Stealth fighter sneaks up on Taiwan
By Jens Kastner
TAIPEI - The maiden flight of China's new stealth jet fighter humbled those
officials and observers who initially dismissed the possibility that the
country could come up with such a sophisticated weapon any time soon. It was
strikingly demonstrated that neither the intelligence apparatus of the United
States nor that of Taiwan had a clue about the speed of Chinese advances.
Unnoticed by Beijing's adversaries, the J-20's engineers have mastered advanced
stealth-shaping techniques, and even if mass production still lies a few years
ahead, it is understood that the Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force
(PLAAF) in the foreseeable future will have super-cruising aircraft at hand
can't be stopped by any air defense system in Asia, including those of the US
Navy's aircraft-carrier battle groups. Needless to say, this has tremendous
repercussions for Taiwan's security situation.
Yet, despite the grave implications for the island, intelligence officials in
Taiwan were at first quick to dismiss photos depicting the J-20 as fakes prior
to the test flight. Then, after the authenticity was proved, they kept
remarkably quiet. But now as the dust begins to settle, Taipei senses that
mainland China's show of force could well give Washington a justification to
revive major arms sales to the island.
Coinciding with a visit to Beijing by US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates,
China unveiled the prototype of its stealth aircraft that experts say could
rival the US Air Force's F-22A Raptor - the world's only fully operational
next-generation stealth fighter aircraft. As no technical details have so far
been disclosed by the Chinese, observers rely purely on speculation. But since
the first images of the J-20 were published on the Chinese Internet in
December, the tenor of the assessments has gradually reached an intriguing
The aircraft is bigger than expected and can therefore fly farther, and in
terms of air-combat capability, it's said to be superior to the US F-35 Joint
Strike Fighter currently still being developed, or the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.
Furthermore, the J-20 can super-cruise to and from targets, a feature that
doubles the effective sortie rate. The only weapon system the US has in its
arsenal to match the J-20 is the F-22A Raptor, an immensely costly aircraft
which for the time being is left without funding for further production.
The solution that suggests itself when seeking to destroy an "invisible"
aircraft is attacking it while it's still on the ground. However, this could
also prove difficult for the US and its allies. This is because the PLAAF and
People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) have access to a few hundred airfields,
with some of them dug deep underground. Moreover, the extra-large fuel capacity
and supersonic cruise capability of the J-20 mean China can choose to base them
hidden very deep inside its vast territory.
Today's battlefield effectively starts off as a duel between Integrated Air
Defense Systems (IADS), a term that describes systems that put all
anti-aircraft sensors and weapons under a common command. In any conflict that
would involve China in the next decade, a reasonably sized fleet of J-20s would
likely first take on US and allied IADS located within the Second Island Chain,
a maritime line that runs roughly from the north of Japan to the Pacific island
of Guam and then south until it reaches Indonesia.
US Air Force and Navy tankers could be destroyed, and operations at US and
allied airfields on Guam, the Ryukyu Island chain, the Japanese main islands
and the Korean Peninsula significantly complicated, if not shut down.
As China regards eventual unification with Taiwan as in its national core
interest and has all along been signaling that it wouldn't shy away from
picking up a fight over the matter, the question arises of how Taiwan's
leadership assesses the newly emerged threat of the Chinese stealth fighter.
But since unlike US officials, Taiwanese ones have so far chosen to stay
remarkably mum, the answer has to come from the island's scholars.
"Obviously, the development of J-20 is far faster than our intelligence
anticipated," acknowledges Li Da-jung, a professor at Taipei's Tamkang
University and an expert on Asia-Pacific security, in an interview with Asia
Times Online. "In military terms, the J-20 and the DF-21D [China's alleged
anti-ship ballistic missile] are meant as Beijing's trump cards to strengthen
its anti-access and area-denial capabilities against US aircraft-carrier combat
groups in the event of a war in East Asia."
To the Taiwanese, somewhat more spine-chilling than the actual threat the J-20
projects is the sudden demonstration of how far China is willing to go in its
quest to counter US hegemony in the region, says Arthur Ding, a cross-strait
military affairs expert at Taipei's National Chengchi University. "Although it
could take 10 years for China to achieve real progress, the unveiling of the
J-20 shows China's determination to spend huge resources to develop new
fighters", he says.
Just as no official statement was made by the Taiwanese authorities regarding
the J-20's maiden flight, the island's Ministry of National Defense and its air
force wouldn't comment on a recent, much-noted report by the Washington Times,
according to which the US - under the shadow of the news surrounding the J-20 -
decided to give the green light to an upgrade of Taiwan's existing fleet of
The report estimates that the US would wait with an announcement over the deal
- possibly worth US$4 billion - until after Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit
to the US between January 18 and 21. An arming of Taiwan's 146 14-year-old
F-16A/Bs with new electronics, engines and possibly the sophisticated AIM-9X
Sidewinder air-to-air missiles is certain to outrage Beijing, even if the sales
wouldn't cover the new F-16C/Ds Taiwan has long been requesting.
"Taipei keeps a close eye on the implications of the J-20 test flight for US
arms sales to Taiwan", says Li.
Yet, according to Wang Jhy-perng, a research fellow at the Association for
Managing Defense and Strategies, such a focus is not useful for Taiwan. "Even
if the US agrees to sell brand new F-16C/Ds, it would be merely of transitional
use for the few years China needs to mass produce its J-20s. It's high time
that it's understood that there's no catching up with the speed China develops
For Wang, Taiwan has no other option but the significant strengthening of its
anti-symmetric warfare capabilities. And Ding believes that this is what the
island's military has already begun doing. "Taiwan's three services are
discussing how to repel China's superior force from their inferior position,”
A major aspect of the maiden J-20 flight that still puzzles Taiwanese observers
is the obscure way Beijing chose to disclose the event, letting photos of the
stealth fighter leak to open Chinese military Web forums. In what appeared to
be a move to deliberately fuel speculation, according to Taiwanese lawmakers,
China's engineers fixed an emblem on the tail fin of the aircraft not
consistent with that of the PLAAF and another one on the front wings sporting a
design no longer used.
Although it was widely speculated that Beijing chose to disclose the J-20's
test flight for the sake of maximizing the political and psychological impact,
Taiwanese scholars like Li don't quite buy this as the real motive.
"Why would they want to give Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and President
Obama a slap in the face?" asks Li, "This explanation simply doesn't make any
sense to me."
The Taiwanese in charge of finding answers to Li's question would be close to
the deputy chief of the general staff for intelligence at the Ministry of
National Defense, Shen Yi-ming. Shen was the high-ranking intel official who,
when questioned by Taiwan's legislature, prematurely dismissed the photos of
the J-20 prototype as fakes. This makes one wonder what Taiwan's intel officers
were actually doing during those years when China brought its first stealth
fighter into being.
However, it is clear what the retired predecessors and former superiors of
these spies were up to in the days the PLAAF was preparing to move the J-20
onto the tarmac. They, traveling in a group of 19, were hosted by the Chinese
Communist Party for a five-day leisure trip to the Chinese mainland.