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  • J-20 - The Dragon Gets Airborne
    Posted by Bill Sweetman 1:27 PM on Jan 11, 2011

    A lot of people have weighed in so far on what the appearance of the J-20 prototype (or prototypes, as some pictures suggest) means for Chinese and US strategy.

    blog post photo

    What's fascinating is that, faced with the same kind of information gap that we dealt with in the Cold War, the debate has fallen into the same mold, pitting the hawks against the skeptics. This time around, however, a lot of the people arguing that the J-20 is a propaganda exercise, a preliminary prototype at best, are on the inside of the Pentagon.

    If you wanted to be really, really cynical about this, you would note that a certain white-haired gentleman in the Pentagon is on record as saying that China won't have an operational stealth aircraft before 2020, and that public disagreement with said gentleman has (on occasion) turned out to be sub-optimal from a career-development standpoint.

    However, belief that the J-20 is a long way off is also based on comparison with recent US program performance - and although this may produce the right answer, it will do so for the wrong reasons.

    When it comes to timing, the right answer for now starts with admitting that we don't know the answer. We have no good track record for the pace of development in China because it is not that long since China's economy started to take off, and not that long since the Maoist doctrine of the PLA - favoring numbers and politics over technology - gave way to a major program of modernization. One generation of Chinese development - represented by the J-10/10B, JF-17 and J-11B - doth not a trend make.

    The key pointers to the timing at this point are mostly out of sight from the West, because they are items that can be simulated or tested on the ground. They include progress with active electronically scanned array radar, passive electronic surveillance systems and (as often mentioned) propulsion. Blog photos do not tell us very much about that kind of hardware.

    Still less do they say much about the other essential element of a stealth aircraft, the complex sensor fusion and threat avoidance software that allows it to track targets with minimal transmissions while flying a precise path around planned and pop-up threats.

    It is probably a safe assessment that the J-20 is the first Chinese stealth aircraft (unless it has been preceded by another, covert demonstrator), so it will be a learning tool as well as a prototype in its own right. Almost regardless of the date at which it first enters service, its capabilities will evolve as the threat does.

    And do not forget the other X-factor: China's unprecedented access to foreign technical data via cyberespionage, data that can be widely disseminated without putting the intelligence system itself at risk.

    As for the aircraft itself: start with the size. Capability has been favored over low unit cost. And even with the in-development 33,000-pound-thrust WS-15 it may have a lower thrust-to-weight ratio than many of its contemporaries. Relative to Typhoon or Rafale, the wing appears more highly loaded and more sharply swept, favoring speed rather than ultimate agility.

    In LO terms, if this is truly a case of WYSIWYG, we are looking at a modified version of the F-22/F-35 "bowtie" signature pattern - actually a sort of Wild Bill Hickock "string tie" with the dangling strings being the rear sector.

    What is interesting about this is the ATF history, where the stealth requirement started along those lines. But Lockheed and Northrop promised the full bowtie with very low rear signatures, with no performance or cost penalty, and the requirement was changed. Whether that was really a smart idea, I don't know.

    What this suggests is that the Chinese expect to use this aircraft in circumstances where it can disengage, turn and run - maintaining engagement control, in short.

    This isn't surprising. While the J-20's proportions may be reminiscent of the F-111, it is unlikely to have the same mission (penetrating strike). The PLA, from the antiship ballistic missile (ASBM) through air-launched cruise missiles on the 1950s-technology H-6 bomber to its Type 022 missile boats, seems happy to leave the last run to the target to the missile. Also, for the time being, the PLA is not looking at having to fight through an integrated air defense system and fight its way out again.

    What the J-20 should do best is go fast, at high altitude, over a decent range - which leads to my guess is that this aircraft is primarily air-to-air, designed to cause the US really big problems with non-survivable air assets - tankers and ISR. Defending them against a rapidly developing attack by aircraft with a reduced frontal RCS would not be easy.

    Range, relative positioning and initiative are the key. With a long unrefueled range and useful sustained supersonic flight (just how good it will be depends on engine data we don't have), the J-20 could hold high-value air assets too far from China to be of much use. It doesn't have to be able to mix it one-for-one with the F-22:  there are not enough F-22s to defend everything at Pacific distances.

    The long-range P-38 Lightning could not close-combat a Zero, but then it didn't have to - and its pilots also learned very quickly that its level and climb speed advantage permitted them to control the engagement. 

    Another longer-term possibility for the J-20 is a "baby Backfire" to threaten Aegis ships, another vital and limited asset, with an air launched, supersonic sea-skimmer missile - and you don't have to sink them, just use dispersed kinetic weapons or an EMP warhead to put the antennas out of service.

    Both these missions fit with the anti-access/area denial (A2AD) theme that runs through a lot of PLA planning, including medium-range missile development. US freedom of operation inside the "second island chain" around China - running from Japan south to Guam and West Papua and encompassing the Philippine and China seas - depends on bases such as Andersen in Guam and Kadena in Japan, on tankers, airborne ISR and on carrier air power, and those assets increasingly support one another.

    That's where an operational J-20 - whenever it appears - will generate options for the PLA and problems for its adversaries, and that is the figure of merit for any deterrent system.

    Tags: ar99, tacair, Wellington, J-20

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