofighter:

Trimble is most interested in Eurofighter’s forecast of a joint Brazilian-Turkish fighter by 2025. However, there are a few more interesting assumptions here –Eurofighter forecasts that the Chinese Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter and the joint Russian-Indian PAK FA, which are both currently in their early development stages, will enter operation service by 2020. This is an ambitious time frame. Both the J-20 and the PAK FA are advanced fifth-generation aircraft that incorporate some degree of stealth and (presumably) supermaneuverability technology, ambitious technological advancements for both the Russian and Chinese defense industries. Remember, the Lockheed YF-22, the F-22’s predecessor, first flew in 1990, a full 15 years before the F-22 entered operational service in 2005. The PAK FA program’s T-50 prototype and the J-20 first flew in early 2010 and 2011, respectively, so a pre-2020 introduction to operational service for both programs would significantly undercut the F-22’s development cycle. How credible is this estimate?

First off, it’s important to take Eurofighter’s estimate with a grain of salt. In an age of European austerity Eurofighter GmbH lives and dies on export sales, meaning that it has an interest in talking up the threat of Russian and Chinese fighter programs in order to encourage sales of its 4.5+ generation Typhoon fighter. Eurofighter already makes a few dubious assumptions in this chart: Eurofighter GmbH — primarily a German, British, and Italian company — vindictively assumes that French rival Dassault’s excellent Rafale won’t achieve any export sales, and puzzlingly forecasts that the US-lead F-35 program will achieve its full 3,500 unit production run by 2030. Similarly, Eurofighter smugly predicts Typhoon export sales beyond 2035, which is certainly disputable given that the Typhoon has already lost high-profile export orders by Singapore and South Korea (though the Typhoon has been ordered by Saudi Arabia). This chart is fundamentally a marketing tool, and we should be aware that Eurofighter has an incentive to dismiss its French (Dassault Rafale), Russian (Su-35), and American (Boeing F-15E and F/A-18E/F) competitors and play up forecasted Russian and Chinese threats. That said, Eurofighter’s forecasted timeframe for the J-20 and PAK FA’s entry into service is interesting. How credible is it?

I’ve recently spent time exploring this issue. In a recent interview with Tai Ming Cheung, an expert on China’s defense industry and the author of Fortifying China: The Struggle to Build a Modern Defense Economy, Dr. Cheung judged a pre-2020 introduction of the J-20 to be highly unlikely. Similarly, East Asian military expert Richard A. Bitzinger recently told me that he judged the T-50 to be “destined for a very long and painful R&D cycle, if it ever emerges from it at all.” This suggest that Eurofighter’s forecast is optimistic at best. However, the story’s a bit more complicated.

The J-20 likely has a more secure future than its Russian fifth-generation counterpart, for a simple reason: China spends roughly twice as much as Russia on defense, and China’s defense budget is growing at a much more rapid pace. China’s rapidly expanding economy means that the PLA will be able to devote increasing resources to ambitious defense projects, meaning that China likely has the economic, if not technical, ability to field a fifth-generation fighter aircraft in the mid-future. By all appearances the J-20 is a high priority project within the PLA. International prestige is deeply important to China’s leaders, and along with space programs and aircraft carriers advanced combat aircraft are one of the most prestigious national technology projects. Similarly, China’s apparent aspirations for regional hegemony within the South China Sea arguably requires the flexibility of an internationally competitive maritime strike fighter, a role the J-20 appears well suited for.

Image at defensetech.org.

J-20 flight testing. Image at defensetech.org.

However, there are significant roadblocks to the J-20’s entry into operational service. China has no experience manufacturing modern fighters — China’s current premiere indigenous-produced fighter, the Chengdu J-10, is decades behind contemporary Western and Russian designs, and does not incorporate advanced technologies required for the J-20. Similarly, the J-10 currently utilizes Russian engines and Chinese industry has struggled to indigenously produce modern jet engines, a key (and often troubled) component of any aircraft program. While the J-20 prototype features indigenous engines, producing a production powerplant for an eventual operational variant will likely be a challenge. Similarly, Chinese industry has little experience working with the stealth technology and thrust-vectoring nozzles featured in most fifth-generation designs, and while the J-20 may forgo advanced stealth (especially advanced RAM coatings) and thrust vectoring in favor of affordability these advanced features likely remain challenging for China’s nascent but growing industrial base. However, these design choices are perhaps the strongest argument for relatively prompt introduction of a J-20 operational variant: by apparently deliberately choosing simplicity over the most advanced stealth and performance technology, the J-20 may be able to side-step the most challenging aspects of its development.

Of course, China’s military leaders face the same resource constraints as other militaries. China’s military budget is growing but not unlimited, and other ongoing Chinese military procurement programs like the J-15 naval fighter and construction of 2 indigenous carriers could out-compete the J-20 program for limited resources. This possibility is supported by the J-20’s apparent irrelevance to a prospective Chinese military action against Taiwan, which would likely be decided by the ability of Chinese land-based anti-ship ballistic missiles to deter a US Navy intervention, rather than a limited number of futuristic aircraft.

The Russian PAK FA program faces what could be described as the opposite constraint: while Russian industry has extensive experience constructing modern aircraft, the Russian government’s chronically strained finances offer little resources to devote to speculative development programs. This scarcity motivated Russia run the PAK FA program jointly with India, with the expectation that both parties would eventually purchase roughly 250 units each. However, despite previous Indian purchases of Russian Sukhoi Su-30 fighters international development efforts are fraught with difficulty, and it is uncertain whether the PAK FA program will ever result in an operational aircraft.

PAK FA T-50 prototype. Image by Maxim Maksimov.

PAK FA T-50 prototype. Image by Maxim Maksimov.

However, the Russian aviation industry does have extensive experience producing advanced aircraft. Similarly to the J-20, the T-50’s stealth and sensor equipment appear to be much less ambitious than what was designed into the American F-22, moderation that greatly simplifies development. Additionally, T-50 manufacturer Sukhoi has extensive experience with thrust-vectoring nozzles from its mid-1990s Su-37 technology demonstrator, though Russian industry has little experience with stealth technologies. Finally, Sukhoi has clear incentive to promptly introduce the PAK FA. Due to the anemic Russian military budget Russian manufactures are much more dependent on international exports than their American counterpart, and in the next three decades a large number of up-and-coming powers are expected to purchase advanced combat aircraft. Because the PAK FA is Russian aviation’s only fifth-generation game in town, it’s now or never for Sukhoi: either introduce the PAK FA, or potentially lose lucrative international sales to more advanced European or American aircraft for decades to come. However, it’s unclear if these incentive will be able to overcome the cold financial limits and political uncertainty facing the Russian defense industry — despite Indian involvement, the PAK FA faces a rocky road to operational service.

This suggests that the Eurofighter forecasts for both the PAK FA and J-20 are overly optimistic. However, I’d argue that we are likely to see some version of a Chinese fifth-generation fighter before 2025, though probably not earlier. Prospects for the PAK FA are much less certain, but Eurofighter’s 2018ish service introduction seems to be an unrealistic best-case scenario.