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January 12, 2011

Black Eagle


Much ruffling of feathers as the People's Republic of China - or at least some faction of its military - shows off the Chengdu J-20, an at least partially operational fifth generation fighter aircraft.

China conducted the first test flight of its stealth fighter just hours before U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates sat down with President Hu Jintao here to mend frayed relations, undermining the meeting and prompting questions over whether China's civilian leadership is fully in control of the increasingly powerful armed forces.

U.S. officials said President Hu appeared not to have heard of the test flight when Mr. Gates asked him about it in their meeting Tuesday, even after pictures and accounts of it had begun appearing online.

It is an impressive beast. So much for the Obama administration's claims - repeated less than a week ago - China would have only a "handful" of stealth fighters available by 2025.

The most obvious comparison to be made is with the F-22 Raptor, the world's only operational fifth generation fighter aircraft. And an obvious problem arises as the Obama administration's has decided to cut its production run almost in half. Given the F-35 has yet to be fielded and a possible closing of the technological advantage enjoyed by American air dominance - particularly as this may change the state of play in specific theatres - a conspiracy minded interpretation would suggest China's defence ministry is trying to save the F-22.

This Air Power Australia preliminary technical report suggests cause for alarm. Particularly so, given one scenario for conflict between the PRC and the United States over Taiwan.

Any notion that an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter or F/A-18E/F Super Hornet will be capable of competing against this Chengdu design in air combat, let alone penetrate airspace defended by this fighter, would be simply absurd. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet are both aerodynamically and kinematically quite inferior to the as presented J-XX/J-20 design, and even the shape based VLO capability in the J-XX/J-20, as presented, will effectively neutralise any sensor advantage either type might possess against earlier Russian and Chinese fighter designs.
A mature J-XX/J-20, with a full strike capability, would be a direct one-for-one equivalent to the proposed dual role FB-22A, which was championed by Dr. James G. Roche during his tenure as SecAF, until 2005.

All this taken as read, while the F-22 is certainly the obvious comparison for the J-20 I am not certain it is the apt comparison. I have been very critical of the Obama administration's defence policy including the decision to radically scale back production of the F-22. It seems certain critics will take recent events as evidence the decision was short sighted, perhaps disastrously so.

But I think in this instance their concerns may have been misplaced and, whatever the Obama administrations motives, there may be an excellent reason to build only so many F-22s as may be needed to manage contingenices until the next air dominance asset arrives.

Posted by Ghost of a flea at January 12, 2011 06:57 AM