Wednesday, December 21, 2016

China has a new stealth fighter plane -- or does it?

I've been collecting stories about China's new J-20 "stealth" fighter for a little while now. I haven't gone much into it, mostly because I have been really busy with work for months now. I have chosen to sacrifice sleep in favor of blogging, though, so I guess you get the benefit of that sacrifice. At least if you care about the J-20. Which you might not. After all, this isn't a military blog. Unless I say it is, of course. Dissatisfied customers will receive a full refund, and should refer to the title of the blog.

The jet made its first official appearance at the end of October, as Reuters reports (via Yahoo):
ZHUHAI, China (Reuters) - China showed its Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter in public for the first time on Tuesday, opening the country's biggest meeting of aircraft makers and buyers with a show of its military clout.
Airshow China, in the southern city of Zhuhai, offers Beijing an opportunity to demonstrate its ambitions in civil aerospace and to underline its growing capability in defense. China is set to overtake the U.S. as the world's top aviation market in the next decade.
Two J-20 jets, Zhuhai's headline act, swept over dignitaries, hundreds of spectators and industry executives gathered at the show's opening ceremony in a flypast that barely exceeded a minute, generating a deafening roar that was met with gasps and applause and set off car alarms in a parking lot.
Experts say China has been refining designs for the J-20, first glimpsed by planespotters in 2010, in the hope of narrowing a military technology gap with the United States. President Xi Jinping has pushed to toughen the armed forces as China takes a more assertive stance in Asia, particularly in the South China and East China seas.
But what did China really show off? Is the J-20 a legit fifth-generation fighter on a par with the F-22 and F-35? Sure, it looks good:

But despite stealing many design elements from the F-22, it seems unlikely that the J-20 can even begin to compare. Yes, there are many common design elements with the F-22:

Apparently, the brief display of the J-20 did not impress aviation experts:
But analysts said the brief and relatively cautious J-20 routine - the pilots did not open weapon bay doors, or perform low-speed passes - answered few questions.
"I think we learned very little. We learned it is very loud. But we can't tell what type of engine it has, or very much about the mobility," said Greg Waldron, Asia Managing Editor of FlightGlobal. "Most importantly, we didn't learn much about its radar cross-section."
A key question whether the new Chinese fighter can match the radar-evading properties of the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor air-to-air combat jet, or the latest strike jet in the U.S. arsenal, Lockheed's F-35. The F-22, developed for the U.S. Air Force, is the J-20's closest lookalike.
Superficial appearances, while indicating espionage, do not translate into performance. It would appear that the J-20 falls short on several fronts:
The jet’s debut generated ripples of panic across the globe in the wake of its boisterous exhaust. Can this plane best the best of Western stealth tech, the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighters?

Nope. The J-20 is no F-22, and nowhere does it fall shorter than with its most critical trait: dodging detection. “At best, it’s probably stealthy only from the front,” says aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia, of the Teal Group. “Whereas all-aspect stealth like that in the F-22 and F-35 minimizes the radar signature from all directions.”
The fact is, the J-20 just isn't stealthy. The use of the canards -- the little winglets at the forward edge of the fuselage -- tell you that. Those dramatically enhance radar profile. Further, they indicate that the aircraft needs stabilization to make it airworthy. Canards can enhance maneuverability, but they also can compensate for inherent instability. It is not clear which function the J-20's canards serve, but either way, they reduce the aircraft's stealthiness.

The Wired article notes that the J-20 might not meet the standards of the F-22 or F-35:
The J-20 technically counts as a fifth-generation fighter—it’s got the same sort of tech and capability of its contemporaries—but it lacks the breadth of know-how and technological innovation you see in American jets.
On the other hand, the Chinese philosophy always has been to simply build more. If the F-22 has a 10-1 advantage over Chinese fighters, make sure that when the shooting starts, the Chinese have a 20-to-1 numerical advantage. High tech isn't really their forte -- numbers are.  Ultimately, it might not matter much of the F-22 and F-35 are better than their Chinese counterparts as long as the Chinese build enough planes. Not a comforting thought.

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