It was an audacious debut, even by the dramatic standards of Chinese weapons systems. For months, Western reporters and analysts had heard rumors of photos surfacing, and quickly disappearing, on China’s heavily censored Internet, of an advanced jet fighter similar in shape and dimension to the latest U.S. and Russian designs.

On Christmas Day 2010, another photo appeared. And this time, it stayed on-line long enough for foreign observers to catch it.

Bill Sweetman, a long-time aviation reporter then editing the Washington, D.C., trade journal Defense Technology International, was one of the first outside of China to comment in a widely-read forum, namely the magazine’s Ares blog. The picture, apparently snapped from a car driving past the Chengdu flight-test facility in Western China, “allegedly shows China’s next-generation Chengdu J-20 fighter — the first known Chinese stealth aircraft — undergoing high-speed taxi trials, with rumors of a first flight within weeks,” Sweetman wrote.

Sweetman immediately grasped the military, political and industrial implications of the J-20’s apparent debut. “Is China about to give air power hawks their best Christmas present ever?” he wrote.

The United States, France, Sweden, Russia and an alliance composed of Britain, Spain, Italy and Germany all design and build advanced fighter aircraft. Some of the United States’ and Russia’s designs qualify as fully radar-evading “fifth-generation” or “stealth” aircraft, namely the U.S. F-22 Raptor and the F-35, and the Russian T-50. Until the J-20 appeared, China had been building less sophisticated fighters, most of them copies of a previous generation of Russian planes.

While it should perhaps come as no surprise that the world’s second-largest economy would eventually produce an advanced fighter aircraft, for some foreign observers — including a small but vocal community of air power apologists in Washington — a Chinese stealth fighter represents a unique threat to the existing world order.

Sweetman warned in his initial reporting on the J-20 that the photo that was the only real evidence of the plane’s existence could actually be a fake — “a product of the Adobe OKB,” he said, referring to Adobe’s popular Photoshop image-manipulation software and the Russian acronym for an aviation design bureau.

But from Dec. 25, more photos appeared on-line, each clearer and more revealing than the last, offering proof that not only was J-20 real, but Beijing wanted the world to know it. Indeed, on Jan. 5, 2011, the English-language Global Times newspaper, published by the Chinese Communist Party, underscored the latter point by printing a round-up of foreign reporting on the new jet fighter. “Denial is not an option,” Sweetman argued.

He was right. China had joined the leading ranks of fighter-building nations, prompting a debate in the West and among China’s immediate neighbors over if and when the J-20 might begin entering service in large numbers — and how that might shape the Pacific balance of power.

All this means that a reliable and useful assessment depends on an accurate view of the J-20’s design, plus a clear-headed consideration of the plane’s industrial, political and strategic context. But even taking the most favorable view of the J-20, it’s hard to credibly claim that Chengdu has changed the world.

The J-20 in flight.Via Chinese Internet

Fighter Forensics

When it comes to the J-20, the outside world only knows what it can infer from about a dozen blurry photographs snapped from outside the Chengdu fence-line by Chinese aviation enthusiasts. In aggregate, the new fighter seems to be modestly stealthy and optimized for high-altitude flying and long range. By contrast, Western stealth fighters are generally tailored for radar-evasion at the expense of other qualities; Russian models, meanwhile, have tended to emphasize range, speed and heavy weapon loads.

The J-20 appears to be large. Using for scale nearby ground vehicles in some of the snapshots, Sweetman estimated the J-20’s overall length at around 70 feet. This is big for a fighter. Russia’s Sukhoi T-50 — a prototype that first flew in early 2010 and could form the basis of new, operational long-range fighters for both Russia and India over the coming decade — is 66 feet long. The American F-22 and F-35, both built by Lockheed Martin, are just 60 and 50 feet long, respectively.

Size places other characteristics in context. Most current fighters are capable of attacking targets in the air and on the ground, but the design process tends to emphasize one of those roles over the other, depending on the customer’s needs. The F-22, for instance, is primarily an air-to-air killer. For that reason, the F-22 is designed to be fast, high-flying and maneuverable. The follow-on F-35 is a bomber first and dogfighter second, so it trades some speed and maneuverability for payload and range. While sluggish compared with the F-22, the F-35 carries more bombs over longer range, despite its smaller overall size.

