In my formative years as an aspiring defense analyst, the military balance bean counting game was dominated by main battle tanks: how many could NATO field to meet a dreaded Warsaw Pact armored blitzkrieg across the North German Plain.
Today, the bean counting game is 5th generation fighters: how many we’ll have versus how many the Chinese will have. Of course all of this is based on some rather spurious projections because with our own constantly fluctuating Joint Strike Fighter program we don’t know for certain how many 5th gen fighters we’ll field in another decade, let alone how many the Chinese might be able to build.
We do know this: the number of 5th gen fighters in the Chinese inventory is zero.
U.S. aircraft manufacturers have wrestled with the complicated components of stealth, such as radar absorbent coatings and the complexities of the aircraft’s shape, for many decades. The F-22 program began in the 1980s; it was given Milestone I approval in 1986.
Yet, some assume China is on the cusp of mastering the complexities of stealth on an industrial scale. A recent Reuters story breathlessly claimed that China is developing a 5th generation fighter that “may rival within eight years Lockheed Martin Corp's F-22 Raptor, the premier U.S. fighter.”
It’s based on testimony from Wayne Ulman of the Air Force National Air and Space Intelligence Center to the congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. "It's yet to be seen exactly how (the next generation) will compare one on one with say an F-22," Ulman told the commission. "But it'll certainly be in that ballpark."
Ulman’s prepared testimony was a bit more cautious: “a next-generation fighter (referred to as the XXJ) should be operational around 2018.”
The Reuters article goes on to say that this “intelligence” contradicts statements made by SecDef Robert Gates last year in front of the Economic Club Of Chicago that China is “projected to have no fifth generation aircraft by 2020,” and only “a handful” of them by 2025.
At the same commission hearing, RAND’s Roger Cliff said the only tangible evidence of a Chinese 5th gen aircraft are “photos of an alleged full scale mockup,” which have been around for some time. “The full-scale mockup photo suggested an aircraft with a reduced radar cross-section, though perhaps not in the class of the U.S. F-22 and F-35.”
Defense analyst and consultant Loren Thompson penned a recent piece in The Diplomat saying China is a long way from fielding an F-22 equivalent. “Not only does China lack the necessary experience or expertise in a number of relevant technologies, but it has never demonstrated the system-integration skills required to bring all those technologies together in a functioning airframe.”
He goes on:
“Because the US military has invested decades in understanding how adversaries might seek to foil the stealth features of its aircraft, it’s likely to figure out how to destroy or disable fifth-generation fighters long before the Peoples Liberation Army does. Despite its recent economic mis-steps, America still accounts for nearly half of all global military spending, and its investment in military technology is many times that of China. So not only will it probably find early answers to any tactical-aircraft challenge posed by China, but it already is devising fixes to vulnerabilities Chinese scientists may have identified in the F-22’s defences.”-- Greg Grant