10 February, 2011

The Chinese J-20 and its ramifications

Article No.:    1751     Date:    09/02/2011

Centre for Land Warfare Studies


It was nothing less than ironical when an Indian-born American was convicted of espionage, and that too in clandestine deals with China.

Noshir Gowadia was recently sentenced to 32 years in prison on the charge of selling details of the engine exhaust system of the B-2 bombers. Interestingly, the technology that has been passed by Gowadia helped Chinese engineers in designing a stealthy cruise missile.

However, the significant aspect of the secret deal could be that it was used by the Chinese in developing their fifth generation fighter aircraft: termed the J-20.

It has surely evoked a worried countenance from diplomatic and military quarters the world over. Americans have been deeply hit, not much due to the probable efficacy of the stealth aircraft, but more so due to the psychological aspect of Beijing tilting the Asia-Pacific strategic equation toward itself.

The J-20 Stealth fighter aircraft is definitely a ‘Big Stride Forward’ for China if not a Great Leap Forward of the Mao Zedong days. The flight testing of the aircraft in early January, in this new decade has sent strong signals in different directions.

First, the Chinese maneuver was obviously intended towards USA. To synchronise the test with Defence Secretary Robert Gates' visit was perfectly symptomatic of hegemonic ambitions of China in Asia-Pacific. Gates reached Beijing on 11 January to meet his Chinese counterpart to resume top-level military consultations that were stalled since Washington announced a $6 billion arms sale to Taiwan about a year back.

On top of this, Hu Jintao's statement that he was kept in oblivion of the flight testing of J-20 hardly makes much sense and rather erects a facade of ‘benign gentlemanship’ which the Chinese are constantly attempting to project their 'peaceful rise' concept. Interestingly, it has even cast some doubts regarding the real hold of the Communist Party over the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

In this regard, China analyst Andrew Erickson of the US Naval War College opines: “The PLA may have its own perspective and its own organizational interests, but the Party still controls the gun.”[1] 

Furthermore, the test also preceded the Hu-Obama Summit. Again real military signals across to the US, no doubt. However, at present, America’s prowess as far as the fifth generation fighter goes, is leagues ahead than that of China's.

Second, the J-20 from Chengdu airfield had a pointer towards Taiwan too. Beijing is clearly upholding its 'One China Policy'. And Taiwan has reacted bluntly. In fact, barely 7 days after the test flight of J-20, Taiwan conducted a public test firing of 19 surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles. Taiwanese President Ying-Jeou was present during the drill. Unfortunately, a quarter of the missiles missed their targets, raising obvious questions about Taiwan’s readiness to defend itself against any future Chinese attack.

The third signal was aimed towards Japan. This was to psychologically pre-empt any strategic-military ambitions harboured by Tokyo and to deter it in the naval disputes. However, it must have given Robert Gates the desired opportunity to showcase much of the products of Lockheed Martin to the Japanese in the wake of the J-20 flight.

And last but not the least; J-20 has implications for the Indo-Russia partnership on strategic and defence technology. Actually both the countries are involved in a combined project of building a fifth generation fighter called T-50. In fact, a number of successful sorties have already been made by the Russians. Naturally, after J-20, the Russo-India duo would have to pull up their socks.

J-20 seemed to be the world’s first Stealthy Strike fighter aircraft. On the other hand, F-22 of USA and T-50 are considered Air Superiority fighters. J-20 has been optimized for ground attack role. Sheer length of the aircraft (estimated to be 60-65 feet long) suggests that it not only can carry heavy weapons but also larger internal fuel for long range missions.

J-20 is supposed to have more than 3000 km in range which suggests that whole of North India along with North Eastern region of the sub-continent will be under its range. Hence the threat level to India only increases.
Australia's independent defence think tank, Air Power Australia asserts: “Whether the J-20 is a proof of concept demonstrator, or a prototype for a volume production combat type, what the design demonstrates is that Chinese engineers have mastered advanced stealth shaping techniques.”

However, the think-tank cautions: “The design displays repeated application of United States developed shaping design rules used previously in the F-22 Raptor design, and in some portions of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter design”.[2] 

Thus, doubts have been cast on the actual ability of the Chinese to acquire the stealth technology. There is a murmur by some analysts that PLA Air Force (PLAAF) probably pieced together the J-20 design from an American Stealth F-117A which was shot down in Serbia in 1999 during a NATO air strike.

In fact, Douglas Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies says: “The J-20 is reminiscent of the Russian MiG-1.42 both in terms of plan, form and also with regard to the rear fuselage configuration.”

Quite interestingly, Barrie notes: “The MiG program was canceled by the Russian government around 1997.” Now, does this indicate any Sino-Russian collusion? Unlikely, since the Russians themselves are yet to fully develop their own stealth fighter and naturally would not appreciate the Chinese to come up ahead of them. But a secret information pass-over may not be ruled out altogether.

Keeping aside the Chinese elation, there are possible weaknesses of the J-20. After the first flight, some aviation experts suggested that J-20 was just a Technology Demonstrator aircraft as it did not contain any internal weapons bay. They feel that the Chinese are still at least five years away from fielding a true fifth generation fighter aircraft.

And to quote Erickson: “China’s J-20 fighter has the potential to be a formidable air combat system in the Asia-Pacific region, but a number of technical hurdles will need to be overcome before mass production can commence.” However, PLAAF Deputy Commander General He Weirong says that J-20 may become militarily operational between 2017 and 2019.

The Indian Response?

The Indian Air Force (IAF) already has a Multi-role aircraft project which can switch between role of fighter aircraft and a ground attack aircraft.
Some defence experts hold the view that IAF has taken the right decision to stick with fully Stealthy Multi-role aircraft rather than a Semi-stealthy Strike aircraft.

India’s Ministry of Defence is also supposed to carry out a study on the
J-20 and IAF will be accordingly briefed on it. If IAF feels that Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft-Multi-role Combat Aircraft (AMCA) requires any changes in the wake of J-20, then Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) will be notified.

On the other hand, the Indo-Russian T-50 is designed to have a top speed of approximately Mach 2, or twice the speed of sound. Moreover, the aircraft will be equipped with radar whose beams are electronically steered to detect targets with maximum accuracy. India is a key partner in this project and is expected to pay a sizeable chunk of the $3 billion to fund the development of the stealth fighter.

Interestingly, the Indian Strategic Community has apparently remained unfazed about the J-20 flight. Their view is that the Russians are adept at Aircraft technology. Thus, India does not really need to worry since we are in the ongoing collaboration. However, a mere perusal into the Asian Military Balance (2010) released by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, points to the bare fact that India is a laggard in terms of military competence vis-à-vis China.

Gurmeet Kanwal echoes such a sentiment when he writes in Tribune: “the military gap between India and China is growing steadily due to the double-digit annual growth in the Chinese defence budget while India's military modernisation continues to remain mired in red tape.”

Furthermore, India is too much dependent on foreign help in making that giant leap into the ‘higher’ technology regime. Examples abound: viz. Cryogenics, Stealth technology, Cruise Missiles, Anti-Satellite Weapons, battle tanks, Civilian Nuclear Energy and the like.

With procrastination, inefficiency and graft being major impediments to defence autarky; New Delhi becomes a less likely candidate for a potent player in the effulgent Asia-Pacific dynamics.


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