The F-22-F-35 comparison aside, the bigger a fighter is, the more likely it is to be designed primarily for ground-attack.

It didn’t take Sweetman long to decide that the J-20 “looks like a stealth F-111,” referring to the 1960s-era U.S. Air Force fighter-bomber that most famously raided Libya from British bases in 1986 and, five years later, dropped laser-guided bombs to destroy hundreds of Iraqi tanks in Kuwait. The U.S. retired the F-111 in the mid-1990s, although Australia flew a handful until late last year.

The F-111 had two engines and, true to its size, so does the J-20. Notably, several rear-aspect photos seem to show traditional, fixed, round engine nozzles. The F-22, B-2 stealth bomber and now-retired F-117 stealth fighter-bomber all have carefully shaped, angular nozzles meant to scatter radar waves. In the F-22, these nozzles can move, “vectoring” the engine thrust to boost maneuverability. The T-50 can pull the same vectoring trick with its round nozzles. The apparent absence of stealthy nozzles and thrust-vectoring places a hard limit on the J-20’s ability to evade radar detection from behind.

But from the front, it’s a different story. The J-20 has a chiseled nose and trapezoidal engine inlets similar to the F-22’s and F-35’s — and indeed the T-50’s — indicating a potentially high degree of frontal stealthiness, useful for an aircraft that needs to fly straight toward an unmoving opponent on the ground. This reinforces Sweetman’s assessment that the J-20 “is a bomber as much as, if not more than, a fighter.”

Analysts Carlo Kopp and Peter Goon, writing for the Air Power Australia think tank, disagree with Sweetman’s assessment. In a short written reaction to the J-20’s appearance, Kopp and Goon argue that the new fighter is meant as a heavy interceptor, designed to fly deep into defended territory to shoot down the vital electronic-warfare and command aircraft and aerial tankers that underpin U.S.-led air campaigns.

“This would significantly complicate if not close down air operations from Andersen (Air Force Base in Guam) and fixed basing in the Ryukyu chain, the Japanese main islands and Korean Peninsula, during the opening phase of any contingency.” The U.S. Navy’s aircraft carriers would similarly be stripped of their planes by sweeping passes by J-20s, Kopp and Goon wrote.

Whether Sweetman or his Australian counterparts are correct in their views of the J-20’s intended role, all agree that the Chinese plane requires high degrees of stealth. But for all its stealthy design characteristics around the nose and inlets, the J-20 also features canards — small, moving wings fitted forward of the main wing. Canards can add stability to highly maneuverable fighters meant to pull hard turns at low speed; at high speed, canards are generally useful for reducing airframe vibrations. In any event, canards are generally indicative of a less-than-harmonious design requiring “bolt-on“ fixes. And as they add radar-reflecting edges, they’re usually not stealthy.

From left to right, the J-20, the Russian T-50 and the U.S. F-22. Via Defence.pk

Open Questions

On balance, then, the J-20 seems most likely to be meant largely as a ground-attack aircraft, specifically for operations along China’s borders and over Taiwan. China already has hundreds of ballistic missiles arrayed along its eastern coast, primed to pound Taiwanese defenses before any Chinese assault on the island. But ballistic missiles, being relatively inaccurate, might leave enough Taiwanese defenders to complicate an amphibious assault across the Taiwan Strait. Beach attacks, after all, are among the costliest operations for attackers. But a stealthy fighter-bomber capable of evading Taiwanese fighters and surface-to-air missiles could give Beijing the ability to precisely target such defenses.

But that’s assuming the J-20 enters service in adequate numbers and actually works as well as other advanced combat aircraft do. Neither assumption is a given.

For one, it’s not clear that Beijing even intends to produce J-20s in large numbers. It’s not uncommon for governments and military-aircraft manufacturers to produce new airplanes in small numbers purely for the purpose of demonstrating emerging technologies. There are scores of such planes littering U.S. hangars, warehouses and museums, including the YF-23 from the mid-1990s that actually bears a passing resemblance to the J-20. Russia produced two advanced fighter demonstrators in the late 1990s, the MiG-1.44 and the Su-47. Both were impressive for their appearance and performance. Neither led to serial production.

