The Asianist

Balanced and fact-based analysis of Asian affairs

Posts Tagged ‘china stealth fighter

What China’s New J-20 Stealth Fighter Actually Means

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The latest China-related media frenzy has focused on whether Beijing’s newly-tested stealth fighter was so stealthy it may have even crept up on Chinese President Hu Jintao.

But the key question is what it says about the balance of power in the Pacific moving forward. At least three things are important to keep in mind in this regard.

First, in terms of the plane itself, the J-20 appears reasonably stealthy but bulky. That means that it can travel a larger distance, carry more stuff, and pierce through air defense networks. Some say this would allow it to more precisely penetrate and target Taiwanese defenses and shoot down the key weapons and related infrastructure that underpin US-led air campaigns as far as Guam. If this analysis is right, then the fighter is clearly an instrument of power projection rather than area denial; that is, Beijing is focusing not just on preventing others from infringing on its perceived territory, but seeking to move into potentially new spaces as well.

Second, in terms of component technology, as David Axe argues over at The Diplomat, China’s ability to produce the fighter in large numbers is constrained by its weaknesses in engines and supporting systems. The Chinese aviation industry’s main handicap has been its inability to produce fighter engines indigenously. If Beijing has fitted the J-20 with imported engines from Russia, they will likely be inadequate and the fighter will not be able to realize its full potential. Beijing has also yet to master all the supporting systems that a modern fighter requires (up to 11 by one estimate, including sound mission planning).

On the other hand, perception-wise, the balance of power at the moment clearly seems to be shifting much faster than Washington’s estimates. The Pentagon had predicted Beijing would not have a stealth fighter for a decade or more, and had little idea that its anti-ship missile would be nearly operational as early as late last year. Lest this be written off as a one-off incident, director of US Navy Intelligence David Dorsett admitted:

We have been pretty consistent in underestimating the delivery…of Chinese technology and weapons systems. They enter operational capability quicker than we frequently project.

Perceptions of a threat tend to go through cycles of underestimation and overestimation, and this case is no different. It will still take years before the stealth fighter is actually deployed. Muscle-flexing aside though, it is becoming much clearer that Chinese military modernization is moving more rapidly than initially thought, with potentially profound consequences for the Asia-Pacific.

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