China’s New Jets Are Impressive. But Are They for Real?

A known unknown takes flight. Photographer: STR/AFP/Getty Image

A known unknown takes flight.
Photographer: STR/AFP/Getty Image

By Tobin Harshaw Nov 2, 2016 1:04 PM EST

There was a brief but impressive show of new U.S. aircraft technology this week. The problem is that the planes belong to the Chinese military.

Aided in large part by espionage against the Pentagon and U.S. firms, the People’s Liberation Army air force unveiled its new J-20 stealth fighter, which it says is a so-called fifth-generation fighter like the American F-22 and F-35. Two J-20s flew for just a few minutes at an airshow in Zhuhai on Tuesday, leaving military experts of two minds about what the J-20 is actually capable of.

While Bradley Perrett of Aviation Week warned it was “clearly a big step forward in Chinese combat capability,” Greg Waldon of the consultancy FlightGlobal said the big reveal of the flyby was “we learned it was loud.”

If the sparse details released by the Chinese and speculation of military insiders are accurate, the plane could present some problems should the cool war in the South China Sea heat up. The jet is said to have a longer range and more armament than the competing U.S. fighters, and while it doesn’t likely have the computer systems to pose a threat to them, it could make easy targets of American refueling and surveillance craft.

But as far as U.S. officials are concerned, these capacities exist only in rumor. This is a common theme in all the Western fretting about China’s cutting edge military prowess: Nobody knows whether any of it is real.

Consider the Chinese military’s “carrier-killer missile,” the DF-21D. It was unveiled last year, during China’s celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, amid a hype campaign calling it the fastest missile in the world. In the U.S. military, there is speculation that it has radar that can see over the horizon and a maneuverable warhead that allows precision guidance as it nears its target. This has some experts warning that the age of the American aircraft carrier is over.

But, again, there is little proof that this missile is real or that China has any of the capabilities that so worry the West. The same can be said of the YJ-12 missile, which is said to fly just above the surface of the water to avoid radar tracking. While we’ve seen these weapons in parades, demonstrations and airshows, the real question is what’s inside. “Chinese ‘hardware’ continues to improve dramatically, but the caliber of the ‘software’ supporting and connecting it remains uncertain and untested in war,” noted analyst Andrew Erickson in the National Interest. “The missile components of the DF-21D already are proven through multiple tests, but China’s ability to use the missile against a moving target operating in the open ocean remains unproven.”

Then there is the new Type 093B nuclear-powered attack submarine, which some fear may be as deadly as the U.S. Navy’s Los Angeles-class boats. “The 93B is analogous to our LA improved in quietness and their appearance demonstrates that China is learning quickly about how to build a modern fast attack boat,” according to Gary Hendrix of the Center for a New American Security. But high-ranking Navy officials are more sanguine, noting that in undersea warfare the Chinese approach has centered on quantity over quality — Beijing is thought to have at least 70 attack subs, as compared to around 50 for the U.S. — and the consensus among the top Pentagon brass is that China is unlikely to have made the leaps in technology some fear.

So what does this all mean for long-term U.S. strategy (beyond, of course, getting better at protecting our military secrets)? If we take the threat of Chinese advances seriously, the first step would be to take a tough look at plans to build 10 new Ford-class supercarriers, which would be quite vulnerable if the Chinese are really as far along as some fear. This doesn’t mean giving up on carriers — as forward-based platforms that don’t rely on allies for hosting aircraft, they remain vital. But the wiser fiscal and preparedness choice may be stopping after the three supercarriers now under construction are completed and renovating five or so of the existing Nimitz-class, which are still far and away the terror of the seas. Through smarter management of maintenance and crew rotations, eight craft could conceivably do as effective a job patrolling the globe as the Navy’s hoped-for 10. (Carriers will always, alas, be more vulnerable than fake islands.)

Another idea is to make the U.S. fleet more dispersed and effective through emphasizing “distributed-lethality warfare.” This would involve making far more ships in the fleet — including those responsible for reconnaissance, specialized missions such as mine dispersal, and protecting aircraft carriers — capable of both striking the enemy and defending themselves. This gives the enemy more threats to protect against and more targets to eliminate. To some extent the Navy seems to be considering the approach; for example, it has upgraded the armor, weaponry and anti-torpedo capability of its troubled littoral combat ship.

