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How China Will Track and Shoot Down US’s Newest Stealth Jets

A
gang of advanced missiles and a bleeding-edge radar unveiled at a
Chinese air show could mean big trouble for the Pentagon’s best
fighters.

A useful lesson to bear in mind at last
month’s Zhuhai air show—China’s only domestic air and defense trade
show, held once every other year.It was the Shenyang J-31 stealth
fighter
, which resembles a twin-engine version of America’s newest
stealth jet, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. But the real tricks lay in
Beijing’s growing family of advanced missiles and radars

The J-31 prototype was hidden except when it was flying, and not much
detail was available. But the display was notable for the eruptions of
smoke from the engines, most likely Russian RD-93s.

That is
important, because until China builds its own fighter engines it cannot
build stealth fighters without approval from Vladimir Putin’s desk. That
includes the Chengdu J-10B, China’s most modern, in-production fighter,
or its bootleg versions of Russia’s Sukhoi Flanker fighter family.

China
says it’s working on indigenous fighter and trainer engines, but the
samples on show were exactly the same as those seen two years ago.
What
was new and important on the Chinese military’s outdoor display line at
Zhuhai was a mix of mature and new technology. And by “mature” I mean
the 1950s-design Xian H-6M bomber, with something suspiciously like a
World War II Norden bombsight visible through the windows of the
bombardier station. But the bomber was surrounded by guided weapons,
some seen for the first time in public. The same went for the somewhat
more modern JH-7 light bomber.

Zhuhai was full of new
missile hardware, from the 3 1/2-ton CX-1 ramjet-powered anti-ship and
land-attack missile down to the QW-19 manportable air-defense system.
(China’s military believes in these small air-defense missiles, both in
their classic standalone form and integrated into small mobile systems.)Not
many of those missiles were individually surprising. The CX-1 is
different in small details from the Russian-Indian BrahMos but very
similar in specifications. Two-stage short-range surface-to-air missiles
borrow the concept invented for Russia’s KBM Tunguska and Pantsyr
systems, and so on.
What is impressive, however, is how many of the new Chinese missiles there are, and how they fit together.

One
visible trend is the re-use of components to meet different mission
needs. Since the CM-400AKG air-to-surface missile appeared at 2012’s
edition of the Zhuhai show, it has gathered a lot of attention as a
high-supersonic anti-ship weapon. This year, the exhibit strongly
suggested that it shares its solid rocket motor and warhead with the
surface-to-surface SY400 ballistic missile, and a passive radar seeker
with the new B611MR semi-ballistic anti-radiation missile. The B611MR,
in turn, has a common motor and controls to the 175-mile-range M20
GPS/inertially guided missile—China’s equivalent to Russia’s
Iskander—and both are intended to use the same mobile launcher and
command-and-control system as the CX-1. Lots of interchangeable parts:
That is how China can roll out so many missile types so quickly. 


A
“system of systems” approach was evident in the biggest thinly coded
message at Zhuhai. That was the People’s Liberation Army’s outdoor
lineup of air-defense hardware, centered on the gigantic JH-27A VHF
active electronically scanned array radar
—the first of its type in
service anywhere, if Chinese officials are telling the truth. Such
radars are designed to track stealthy targets. The radar’s antenna,
almost 100 feet tall, towered over the rest of the exhibits. Just to the
left of it were smaller Aesas, one operating in UHF and the other in
the centimetric S-band: that is, complementary sensors with
progressively higher resolution, cued by the VHF radar to track stealthy
targets, accurately enough to engage them with missiles.

At
a conference in London the following week, a senior retired U.S. Air
Force commander pooh-poohed counterstealth efforts. I don’t know where
such confidence originates, because nothing like the JH-27A and its
companion radars exists in the West, and so we know little of how they
work.

Further down the line were three vehicles—a
radar/command vehicle, a short-to-medium-range LY-60D/HQ-6D
surface-to-air missile, and a Norinco LD-2000 seven-barrel 30-mm gun.
Like some gun systems used by the West, the LD-2000 is basically a
truck-mobile version of a gun system carried by ships to shoot down
incoming missiles. But the West uses those systems to defend forward
operating bases in Iraq and Afghanistan from rockets and mortars, and
China doesn’t need the LD-2000 for that.

Instead, the PLA
has made the gun part of a point-defense system against both attacking
aircraft and weapons, such as precision-guided munitions. The system is
truck-mounted and road-mobile, as are the big and conspicuous radars
that stood next to it on display. It is most likely intended to protect
those high-value relocatable assets from even a well-executed
destruction of enemy air-defense operation. Will it be 100 percent
effective? No. Does it make China’s air defenses much harder to kill?
Assuredly.

Stealth fighters get the attention even though
they smoke like Humphrey Bogart, but there is a lot of PLA money going
into missiles and reconnaissance systems that can hold naval and other
forces—the assets that the Chinese see as their primary threats—at risk
from far beyond the horizon, and radars that are designed to detect,
track. and target stealth aircraft. That’s the rabbit, and we take our
eyes off it at our peril.