Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Much Ado About Chinese Stealth Fighters

Like most information coming out of China these days, information about China's military capability must be taken with a grain of salt. This is particularly true about the recent hype over China's "new stealth fighters."
In December 2010 the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force shocked observers when it allowed civilian photographers to snap and publish photos of China’s very first, and previously unseen, stealth fighter prototype undergoing ground testing in Chengdu in central China.

The J-20 “Mighty Dragon” took off for its apparent first test flight on Jan. 11, inaugurating what some have described as a new era of aerial warfare, in which advanced Chinese aircraft might challenge the decades-long dominance of the U.S. military with its stealth fighters and bombers. “China’s new Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter was an important milestone in China’s Long March toward parity in military technology with Russia and the West,” wrote Carlo Kopp, an analyst with Air Power Australia, an independent think tank.

Not only did China possess the J-20, its aviation companies were also said to be hard at work on several other radar-evading fighters similar in philosophy to the American F-117, F-22 and F-35 fighters and B-2 bomber. Among these rumored warplanes was the J-16, reportedly in development in Shenyang in northeastern China.

The J-16 was, if anything, scarier to the American defense establishment than the J-20, for it was more practical. The Mighty Dragon was clearly an experimental aircraft incorporating design elements typically not seen on Chinese warplanes, including internal weapons bays. Moreover, the twin-engine J-20 apparently lacked purpose-built engines and could be seen flying with Russian-made AL-31F engines likely poorly-suited for the airframe.

A year after its debut the first J-20 had completed only 60 confirmed testing flights of the thousands required by a new warplane design. A second copy of the Mighty Dragon appeared in the spring of 2012 but by summer still hadn’t flown.

...The J-16′s first public appearance occurred in Shenyang in April, when the PLAAF flew at least one of the new fighters before a press audience. Hong Kong’s Kanwa magazine described the J-16 as a direct copy of the Su-30, a version of the T-10 dating from the late 1990s. The J-16 in fact does not feature any of the rumored stealth enhancements, such as can be found on the T-50. Apparently, the only difference between the Chinese J-16 and the Russian Su-30 it’s copied from is that the J-16 can carry Chinese-made weapons. Both the J-16 and the Su-30 use the standard, Russian-made AL-31 engine.

In that sense, the “new” Chinese fighter isn’t new at all. Instead of representing an immediate step towards a stealthy fighter force rivaling America’s, Beijing’s new warplane holds the line at late ’90s-early 2000s technology. Unless China is developing any other new warplanes — and that’s certainly possible — a true generational leap in front-line fighter technology will have to wait for the J-20 to achieve operational readiness. That could take a decade, by which time the U.S. military will likely have brought potentially hundreds of new F-35 stealth fighters into service.

As the J-16 was making its first public appearance, Beijing was also negotiating with Russia to purchase copies of the Su-35, the newest T-10 model. The proposed purchase only underscores China’s apparent inability to produce its own combat-capable versions of even moderately stealthy warplanes anytime soon. Perhaps Beijing is learning the lesson that the U.S. government learned during the 15-year, $70-billion development of the F-22: that inventing stealth fighters is hard. _Source

We know that many Chinese buildings, tunnels, bridges, towers, and other construction has a tendency to collapse years ahead of their time -- if not prior to completion.

China's legendary difficulties with construction and civil engineering has been linked to rampant corruption in China's construction industries and governmental oversight departments. But who is to say that there are not similar problems with Chinese manufacture of military aircraft components? There must be some reason why the Chinese have so much trouble building their own engines and other components of modern military craft.

Westerners -- particularly Americans -- need to be careful not to allow their Pentagon and military contractors to exaggerate China's military capability in the leadup to another legendary arms race. It is unlikely that the US government -- already spending over $1 trillion a year more than it can raise -- can survive another full scale arms race such as the one it barely survived against the Soviets.


bruce said...

I would have thought the Chinese would have a superior sense of doing things right. With their long history behind them as a mark of relevance.
I guess the communist lessons have deleted more than intended. Its a shame really, so much potential wounded by its own preachings. China very well might have been a great power, but it seems its footings are no better than the norm.

It still might become one, but for now it appears destined to also ran. Granted, a big horse in the field.
Trouble is, all the other horses are shoeless.

Eric said...

Everything, from the raw materials that we import into America to the electronics are built poorly, in some cases on purpose. Some exceptions do exist though, I'm going to dig up some later on.