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Chinese fifth-gen fighter shatters U.S. illusions

Tue, 01/11/2011 - 9:56am
Jason Lomberg, Technical Editor

Jason LombergChina held the first test flight of its fifth-generation J-20 fighter today. Lifting off at 12:50:08 local time (04:50:08 GMT), the Chengdu J-20 recorded a flight time of about 18 minutes. This can’t be overstated—the J-20 could seriously alter the balance of power in the Pacific.

When Secretary Gates capped the F-22 Raptor at 187 planes, it was based on the presumption that the era of conventional warfare was over. If the future portends further asymmetrical, “fourth generation warfare,” then the F-35 (along with drones) fits the bill. The F-22’s air supremacy capabilities would be superfluous. But ever since this foolhardy decision, analysts have been cautioning against “putting all our eggs in one basket” and relying exclusively on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (a capable aircraft, but inferior to rivals in air-to-air capabilities).

Secretary Gates had previously assured critics that China wouldn’t enter the “fifth-generation” before 2020. Yet on January 8th, Gates told reporters that China, “may be somewhat further ahead in the development of the aircraft than our intelligence had earlier indicated.” He then clarified his comments as to whether China would field a fifth-gen fighter by 2020, “What I said was that in 2020 or 2025 that there would still be a vast disparity in the number of deployed fifth-generation aircraft that the United States had compared to anybody else in the world.” Today’s test flight confirms our worst fears.

The Chengdu J-20 fifth-generation Chinese stealth fighter.

According to estimates, the J-20 has “lower supercruise performance and agility than an F-22,” but with larger weapons bays and more fuel. The F-22 and J-20 have similar wingspans (44 ft 6 in and 45 ft, respectively), while the latter is about 13 feet longer (62 ft vs. 75 ft). As Bill Sweetman of Aviation Week points out, it is bigger and heavier than both the Sukhoi T-50 and the F-22.

There are three dangers associated with the J-20:

1) China will export the J-20, or derivatives, to rivals. According to RIA Novosti military commentator Ilya Kramnik, potential customers could include Central Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and Southeast Asia, as well as to the richest African countries. While a shooting war with China appears unlikely, it’s entirely possible we may encounter the J-20 on foreign battlefields. What about North Korea, which isn’t nearly as level-headed as China?

2) The Taiwan Situation. The J-20 dwarfs Taiwan’s comparatively meager arsenal of U.S. F-16s and French Mirage jets. In a geo-political sense, any war on the Taiwan mainland would necessarily involve the US, but the introduction of the J-20 exacerbates the situation.

3) A conventional shooting war with China. This is probably the least-likely scenario, as war between the US and China could turn catastrophic (read: nuclear).

The US military often suffers from “last war-itis”—basing defense strategy on older conflicts. Thus, in every major conflict of the 20th century, the US initially fielded inferior technology. It seems we’ve compounded those mistakes and more.

How do you feel about this new development? Leave a comment below or e-mail the author directly at jason.lomberg@advantagemedia.com

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