Even if the J-20 is meant to pave the way for the mass fabrication of hundreds of operational warplanes, for outsiders there’s no easy way of knowing just when the mysterious Chengdu design might enter front-line service. Gen. He Weirong, deputy commander of the Chinese air force, said in 2009 that a stealth fighter would begin testing soon and be deployed in “eight or 10 years.” By contrast, the YF-22 required 15 years of research and development to become an active warplane. The F-35’s projected schedule is similar, with an operational debut scheduled for 16 years after the X-35 demonstrator’s first flight in 2000.

Sukhoi anticipates delivering the first T-50s in 2015, just six years after the prototype’s first flight, but the Russian tradition is for a few dozen early copies of any new jet fighter to serve for several years to help refine the design for large-scale military use. It’s likely the ultimate T-50 will need as much time to mature as American planes typically do. Was Weirong credible in his assertion that the J-20 needs just a decade to mature?

Sweetman took nothing for granted. “How far along is the aircraft in development and, if it is pursued, when will it become operational?” he wrote of the J-20. “I would submit that the simplistic approach — comparing this aircraft to the YF-22 or X-35 and therefore projecting an (Initial Operating Capability) well beyond 2020 — is philosophically wrong, dangerous and stupid.” China has proved capable of producing new weapons quickly and in large numbers. Beijing’s Type 022 missile boat, designed for coordinated attacks on U.S. aircraft carriers, first appeared in 2004. Just three years later, the Chinese navy possessed a whole flotilla of 40 Type 022s.

It’s also telling that the J-20 appeared in public sooner than the U.S. intelligence establishment expected it to. The Pentagon was well aware of the J-20’s existence in blueprints and laboratories, but assumed it would take several more years for ideas and plans to become hardware. In 2009, then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates assured an audience in Chicago that China would have “no fifth-generation aircraft by 2020" and only “a handful” by 2025. If the J-20 transitions to production at the pace the Type 022 did, Gates’ assessment could prove massively inaccurate.

Indeed, just a week after the J-20’s Internet debut, Vice Adm. David Dorsett, the director of U.S. Navy intelligence, admitted the Chinese have been moving new weapons through the development pipeline “quicker than we frequently project.”

“We need to refine our assessments,” he said.

But Gates could still prove correct in his sanguine view of Chinese weaponry, at least as far as it applies to the J-20, if Beijing continues to falter on one key facet of fighter technology. Arguably the most important part of a fighter is its engine. And engines just happen to be the Chinese aviation industry’s biggest weakness. “So far, China isn’t able to indigenously produce (engines) and is dependent on Russian-made fighter engines,” Arthur Ding, a professor at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, says.

In recent years, AL-31F engines imported from Russia have powered all successful Chinese fighters. When relations with Russia soured in the middle of the last decade, Beijing tried to copy the AL-31F as the so-called “WS-10" — but consistently failed. This slowed production of Chinese fighters, themselves mostly low-grade copies of Russian designs.

With warming relations, Russia has resumed supplying AL-31Fs to China — and in fact it appears the J-20 is fitted with this motor. But the AL-31F isn’t necessarily adequate for a large, stealthy fighter. For the T-50, Sukhoi originally planned to use an up-rated version of the AL-31F, but ended up installing a brand-new (and mostly secret) engine, instead. Similarly, both the F-22 and F-35 required from-scratch engine designs, the development of which largely determined the pace of their progression from blueprints to front-line service.

It’s not obvious from the grainy photos of the J-20 what engines the plane currently uses, but it’s probably safe to assume they’re Russian AL-31Fs — still the best engines China reliably has access to. However, the AL-31F is clearly inadequate for the apparently heavy J-20. Even the up-rated 117S version of the AL-31F “would likely not be sufficient to extract the full performance potential of this advanced airframe,” Kopp and Goon wrote. To perform at its best, the J-20 will probably need purpose-designed motors. And developing those could take a long, long time.

