China’s Fifth Generation Stealth Fighter: Implications of the J-20 Black Eagle

The PLAAF (PLA Air Force) conducted the test flight of its new
generation stealth fighter J-20 on January 11, 2011, just days before US
Defence Secretary Robert Gates landed in Beijing on a mission to repair
the bilateral defence ties. The timing of the test flight was curious.
Was this itself a message for the US as also the rest of the world? Or
is this another demonstration of the lack of coordination at the highest
levels of the Chinese government.

J-20 will rival for the latest U.S. stealth fighter – the F-22 Raptor.
Russia is also in the process of developing one – the Sukhoi T-50 that
made its flight test in January 2010 – although it is going to be
another decade before it gets inducted into service. The fact that China
has been able to develop the J-20 prototype demonstrates the ability of
the PLA to make steady progress in an area where it is otherwise
considered weak.

Having said that, it remains to be seen as to how good the new aircraft
is. Comparing it with the F-22 or the Russian T-50 is going to be mere
speculation. Whether it actually makes it into the fifth generation
category or not is also an issue. It will depend on the kind of avionics
& communication gear, sensor performance and low radar
reflectivity, speed, how advanced it is in terms of the composite
material used and a variety of other parameters. But it should be borne
in mind that China has been encountering serious problems as far as
developing jet engines are concerned. They have not been able to produce
a good engine indigenously even for their fourth generation aircrafts.

Several unofficial Chinese and foreign defence-related websites have
published pictures of the J-20 prototype doing high-speed taxi test, a
step closer to being readied for actual flights. The J-20 has been
presumably developed at the Chengdu Aircraft Design Institute,
although there has been no concrete evidence of such a system being
developed until these pictures popped up. While the Chinese authorities
have not commented upon the new aircraft, General He Weirong, deputy
head of PLAAF had stated in 2009 that China was readying to do the test
flight of its first stealth fighter and that it would be operationalised
in “eight or 10 years.”

Aviation experts and China watchers have said that the photos seem
genuine. Gareth Jennings of the Jane’s Defence Weekly noted that since
“the nose wheel is off the ground in one picture suggest[ing] that this
was a high-speed taxi test.” He added that “all the talk we’ve heard is
that this could happen some time the next few weeks”.

There are also doubts about whether the technology has been developed
indigenously and if not, where they got the technology from. Xu
Yongling, one of the top test pilots stated that the J-20 “is a
masterpiece of China’s technological innovation.”

He added that the jet has advanced supersonic cruise capabilities.

There have been several reports suggesting that US technology that is
the foundation for the new fighter. In January 2011, an Indian-American
engineer (who worked at the Northrop Grumman, where he worked from 1968
to 1986) was sentenced 32 years imprisonment for selling military
secrets to China. Noshir S Gowadia who called himself a father of the
technology that protects the B-2 stealth bomber from heat-seeking
missiles was originally arrested by the FBI in 2005.

A second potential source would have been the US F-117 Nighthawk stealth
fighter, the world’s first operational stealth fighter, which was shot
down by a Serbian anti-aircraft missile during the Kosovo War in 1999.
The US hardly took any step to obtain the wreckage of the downed F-117
and several critical elements appear to have made its way into the
Chinese hands. In fact, a RAND study titled, Friction and Operational
Problems, notes that the US did not go about destroying the wreckage as
the site attracted large number of people including government officials
and journalists.. General John M Loh, a former commander of Tactical
Air Command said, “I’m surprised we didn’t bomb it, because the standing
procedure has always been that when you lose something of real or
perceived value – in this case real technology, stealth – you destroy
it.” The report stated that the initial thinking within the
military was to destroy the wreckage but they were forced to reconsider
“because they could not have located it quickly enough to attack it
before it was surrounded by civilians and the media.” It said, “For the
record, it should be noted that USAF F-15Es were immediately put on
alert to destroy the wreckage with AGM-130s after the F-117 downing was
confirmed, but by the time the wreckage location could be positively
determined, CNN was on the scene and collateral damage issues precluded
the attack.”An
Aviation Week and Space Technology
report on September 27, 1999 noted that while Moscow obtained some parts
from the wreckage, a significant size of the airframe found its way
into China.

Admiral Davor Domazet-Loso, who was the head of the Croatian military
during the Kosovo War, stated, “At the time, our intelligence reports
told of Chinese agents crisscrossing the region where the F-117
disintegrated, buying up parts of the plane from local farmers. We
believe the Chinese used those materials to gain an insight into secret
stealth technologies … and to reverse-engineer them.”

The US has played down the Chinese stealth achievement. The Pentagon
spokesman Col. David Lapan suggested that while the Chinese are working
on a fifth generation fighter, the progress has been uneven. Another spokesman Geoff Morrell was sceptical about the stealth capabilities of the new aircraft.

Although the US has known of the Chinese stealth aircraft, they have
given different estimates as to when such a system would be ready: from
2018 to 2025.

The new Chinese fighter appears to be modelled around the F-22, a heavy
twin-engine fighter about the same size as that of Lockheed’s F-22.
F-35, which has currently gone into the production mode, is a single
engine fighter aircraft, smaller in comparison to the F-22. There have
been speculations as to which one the J-20 will be modelled around and
the pictures now suggest that it is closer in appearance to that of the
F-22. Some reports suggest that J-20 is possibly and larger and heavier
than the Russia T-50 or the US F-22.
The large size indicates the ability to carry heavy weapon load as well as the long range of the aircraft.

The US, which has stopped the production of the expensive F-22 Raptor,
preferring the cheaper F-35, may now be confronted with a new rival.
Given the size of the new stealth fighter, as mentioned before, it
appears closer to the F-22 and therefore the Chinese test-flight of the
J-20 will likely trigger some re-thinking within the US defence
community. F-22 is far superior to the F-35 and the Pentagon may be
forced to re-start the production, which was halted in 2009 after the
originally produced 187 were given to the US Air Force. Although both
are of the current generation, the F-22 is clearly a superior fighter
that ensures air superiority whereas F-35 is intended primarily as a
ground attack aircraft. One such analyst commented that there could be a
new consensus developing for “the resurrection of the F-22.

  • David P.Curcione

    1.The J-20 Jxx Fighter speed is Mack 2.2.+ too!