China's 'stealth fighter' flies – brown trouser time, or not?
Benefits the US aerospace industry more than China's
Analysis The death-tech beat has spoken of little else but China's new "stealth fighter" for some weeks now – and yesterday, funnily enough just as the US Defense Secretary was visiting Beijing, the J-20 (or whatever it may turn out to be officially called) finally took to the air.
The People's Republic is making no real effort to keep the plane secret – interested bloggers and photographers have been able to watch the plane in ground trials unhindered from the fence line at the Chengdu test site for weeks. Needless to say, vids of yesterday's first flight are widely available:
As will be obvious from the clips and many online pictures of the new plane, the J-20 (or J-whatever, as the craft's official number has not been announced) has been designed to be "low observable" – that is, difficult to see on radar, at least from certain angles.
Such a shape, combined with many other rather more difficult technologies (radar-absorbent coatings, heat dump into the fuel tanks  to lessen infrared signature, complex frequency-hopping invisible radars and communications, etc, etc), offers so-called "stealth" capability. This doesn't mean that a plane is totally invisible to the enemy, just that – hopefully – it can detect and strike airborne opponents while they are still unable to get a lock on it. Alternatively, when trying to penetrate an enemy's groundbased air-defence system, a stealth plane may be able to avoid detection for part or all of its mission by flying carefully planned routes and/or cooperating with supporting electronic-warfare jammer aircraft.
There's no particular indication that China has any of the necessary supplementary technologies to create a true stealth capability. Furthermore, the J-20's shape indicates that its low-observability on radar would probably be much more limited in angle than is the case with operational stealth planes such as the US F-22 Raptor and B-2 Spirit (there's very little effort to stealth up the exhausts compared to the US designs, for instance, and the intakes and control surfaces look likely to be a lot more visible from a lot more places on the sphere of possible viewpoints around the aircraft).
Then, the J-20 is plainly large and cumbersome, and appears to lack thrust vectoring. One possible theorised effect of stealth design on air combat is that opposing stealth fighters – unable to lock each other up for long-range missile duels – would find themselves tackling one another in close-in dogfights using such tools as helmet-mounted sights and agile short-ranged missiles able to attack targets well off the launching fighter's line of flight. The cumbersome J-20 would probably suffer a gruesome fate in close with the highly manoeuvrable Raptor, or even the more affordable F-35 Lightning II.
Indeed, as China almost certainly can't yet build a Raptor-style stealthy targeting radar (and thus J-20 style jets would be unable to use long-range missiles while remaining unseen) the J-20 would probably be defeated even by ordinary Western fighters such as the F-15, Rafale and Eurofighter. If it lit up its radar to shoot at them from afar, they would instantly detect it and win the fight with long-ranging missiles such as the forthcoming Meteor. If the J-20 remained silent and stealthy in a meeting engagement it would encounter enemy fighters at short range, where their manoeuvrability and dogfighting weapons would defeat it easily.
If the J-20 has a military purpose (rather than merely being a demonstration/propaganda/industrial-subsidy project as is probably the reality) it would be to act more as a bomber than a fighter – to try to slip undetected past opposing air defences and strike at key targets: enemy bases, aircraft carriers, patrolling AWACS planes and such like. But this is highly unrealistic in today's Pacific; the whole Far East is a chain of US allies from Japan down to Australia, thickly sown with powerful American and allied air forces able to sweep the skies with radar and infrared-search-and-track (IRST) scanners, both ground and airborne. The seas are full of dangerous warships – US supercarriers each equivalent to a mobile Taiwan, Aegis air-defence vessels able to sweep hundreds of miles of sky, warships and submarines able to launch thousands of cruise missiles at targets far inland.
O noes! China has finally got to where the US was in 1985, and the UK was in about 2000! Surely time for a big military panic?
A force of J-20s would find this hedge impenetrable: as soon as they penetrated to any depth, the "stealth" planes would be showing a non-stealthy aspect to radars on their flank or behind them, or would find their hot exhausts picked up by US/allied IRST. The lumbering Chinese jets would then be pounced upon and eliminated. If somehow the J-20 is as capable as a Raptor and the People's Republic should manage to inflict any damage on US forces or their allies, the responding shower of seaborne cruise missiles would wipe China's air capability off the map – leaving Beijing a stark choice between humiliation and suicidal escalation to nuclear ballistic-missile strikes on the US mainland.
The reality is that western global hegemony over the seas and the skies above them would be pretty much unchallenged even if the J-20 actually was a rival to western stealth technology. America alone, even following the just-announced reining in of defence spending, intends in the near future to field a force of more than 2,000 genuine modern stealth warplanes backed by many hundreds more modern combat aircraft of other types. A thousand more stealth fighters (F-35s) are set to be ordered by US allies worldwide, and these allies also dispose of yet thousands more highly capable, modern non-stealth planes.
The USA and her allies in the 2020s will have more than 3,000 genuine operational stealth fighters and many thousands more highly capable, sophisticated non-stealth aircraft plus warships, cruise missiles etc in profusion. China and Russia, by that point, will probably not have any substantial numbers of real operational stealth aircraft at all – both nations have only just got early prototypes flying, putting them where the USA was in the 1980s and Europe was a decade ago. Both nations together possess no more than 3,000 functioning combat aircraft, mostly obsolete, all poorly maintained, and in Russia's case at least, flown by pilots who log no more than a few hours a year. The Russian and Chinese navies are in even worse shape.
Even if Russia and China could cooperate effectively (they can't or won't) and had some reason to take on the West (so cutting their own economies off at the knees) – even if Russian and Chinese technology and military readiness was equivalent or superior to Western (it plainly isn't anywhere near) – the west would still win a conventional air/sea war by simple weight of numbers. In the case of Russia or China acting alone, the fight would be even more one-sided.
The usual suspects are, of course, furiously bigging-up the J-20 as a possible menace. The erratic Carlo Kopp of Australia, famous for predicting  that terrorists would be fabricating electromagnetic pulse bombs in garage workshops by now, considers that the J-20 amply justifies a much larger fleet of F-22 Raptors. (No surprise there: no matter what happens, Kopp generally considers  that the answer is more F-22s.) Retired US air force generals are pushing this line too, of course. The hugely bloated western military aerospace industry, its revenues sapped by economic conditions and a belated focus on the ground troops who are actually fighting real wars in southwest Asia, will naturally seize upon even the flimsiest excuse to plead for yet more billions to be spent moving the western state of the air-combat art still further onward – no matter that it is decades ahead of any possible opposition.
But to those of us not employed directly or indirectly by air forces and aerospace companies, the idea that we western taxpayers should really be spending any more than is now planned on air forces is a hard one to swallow – the more so if it means more cuts to other parts of government, especially our hard-pressed ground troops in Afghanistan. Unlike the flyboys, the army are not trying to set up a condition where they can win a vanishingly unlikely war without taking any losses: they are trying to win a war which is actually happening, and suffering losses every day.
When our soldiers and marines (or, occasionally, airmen or sailors) on the ground in Afghanistan can win easily without significant losses – rather than being badly bloodied for sometimes unimpressive results as we see now – then it might be time to think about experimental Chinese stealth prototypes. When Russian and Chinese military spending combined approaches even half the amount spent by the USA on its own*, it might be time to wonder whether the Asian powers might in some way, one day, militarily menace the west.
Until then, we've all got more important things to worry about than the J-20. ®
*As of today, Russia and China together are estimated (pdf ) to spend less than a quarter of what the US spends on defence. Even lackadaisical, can't-really-be-bothered-seeing-to-our-own-defences Europeans are big players compared to China; France and the UK together comfortably outspend the People's Republic.