Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Keeping the Hype in Check I: The Chengdu J-20

The unveiling of the Chengdu J-20 has certainly provoked alarmist rhetoric is all the expected quarters. Lieutenant General Thomas McInerney, for instance, writes of "shades of 1939" (predictably, in a piece for FOX News).

For the moment, though, set aside the dubiousness of Tom Clancy fantasies about high-tech, big power war (which I must admit I regard as extremely unlikely for now), without which the plane would not get so much attention. Set aside the questions about the J-20's real purpose, whether the rather large plane (the design of which appears to emphasize fuel capacity and payload) is not intended as a strike aircraft instead of a fighter--a replacement for the JH-7, for instance, rather than a match for the latest American fighters--or even, as, Lewis Page suggests in what is by far the most well-grounded assessment I have seen so far, a "demonstration/propaganda/industrial-subsidy project."1 Set aside also the fact that the plane's first test flight simply puts it where the U.S. was in 1990 with the F-22 program (twenty years ago), the unavoidable uncertainty about if and when the aircraft will actually go into production, and in what quantity (defense hawks being all too quick to forget that it's not just the Pentagon which has to cope with delays, cost overruns and underperforming, buggy hardware in its procurement programs).2

Instead consider the realities involved in building and operating a functioning air force, which involve much more than producing a prototype of a fighter aircraft, or even a couple of hundred of them. The makeup of China's overall air force is at issue, and the gap in capability between the U.S. and China remains wide today. The U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marines collectively possess some 3,000 fighter planes today, compared with roughly 1,800 for the China's People's Liberation Army Air Force and Navy Air Force. Additionally, the U.S. fighter inventory consists entirely of fourth-generation or later aircraft (principally late-model F-15s, F-16s and F-18s, plus nearly 200 F-22s), whereas only 500 or so of China's inventory (very late-model J-8s, J-10s and J-11s) are comparable in capability, so that a 1.6-to-1 advantage in overall numbers becomes a 6-to-1 advantage in this key area. The U.S. armed forces also have a massive advantage in support assets, from tankers to command and control aircraft, greatly enhancing their other numerical and qualitative advantages.

It will be a long time before China can close that broader gap, with or without the J-20, especially as the U.S.'s fighter forces are themselves being modernized, with Super Hornets and F-35s replacing the earlier F-16s, F-18s and AV-8 Harriers.3 Indeed, it may be that the gap in numbers will increase in the U.S.'s favor as China continues to slough off vast quantities of older aircraft in favor of a smaller number of up-to-date models.

It is also simplistic to imagine such a war as a series of fighter duels. As David Axe notes in the Wired Danger Room,
in a major shooting war, the Navy and Air Force wouldn’t wait for J-20s or other Chinese fighters to even take off. Cruise-missile-armed submarines and bombers would pound Chinese airfields; the Air Forces would take down Chinese satellites and thus blind PLAAF planners; American cyberattackers could disable Beijing’s command networks.
In the air, the planes would also be vulnerable to surface-to-air defenses on land, or aboard U.S. warships.

Finally, Chinese capabilities of all kinds are that much less overwhelming when the regional distribution of power is considered. Russia and India (with their own fifth-generation aircraft undergoing flight testing), as well as South Korea, and Taiwan and Japan offshore, all have their own, quite substantial air forces (and armies and navies as well). No matter how aggressive one is in their projections, no serious conflict scenario can overlook this fact, and taken with the others it is a reminder that while China is modernizing its armed forces, and developing new capabilities commensurate with its greater wealth, and its perceived requirements, a revolution in the military balance of power in the region is not at hand today, or even likely to be in the next decade--even if one takes the most alarmist claims made for the J-20 at face value.

1. Making the opposite argument, Dr. Carlo Koop and Peter Goon of the Air Power Australia think tank, in acknowledging the plane's size and configuration, suggest in their analysis that it is a
a long range interceptor for anti-access operations in the Second Island Chain geography . . . with the capability to penetrate an opposing IADS to destroy assets like E-3 AWACS, RC-135V/W Rivet Joint, other ISR systems, and importantly, Air Force and Navy tankers,
crippling U.S. Air Force or Navy operations within this area, and insist that the idea
that an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter or F/A-18E/F Super Hornet will be capable of competing against this Chengdu design in air combat, let alone penetrate airspace defended by this fighter . . . [is] simply absurd.
It might be noted, however, that the two functions are not mutually exclusive. The F-111 program was originally intended to produce both the well-known strike aircraft for the U.S. Air Force, the F-111A, and a long-range carrier-based interceptor, the F-111B, for the U.S. Navy (which is comparable in its weight and its internal storage of weapons to the J-20). Of course, the F-111B eventually proved unsatisfactory and its niche was filled by the lighter F-14 Tomcat, a reminder of the difficulties involved in reconciling such missions in a single airframe. (More success has been attained by building an effective air-superiority fighter, which is then used as the base for a strike fighter, as with the F-15E Strike Eagle.)
2. It is worth noting, among other points, that China appears dependent on imported Russian engines to power the large, high-performance aircraft. Lewis Page has also raised questions (quite well-grounded in the available evidence) about the plane's stealthiness, maneuverability (due to its size, probable weight and lack of thrust-vectoring nozzles) and avionics (specifically the chances of the plane getting a Low Probability of Intercept radar) in comparison with the fifth-generation F-22.
3. The F-35 program is troubled, suffering from cost overruns and delays, but not dead. Additionally, while it is plausible that the U.S.'s economic woes and budgetary difficulties will undermine the acquisitions process such as to diminish its lead, it is far from clear that this would go far enough to make a fundamental difference in the picture described above (especially given the relationship between American consumption, investment and solvency, and Chinese prosperity).

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