The internet has been abuzz with discussion about the latest Chinese Stealth Fighter prototype. No, not the Chengdu J-20 which flew in 2011 to coincide with the visit to China by then US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, but the Shenyang J-21, which represents China’s second fifth generation fighter aircraft – a capability that previous US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates dismissed as inconsequential in 2009. Addressing the annual United States Air Force convention in September, 2009, Gates asserted that the continuing assured dominance of US airpower would be a factor ‘far into the future’, suggesting that ‘the US is projected to have more than 1,000 F-22s and F-35 Joint Strike Fighters before China even fields a fully operational fifth generation fighter, and that this lead will grow well into the 2020s.’ (See Gates Dismisses Fighter Gap at http://www.dodbuzz.com/2009/09/16/gates-dismisses-fighter-gap/ ) In the same speech, Secretary Gates argued that the United States would deploy the first F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (which Australia is largely committed to buying for the RAAF) by 2011, with initial operational capability by 2012 and 2013 for the US Marine Corps and US Air Force respectively.
What a difference a few years make. Secretary Gates flew to China in January 2011, just in time to be surprised by the first test flight of the Chengdu J-20 ‘Soaring Dragon’ fifth generation fighter. Now in the last week, as US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has visited China, the second Chinese fifth generation fighter has appeared, though has yet to fly. The J-21, produced by Shenyang, has been in development alongside the J-20, produced by Chengdu, and is a close match for the US F-22 Raptor in terms of overall appearance (See Questions Abound as China Unveils Another Stealth Jet at http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2012/09/questions-abound-as-china-unveils-another-stealth-jet/ ) Analysis by respected expert Bill Sweetman on his Ares blog (‘China’s New Stealth Fighter, Not a repeat from December 2010’ at http://www.aviationweek.com/Blogs.aspx?plckBlogId=Blog:27ec4a53-dcc8-42d0-bd3a-01329aef79a7 ), suggests that whereas the J-20 is a large, long-range high speed, high payload aircraft, designed for both long-range air defence and strike roles, the J-21 appears more to be an air superiority platform. It’s smaller, similar in size to the F-35, but with two engines as compared to the JSF’s single engine, and with a more significant payload for internal carriage of air to air and air to ground munitions. Furthermore, aspects of its design suggest the possibility of this aircraft going to sea on China’s nascent aircraft carrier fleet in the future. Both aircraft suggest stealth capabilities, particularly in terms of the shaping of their fuselage, but it remains uncertain what other stealth measures are incorporated such as radar absorbing materials, electronic systems, and the potential for high altitude ‘super-cruise’ – the ability to fly supersonically without fuel-guzzling afterburners – a capability enjoyed by the F-22 and critical to maximising the effectiveness of stealth in combat aircraft. A key challenge that the Chinese face with the J-20, and will likely face with the J-21 will be the indigenous development of advanced engines that will allow such a super-cruise capability. This is currently the one weak aspect of China’s military-aerospace sector.
The unveiling of the J-21, and the continuing development of the J-20, is occurring at the same time as the incoming USAF head of the Joint Strike Fighter program has highlighted severe problems with the F-35 JSF program, which will certainly delay its entry into service until near the end of the decade, with the aircraft only a third of the way through its development, and the risk of further complex technical problems associated with the advanced systems and software leading to greater risk of reduced numbers, higher unit costs and less capability. This as the F-22 Raptor, the USAF’s other fifth generation fighter remains in service in limited operational capability due to problems with the pilot’s oxygen system, and with a maximum of 187 aircraft procured before project termination by the Obama Administration – far from the 760 originally envisaged. This all before the Pentagon confronts the spectre of congressionally imposed spending cuts of as much as $600 billion over the next ten years under Sequestration in an effort to control the growth of US national debt.
Although it is premature, and probably unhelpful to talk of a ‘fighter gap’, it is clear that western intelligence continues to under-estimate China’s ability to develop advanced military capabilities in a relatively short space of time. Other areas of Chinese military modernisation such as their submarine force, which is expanding and modernising on a yearly basis; their ballistic missile capabilities – most strikingly the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile and its associated sensor and command and control systems; and their space and information-electronic warfare capabilities, all demand greater attention. China’s rapid military modernisation and its continuing ability to constantly surprise the western intelligence community suggest that it would be appropriate to maintain a degree of caution in dismissing China’s ability to erode capability advantages held by the US and its allies in East Asia. The key significance of the J-21’s appearance in the last week is the increased pressure it will place on regional neighbours to China having to review their own plans for modernising their air combat capabilities. China’s existing fighter capabilities were seen to be formidable enough, without two fifth generation fighters, which if fully developed, and deployed in significant numbers, would significantly shift the balance of air combat capabilities in China’s favour. When these aircraft are seen as part of a networked air combat capability, fully supported by airborne early warning and air-refuelling platforms, or in the case of a naval variant, the ability to forward base off an aircraft carrier, the J-21 in particular looks a concern for regional defence planners.
Finally, there is the issue of defence exports. The Chinese may be seeking to develop a lower-cost stealthy fifth generation capability with the J-21 that potentially could be exported to security partners such as Pakistan, which would reinforce India’s need for ensuring success in the joint Indian-Russian Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA fifth generation programme. The aircraft in time could be exported to other states friendly to China, for example, Iran, Venezuela, and possibly North Korea. If things go bad for the US Joint Strike Fighter program, as unit costs rise as a result of cuts in numbers of airframes, then the market penetration of a Chinese J-21 ‘export’ variant would increase, allowing China greater potential sales beyond its traditional customer base.
Dr. Malcolm R Davis, Assistant Professor and Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in China-Western Relations, Department of International Relations, Faculty of Humanities, Bond University