China's Fifth Generation Stealth Fighter: Implications of the J-20 Black Eagle

The PLAAF (PLA Air Force) conducted the test flight of its new generation stealth fighter J-20 on January 11, 2011, just days before US Defence Secretary Robert Gates landed in Beijing on a mission to repair the bilateral defence ties. The timing of the test flight was curious. Was this itself a message for the US as also the rest of the world? Or is this another demonstration of the lack of coordination at the highest levels of the Chinese government.

J-20 will rival for the latest U.S. stealth fighter - the F-22 Raptor. Russia is also in the process of developing one - the Sukhoi T-50 that made its flight test in January 2010 - although it is going to be another decade before it gets inducted into service. The fact that China has been able to develop the J-20 prototype demonstrates the ability of the PLA to make steady progress in an area where it is otherwise considered weak.

Having said that, it remains to be seen as to how good the new aircraft is. Comparing it with the F-22 or the Russian T-50 is going to be mere speculation. Whether it actually makes it into the fifth generation category or not is also an issue. It will depend on the kind of avionics & communication gear, sensor performance and low radar reflectivity, speed, how advanced it is in terms of the composite material used and a variety of other parameters. But it should be borne in mind that China has been encountering serious problems as far as developing jet engines are concerned. They have not been able to produce a good engine indigenously even for their fourth generation aircrafts.

Several unofficial Chinese and foreign defence-related websites have published pictures of the J-20 prototype doing high-speed taxi test, a step closer to being readied for actual flights. The J-20 has been presumably developed at the Chengdu Aircraft Design Institute, although there has been no concrete evidence of such a system being developed until these pictures popped up. While the Chinese authorities have not commented upon the new aircraft, General He Weirong, deputy head of PLAAF had stated in 2009 that China was readying to do the test flight of its first stealth fighter and that it would be operationalised in "eight or 10 years."

Aviation experts and China watchers have said that the photos seem genuine. Gareth Jennings of the Jane's Defence Weekly noted that since "the nose wheel is off the ground in one picture suggest[ing] that this was a high-speed taxi test." He added that "all the talk we've heard is that this could happen some time the next few weeks".

There are also doubts about whether the technology has been developed indigenously and if not, where they got the technology from. Xu Yongling, one of the top test pilots stated that the J-20 "is a masterpiece of China's technological innovation." He added that the jet has advanced supersonic cruise capabilities.

There have been several reports suggesting that US technology that is the foundation for the new fighter. In January 2011, an Indian-American engineer (who worked at the Northrop Grumman, where he worked from 1968 to 1986) was sentenced 32 years imprisonment for selling military secrets to China. Noshir S Gowadia who called himself a father of the technology that protects the B-2 stealth bomber from heat-seeking missiles was originally arrested by the FBI in 2005.

A second potential source would have been the US F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter, the world's first operational stealth fighter, which was shot down by a Serbian anti-aircraft missile during the Kosovo War in 1999. The US hardly took any step to obtain the wreckage of the downed F-117 and several critical elements appear to have made its way into the Chinese hands. In fact, a RAND study titled, Friction and Operational Problems, notes that the US did not go about destroying the wreckage as the site attracted large number of people including government officials and journalists.. General John M Loh, a former commander of Tactical Air Command said, "I'm surprised we didn't bomb it, because the standing procedure has always been that when you lose something of real or perceived value - in this case real technology, stealth - you destroy it." The report stated that the initial thinking within the military was to destroy the wreckage but they were forced to reconsider "because they could not have located it quickly enough to attack it before it was surrounded by civilians and the media." It said, "For the record, it should be noted that USAF F-15Es were immediately put on alert to destroy the wreckage with AGM-130s after the F-117 downing was confirmed, but by the time the wreckage location could be positively determined, CNN was on the scene and collateral damage issues precluded the attack."An Aviation Week and Space Technology report on September 27, 1999 noted that while Moscow obtained some parts from the wreckage, a significant size of the airframe found its way into China.

Admiral Davor Domazet-Loso, who was the head of the Croatian military during the Kosovo War, stated, "At the time, our intelligence reports told of Chinese agents crisscrossing the region where the F-117 disintegrated, buying up parts of the plane from local farmers. We believe the Chinese used those materials to gain an insight into secret stealth technologies … and to reverse-engineer them."

The US has played down the Chinese stealth achievement. The Pentagon spokesman Col. David Lapan suggested that while the Chinese are working on a fifth generation fighter, the progress has been uneven. Another spokesman Geoff Morrell was sceptical about the stealth capabilities of the new aircraft. Although the US has known of the Chinese stealth aircraft, they have given different estimates as to when such a system would be ready: from 2018 to 2025.

The new Chinese fighter appears to be modelled around the F-22, a heavy twin-engine fighter about the same size as that of Lockheed's F-22. F-35, which has currently gone into the production mode, is a single engine fighter aircraft, smaller in comparison to the F-22. There have been speculations as to which one the J-20 will be modelled around and the pictures now suggest that it is closer in appearance to that of the F-22. Some reports suggest that J-20 is possibly and larger and heavier than the Russia T-50 or the US F-22. The large size indicates the ability to carry heavy weapon load as well as the long range of the aircraft.

The US, which has stopped the production of the expensive F-22 Raptor, preferring the cheaper F-35, may now be confronted with a new rival. Given the size of the new stealth fighter, as mentioned before, it appears closer to the F-22 and therefore the Chinese test-flight of the J-20 will likely trigger some re-thinking within the US defence community. F-22 is far superior to the F-35 and the Pentagon may be forced to re-start the production, which was halted in 2009 after the originally produced 187 were given to the US Air Force. Although both are of the current generation, the F-22 is clearly a superior fighter that ensures air superiority whereas F-35 is intended primarily as a ground attack aircraft. One such analyst commented that there could be a new consensus developing for "the resurrection of the F-22.