J-20: The Threat We Think it Is?

I just read an interesting piece from our friends at Aviation Week postulating that China's J-20 stealth fighter might not be worth all the worry. Here are a some key reasons why:

A: The jet is being developed at a time when Western-made Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars designed to track stealth jets are beginning to proliferate. The U.S. is upgrading its F-15s and most likely a bunch of its F-16s with these powerful radars that have more than twice the range/power of conventional radars and are also good at jamming enemy air defenses. The article also points out that the F-35 may be equipped with radars and sensors aimed at nixing stealth fighters.

B: Both Aviation Week and we here at DT have pointed out that key to a modern stealth jet's effectiveness are its weapons and sensor loads. The J-20 is a big airplane and may have the ability to carry some serious sensors along with the computers and datalinks to process and covertly share the information they collect. The jet's size also means it could carry some plenty of weaponry in an internal weapons bay. But, fifth-generation avionics and weapon systems integration can take a long time to master. We don't know how far along China is in this department. i

C: It may just be a one-off technology demonstrator, we just don't know. Aviation Week points out that, in some ways, the design resembles Russia's old MiG 1.42 tech demonstrator. That program began in the 1980s in response to the F-22 and was cancelled in 1997 due to rising costs.

(It looks like Russia used the lessons it learned from the MiG 1.42 to build the PAK FA which it plans to field in the next decade. That jet is rumored to sacrifice stealth for increased maneuverability against the United States' F-22 Raptor.)

This comes as House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon said recently that the J-20 was designed with Russian help. Some also speculate that the J-20 was designed using information stolen from the F-35 program during a cyber attack a few years ago. Never underestimate the ability of blatant theft to make up for a lack of experience. Maybe this data wasn't used to design the airframe but it could be used to tweak the electronic warfare systems of a future Chinese fighter.

If the J-20 is just a tech demonstrator, the PLAAF might not have an operational stealth jet by 2020 as some are worrying, especially if it needs to figure out how to master the sensor issues. By this time, the U.S. will hopefully have more than mastered fifth-generation aircraft technology (in light of all of the F-35's teething problems) and will be applying that knowledge toward quickly fielding its sixth-gen jets.

Still, China's ability to rapidly develop this technology shows that the U.S. can't ignore high-end threats and must keep its R&D shops humming. If the J-20 isn't designed to defeat the F-22 and F-35, it's follow-on will be.

Here's the AvWeek piece.

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