Tracking China’s new J-21 Stealth Fighter

Good strategic analysis identifies a key issue and maintains a close watch on it, as it develops, formulating the ‘so what’ analysis that adds value to merely identifying developments as they happen. China’s release of imagery of the new Shenyang J-21 Stealth Fighter continues to gather media attention, and merits attention.

Noted China analyst Andrew Erickson has aired his thoughts on the J-21 in the Wall Street Journal’s ‘China Realtime Report’ (‘Double Vision: Making Sense of China’s Second ‘Stealth’ Fighter Prototype’ at http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2012/09/18/double-vision-making-sense-of-chinas-second-stealth-fighter-prototype/ ). Like other analysts in the China Watcher blogosphere, Erickson also draws a parallel with the visit by Robert Gates to China in January, 2011, which saw the first test flight of the Chengdu J-20. He also notes that the release of the J-21 imagery should not be a surprise, with hints of a second stealth fighter program emerging in recent years, and most recently, with a wrapped aircraft fuselage similar to the J-21 being transported by road in front of local and international media. Erickson’s key points are that the existence of both the J-20 and the J-21 (he refers to it as ‘J-31’) suggest a competition between Chengdu and Shenyang for China’s next fighter aircraft. Other analysts take a different perspective, with Jane’s Defence Weekly James Hardy suggesting in fact that the J-21 Shen Fei (Falcon Eagle) is an air superiority aircraft to the J-20 ‘Soaring Dragon’ long-range strike (see James Hardy, ‘China’s New Stealth Fighter Gambit’ in The Diplomat, at http://thediplomat.com/2012/09/21/china-new-stealth-fighter-gambit/ ).

Either analysis raises intriguing possibilities, but Hardy’s seems more convincing. The two aircraft dissimilarities suggest different applications. The J-20 is large, implying long-range high payload. This has obvious application with long-range strike against ground targets, particularly with precision-guided standoff weapons. A large aircraft of course can do air superiority missions – with a space in an internal weapons bay for large numbers of beyond-visual range radar guided air to air missiles (known as ‘BVR-AAMs’ by fighter pilots) to shoot down aircraft at ranges potentially in the hundreds of kilometres. They can carry powerful radar systems and lots of fuel and thus have significant endurance to remain on station. In China’s case, it makes sense to have a large, long-range platform for denying access to China’s air approaches, be it over the Western Pacific, or possibly, over the Himalayas. But the vulnerability of such an aircraft is that the design optimises them for long-range air interception, but not nimble dogfighting. Stealth can only partly offset the vulnerabilities of a large aircraft once air combat manoeuvring has begun. A smaller aircraft, like the J-21, would be better in close-in air combat, with both radar and infra-red guided missile systems.

Both analysts note that China’s key challenge is the systems on board both aircraft, notably the engines. Both aircraft are currently dependent on exported Russian engines, and it seems likely that until China can develop its own aero-engines for advanced fighter, its ability to truly surge ahead will be constrained. Both aircraft have two engines – a distinct break from the US F-35 Joint Strike Fighter which has one. Some analysts have suggested that because the Chinese lack engines which are as sophisticated as those in the West they are forced to use two power-plants, but Erickson’s analysis actually turns this around to suggest a desire for long-range, long-endurance roles over water, and with significant weapons loads, he points to these aircraft as potentially potent threats to slower-moving adversary aircraft such as US and allied (including potentially RAAF) airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft and tankers. This would fit with China’s anti-access and area denial concept which would require that China ‘pluck out the eyes’ and ‘cut off the ears’ of the opponent by neutralising his intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems, as well as denying access by defeating his long-range mobility via airborne refuelling aircraft. Both analysts agree that the J-21 design suggests a potential aircraft carrier-based aircraft. Greater consideration of China’s plans for their aircraft carrier force – beyond the sea trials of the former Russian carrier Varyag, (now called the Liaoning) is important.

This leads to the key point that analysing both the J-20 and J-21 aircraft must be done through the context of China’s approach to military operations, which is focused on ‘Local War under Informationised Conditions’, and through Joint Anti-Access Operations, predominately over the Western Pacific. It is important not to merely analyse ‘the platform’ but to put the platform into an operational context. What will China do with either, or both, of these aircraft once production goes ahead, and they enter operational service? Where will they be used, and against whom? These are the questions which analysts must address in considering not only these specific examples of China’s military modernisation, but more broadly, other aspects of capability development.

By Dr. Malcolm R Davis, Assistant Professor and Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in China-Western Relations, Department of International Relations and the Centre for East-West Cultural and Economic Studies, Faculty of Humanities, Bond University.

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