China Tests Its New Stealth Plane–But Don't Freak Out About It

By Andrew Moseman | January 12, 2011 6:48 pm

Military watchers are all atwitter this week about J-20, the Chinese stealth aircraft that has now taken to the skies in its inaugural test flight. It’s the country’s first radar-evading plane. The question is, what is it for, and should we worry?

The aircraft appears most similar to the F-22 Raptor, the United States’ stealth bomber/fighter and the only one of its kind in the world.

“From what we can see, I conclude that this aircraft does have great potential to be superior in some respects to the American F-22, and could be decisively superior to the F-35 [joint strike fighter],” claims Richard Fisher, a senior fellow on Asian military affairs at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, a Washington-based security think tank. [Los Angeles Times]

At 70 feet, the J-20 is actually longer than the Raptor by 10 feet. To some, that size would suggest its makers are attempting to maximize range, making the J-20 as much a bomber as a fighter.

The Chinese jet has “perhaps lower super-cruise performance and agility than an F-22, but with larger weapon bays and more fuel,” [defense expert Bill] Sweetman added. “Super-cruise” is the ability to travel long distances at supersonic speed, something only the F-22 can really do, at the moment. [Wired]

The point of this for China, then, may be to gain the capacity for long-range bombing attacks. But with the information available now, it’s not entirely clear—the J-20 could also be intended as a long-range interceptor.

Even though we don’t know much about the Chinese military’s new toy, Wired says, we shouldn’t panic for a number of reasons. For one thing, the plane’s Russian engine means the Russians could cut off the supply if they don’t care for China’s choice of military targets. But on a bigger picture note, the competition for bragging rights between two stealth aircraft will be the least of everyone’s worries if the United States and China ever do come to serious military blows.

Says Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says the technological achievements of China’s secretive military reenforce the need for good diplomacy.

“The opaqueness of that, tied to our lack of relationship, is something I’d like to see if we can crack open,” he told reporters, stressing the importance of direct military relations between the United States and China to defuse any potential problems that could escalate into violence…. “Many of these capabilities seem to be focused very specifically on the United States so that’s why having this relationship is so important.” [AFP].

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  • amphiox

    “From what we can see, I conclude that this aircraft does have great potential to be superior in some respects to the American F-22, and could be decisively superior to the F-35 [joint strike fighter],”

    You know, this statement is so reminiscent of the old cold war rhetoric where practically every single MIG model coming out of the old USSR was talked up as being so much superior to whatever the American mainstay was at the time, and the good old USA was in such peril of losing air superiority, etc, etc…

    And yet every single time, every single time, that the actual planes actually had to face one another in actual combat, the American plane kicked ass. The most recent example I think being the F-15 vs the MIG-29 during the Gulf War.

  • Ian

    The gulf war saw those f-15s backed by awacs, superior electronics and crew. It’s not a valid comparison.

    Given equivalent skill a modern mig is a formidable dogfighter. It all depends on how the chinese train their pilots. If it’s the soviet style regimented silliness, then all the tech in the world won’t matter.

  • ChH

    1. amphiox – exactly right.
    2. this plane won’t be invisible to RADAR … just less visible / only visible from a shorter range.
    3. I’m sure the Chinese are rapidly ramping up on a program to supply their own engines, should relations with the Russions sour.
    4. At universities here in the USA I bet we train more chinese-born students on advanced RADAR technology at the PhD level than we do american-born students.

  • amphiox

    Ian, you’re absolutely right when the comparison is directly jet to jet, but in the context of these Chinese jets’ potential to be a threat to American jets in actual real-life confrontations, the disparity you pointed out is just another facet of my original contention. America is as far ahead of China in all of these support aspects of combined air combat currently, as America was ahead of Iraq in 1991. In the near future it would be highly unlikely that these Chinese jets would fare any better against American F-22’s and F-35’s in any foreseeable combat situation than Iraq’s Mig-29’s fared against the F-15, until such time that China catches up with America in all these other areas of expertise (and on the highly unlikely circumstance in which America will stand completely still).

    And until (or even if) the Chinese actually finish development of this jet and test its capabilities in realistic situations, there’s no telling how it will stack up against American jets. Many aspects of America’s stealth fighters are top secret, and while some things such as the shape of the plane and the angles of the wings/tail fins, etc are relatively easy to copy, other things are not so easy to duplicate, such as the radar-absorbing surface paint and the avionics, or the quality of the weapons the jet will carry. Unless the Chinese manage to steal these secrets through espionage, they’re going to have to develop their own versions and there’s no way to know if they’ll succeed in coming up with equivalently effective solutions.


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