Inevitably, long-term military thinking is an exercise in predicting what former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called known unknowns. The J-20 flyby showed only how little we know about China’s drive to become a cutting-edge military.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Source: Bloomberg “China’s New Jets Are Impressive. But Are They for Real?”

Note: This is National Interest’s article I post here for readers’ information. It does not mean that I agree or disagree with the article’s views.


7 Comments on “China’s New Jets Are Impressive. But Are They for Real?”

  1. Fre Okin says:

    Silly Western analysts should first ask US to allow Chiinese and Russians to have a close up look at F22 and F35 so they can learn the secrets. It is the Same Reason China don’t allow Westerners to get any closer to J20: to deny them knowlege!


  2. Joseph says:

    Of course the J-20 is impressive. It will be more impressive if it is really the product of espionage. The American alleged that it is built up by the F-35’s data. But the F-35 data is only a concept, which means it’s only fictions. It is a real technology if the American can make the application of the concept works. In order to take advantage of espionage, one has to have the expertise. One can steal the data how to make a clock, but only a clocksmith can understand how to make the clock. The American alleged the Chinese ‘stole’ the F-35 data, but while the American failed to build the ‘original’ F-35 from the ‘original’ data, the Chinese managed to build a working J-20 from the ‘stolen’ data. In a sense, the American has unwittingly admitted how dumb they actually are that they cannot understand their own techs. The most important part of both J-20 and F-35 is the engine. While the the huge J-20’s engine can cause vibration to trigger car alarm, the F-35 can barely get its fat tiny butt off the ground, let alone do VTOL. When the Russian unveils new aircraft, last time the T-50, the American was very dismissive. This time, the Chinese unveils a not-so-new aircraft, why is the American so freaked out?


    • Simon says:

      I heard that too.

      The F22 also has very loud engine. Loud noise is not really a compromise for stealth in high speed jets since radars cannot detect sound. At supersonic speed the jets actually flew by before the sound can be heard.


  3. Simon says:

    Heres one to consider. The F22 and F35 are incomplete prototypes of the J20 🙂



    So much jealousies and hubris. The Americans claim the Chengdu J-20 is a rip-off of their F-22 while the some of the Russians said, nay, it is a copy of their Mig 1.44. SO, who is one to believe?

    The Americans even claim the production of the Shenyang J-31 is possible only due to industrial espionage by the Chinese. More hubris?

    Yet the unspoken fact remains that the thousands of Chinese scientists graduated and working in U.S. labs, scored high in their university exams; A secret why the U.S. is No. 1. Come, come, you amigos, give credit where credit is due. You have seen their lab reports on the internet and you are scared out of your wits at the sophistication of their analysis.

    So, kindly cease your neocon styled small-mindedness. Yes, there are many psycho-pathological businessmen who doesn’t hesitate to steal other people’s ideas but puhleezz.. the scientists are a different bunch. As the late Lee Kuan Yew said, there are many layers of people in China, you cannot just simply stereotype all Chinese are the same. You will discover in time what these competent and creative scientists can do over time. Your CIA-paid mouthpieces and propagandists will be proven bigoted, narrow minded and liars in time to come.

    Perhaps fear and insecurity is what envelops you and accounts for your less than admirable behaviour? If such is the case, you DON’T deserve to lead the world in the New World Order. My vote is not with you.


  5. johnleecan says:

    The thought of China mass producing their supposedly stolen technology from the US of military planes, boats and weapons are for real. The possibility of the Zhuhai air show to be transformed into Zhuhai military wholesale market is a nightmare for the Americans. Imagine millions of people who hate America will be able to easily afford cutting edge technology and destroy America in all directions. Even American military superiority is no match for such quantity of copycat American hardware. With billions to be made, you’ll be able to buy from online stores and even Walmart. China doesn’t have to fire a single bullet. They just let others do the dirty job.


  6. Steve says:

    Are they for real…Answer: Really Impressive…The reason for the extra loud engine noise is to capture the attention of the hearing minds of spectators. The J-20 probably has a built-in volume noise control. Most people would have lost part of their hearing especially those over 40 years old, hence increased awesome engine noise production to liven up the old heads.

    Truth is the US F22 is out of contention against the J-20 in fire power, outdated avionics, high maintenance, easily detectable and lacking endurance over a longer distance. Goodbye F22.

    Still waiting for the F35s – looks impressive, but is it for real.? With All the troublesome defects and cost overruns (still more to com), will the old turkey buzzard be finally commissioned.?