Former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping once advised his future successors to
bide their time and hide their capabilities, but China's military leadership
has this month done precisely the opposite, appearing in a big hurry to show
the world exactly what they are capable of. It is as though China's first
working stealth jet was just too exciting a development to be left sitting
unsung in the hangar - especially with US Defense Secretary Robert Gates about
to come calling.
The story of the Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter, whose existence was revealed at
the turn of the year, is perhaps more remarkable for what it says about the
bravura of China's rulers - and about the West's reactions - than for what it
reveals about the future
capability of the Chinese air force.
Beijing's decision to trumpet the J-20's development resides within the culture
of conspicuous wealth which China's urban residents will recognize as a trait
of the country's moneyed elite. This is a generation that flaunts its
capabilities, not hides them; and as the newest, flashiest expression of
China's wealth and vigor the stealth plane simply had to be put on parade where
the whole world could see it. The big question is whether we are right to be
impressed by their technological achievement.
On January 10, the J-20 prototype took its first flight above Chengdu,
provincial capital of Sichuan, but amid the media sensation it was unclear how
best to interpret the aircraft's emergence, with the J-20 having become central
to two contrasting narratives about the nature and implications of China's
In the first, the J-20 has become an emblem of the rise of China and the
decline of American power. With the US experiencing technical holdups and huge
cost overruns in the development of its own stealth fighter, the F-35, and
poised to axe production of its other stealthy jet, the F-22 Raptor, China has
displayed its growing confidence and technical prowess by debuting the J-20
years earlier than Western analysts were predicting.
In the second, the J-20's unveiling was little more than a publicity stunt on
the part of a government that would sooner try to stoke, rather than calm,
American fears. A mishmash of outdated US and Russian design features, the
aircraft displayed no signs of genuine Chinese innovation and remained a decade
away from active service, its detractors have argued. As a weapon system, its
primary role was as a pin with which to prick Gates, whose bridge-building trip
to Beijing coincided with the aircraft's appearance on the Chengdu tarmac.
What's clear from the pictures crowding the Chinese blogosphere is that the
J-20 is a big aircraft, which may point to a future role as a long-range
interceptor or as an anti-access weapon with the ability to operate beyond the
second island chain, which includes Guam, home to an important US airbase.
However, China's air-to-air refueling capability is not yet mature enough to
support this kind of long-range mission, and the J-20's size may point to
technical limitations - most likely with the plane's engines, which Chinese
industry is yet to build capably - rather than strategic choice.
Whatever the case, the American defense lobby was always likely to interpret
the J-20 as a severe threat to US security, having fought a long (and
unsuccessful) campaign to keep building the F-22 - an air superiority fighter
which they regard as the ultimate guarantor of America's command of the skies.
Indeed, the J-20 may have handed the F-22 one final lifeline. Gates, who killed
the F-22 program, is about to step down, and his replacement could conceivably
hand the Raptor an eleventh-hour reprieve and keep the production line turning.
However, any such a decision would be most wisely taken as a hedge against
further pitfalls in the development path of the F-35, the aircraft selected as
the mainstay of future US air power at the F-22's expense - and not as a
knee-jerk reaction to the J-20's arrival.
"This is a useful reminder that more F-22s would be good," says aviation
analyst Richard Aboulafia, the vice president of analysis at the Teal Group and
an advocate of the proven Raptor. "But any suggestion that the Chinese have
reached parity with the West is absolutely ridiculous. It's an awful lot of
hysteria. The J-20 represents a certain degree of progress, but it is very far
from being anything like a current-generation US aircraft."
In Aboulafia's estimation, the J-20 prototype "looked very unimpressive". He
says that the aircraft is oversized and that its canards - the fins positioned
between the cockpit and the wings - will reduce its stealth characteristics.
Its shape is reminiscent of "how you designed planes in the 1980s", he
suggests. The J-20's front end does indeed look a lot like an F-22, which first
flew in 1990, while its back end recalls an old Russian MiG prototype. So the
J-20 does not, it seems, signify a breakthrough in indigenous Chinese
innovation, instead splicing together used American and Russian ideas.
In any case, "the real challenge isn't building a prototype," Aboulafia
continues. "It's getting all the capable industries that give you the key
enablers." His point is that while nobody knows what kind of systems are inside
the machine that flew on January 10, China is believed not to have developed
the many supporting industries - the providers of technologies such as engines,
electronic warfare systems, advanced radar, data links, sensor fusion software,
command and control systems - that would make the J-20 a true threat to the US
As such, even if the J-20 does enter production seven to ten years from now, it
is unlikely to be in the same technological class as the F-22, the F-35, or the
T-50, a Russian stealth jet which had its first flight last year.
Not all analysts agree with this downbeat assessment of the J-20's
capabilities, however. Writing on the Air Power Australia blog, Carlo Kopp and
Peter Goon argue that the aircraft poses a formidable challenge. "Any notion
that an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter or F/A-18E/F Super Hornet [an older,
non-stealthy US fighter] 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 conclude.
This J-20 report card is far more glowing than most, and takes a lot for
granted about what the untried jet will ultimately be capable of - if indeed it
ever enters series production. Anyone confidently predicting that this plane
will outgun the F-35 runs the risk of buying into the China mystique: that the
all-conquering Chinese can accomplish anything they set their minds to.
To be sure, some of China's recent industrial and technological achievements
have been impressive. But getting a world-beating stealth fighter into active
service within the next decade is a fearsome challenge, even by Chinese
Only one aspect of the J-20 saga appears beyond dispute: that the plane's
unveiling was carefully stage-managed to coincide with Gates' visit. It is
worrying that the Chinese should have sought to ruffle Gates at a time when he
was visiting Beijing specifically to mend Sino-US military relations. But in
the end, China's shock tactics may have backfired: Gates' Pentagon analysts
most likely told him that the J-20 is nothing much to worry about. Maybe
Beijing's top brass should have listened to Deng after all.
Trefor Moss is a freelance journalist who covers Asian politics, in
particular defense, security and economic issues. He is a former Asia-Pacific
editor for Jane's Defense Weekly.