Equally vexing to Beijing’s aerospace designers and military planners are the sophisticated electronic, conceptual and human systems required in and around a modern fighter aircraft in order for that aircraft to deliver a useful military effect.

Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the U.S. Teal Group, told the Internet trade publication Defense Tech that a modern fighter requires at least 11 supporting systems to be effective, including but not limited to sound mission planning, a talented and disciplined pilot, good maintenance personnel on the ground, accurate weapons, an advanced radar and other electronic systems inside the aircraft plus “off-board” radar detection provided by purpose-built command-and-control planes and the reliable ministration of an aerial tanker.

Of all the systems required by a modern fighter, Beijing has mastered just one, Aboulafia said — and that’s the airplane’s physical structure itself, minus the engines.

The J-20. Via Chinese Internet

The Sky is Falling

Still, according to Kopp and Goon the J-20 represents a profound shift in the Pacific balance of power. “Any notion that an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter or F/A-18E/F Super Hornet (flown by the U.S. Navy and Australia) will be capable of competing against this Chengdu design in air combat, let alone penetrate airspace defended by this fighter, would be simply absurd,” they wrote.

And even the more cautious Ding says he can imagine a near-future where the J-20 dominates.

“If the technological barrier of a fighter engine is overcome, China will be able to produce advanced fighters indigenously,” he says. “And, along with other capable aircraft, such as airborne early-warning and air refuelling aircraft, the Asian Pacific’s political landscape will be changed, as China’s military capability can win over countries in this region.”

That’s precisely the position that many U.S. commentators, particularly conservative hardliners, are sure to take as acceptance of the J-20 sinks in. After all, they’ve done it before. In 2004, Indian pilots flying Russian-made Sukhoi Su-30s (a predecessor of the T-50) reportedly “defeated” U.S. Air Force-flown F-15s (the F-22’s predecessor) in an aerial training exercise hosted in India. “Third world countries may be able to challenge U.S. command of the skies,” lamented Loren Thompson, an analyst with the Lexington Institute, a right-leaning Washington think tank.

Thompson and others used the Cope India example as an argument in favor of buying F-22s to replace the roughly 400 F-15s. Few revised their opinions when it came to light that the US pilots had apparently flown over India under restrictions — that is, using deliberately inferior tactics — meant to even the odds for the Indians and make the training fairer. As a result, the Cope India incident marked the birth of a theme — that America could no longer reliably win battles in the sky.

It’s a theme that’s never fully faded. In the summer of 2009, Gates ordered the U.S. Air Force to stop purchasing F-22s after the 187th copy, and instead channel funding into the planned fleet of 2,400 F-35s. This switch made the United States “less safe,” in the words of Michael Goldfarb, a writer for the conservative Weekly Standard. “This is also a very good day for the ChiComs,” Goldfarb wrote of the F-22’s termination, using a slang term for “Chinese Communist.”

Six months later, the T-50 flew for the first time. Once the plane is fully deployed in squadron strength, “the United States will no longer have the capability to rapidly impose air superiority, or possibly even achieve air superiority,” Kopp and Goon wrote. Goldfarb, for his part, again declared the “end of air supremacy” for the United States.

Yet a year later, the T-50 has flown only a few times and there are apparently no serious plans in place for mass production. Russia continues to purchase variants of the Su-30 as its main fighter — as does China. Even the most excitable analysts and journalists predict eventual fleets of just a few hundred fighters apiece for the T-50 and the J-20. Against these, by 2030 the Pentagon will likely possess no fewer than 2,600 F-22s and F-35s in total, and with better pilots and more support aircraft, to boot. Meanwhile, the United States’ closest allies in Asia will probably possess hundreds of advanced fighters of their own, including F-35s for Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Australia and T-50s for India.

It’s likely, then, that the J-20 no more represents the end of U.S. air superiority than did Cope India or the T-50’s debut. What it does represent is the world’s second economy finally joining a club of nations long-accustomed to designing, building and operating advanced fighter aircraft.

Exactly what the J-20 is for, and exactly how well it will perform, remain open questions. But even the most dramatic answers to those questions shouldn’t by themselves hugely alter the Pacific balance of power.

Originally published by The Diplomat.