Across Asia, multiple powers are in the midst of developing advanced next generation combat aircraft. Though often overshadowed by developments in the maritime sector, aviation projects in India, China, South Korea, Japan and Indonesia are aiming to provide these countries with the future means to support and defend their national interests. In the past week alone, multiple reports have emerged showing the active and advanced nature of these projects. At a time when tensions are on the rise from the Indian subcontinent to the West Pacific, the steadfast commitment of countries to maintaining and advancing a credible aerial deterrence and offensive capability is vital to ensuring their national security.
Today, the vast majority of the world’s most advanced air forces are dominated by fourth-generation aircraft. Designed during the Cold War, planes such as the F-15, F-16, MiG-29, Su-27 and Panavia Tornado with their supersonic speed and sophisticated electronic and weapon capabilities have dominated the battlefield and skies. In the waning years of the Cold War till today, more advanced 4.5-generation aircraft emerged such as the F/A-18 Super Hornet, Eurofighter Typhoon, Saab Gripen and Dassault Rafale which incorporate various improvements including Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar systems and in most, stealth enhancements.
Currently the U.S. is the sole power that has a combat-ready fifth-generation aircraft, the F-22. Fifth-generation aircraft have the most advanced electronics, avionics and high-performance airframes that are conceived from the beginning to be stealthy. Additionally, the multi-country U.S.-led F-35 project is advancing if slowly and is entering service globally in evaluation units while Russia is expected to begin fielding PAK FAs to its squadrons soon.
Several countries in Asia are developing their own 4.5- and fifth-generation aircraft. Just this past week it was revealed that China’s J-20 has entered its test-flight completion stage, Japan’s ATD-X will begin flight testing in the first quarter of 2016, the U.S. will boost its level of support to South Korea and Indonesia’s KF-X as support for the project rises domestically as some parliamentarians in Korea are calling on the government to scrap an F-35 deal with the U.S., while development of India’s FGFA continues. By 2025, it is conceivable that most of these projects will have completed the development stage and be entering service.
Asia’s Quest For Stealth – China
The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is testing two fifth-generation aircraft, the J-20 and J-31. China became the third country after the U.S. and Russia to test fly a stealth combat aircraft and development has been proceeding rapidly. IHS Janes expects China to purchase approximately 200 to 300 J-20 units along with more than 400 J-31s. Over the past two decades, the PLAAF has been making significant investments in its equipment as it transitions from a fleet that was in 2000 dominated by obsolete second-generation aircraft where only 2 percent of its aircraft were considered modern, to advanced fourth-generation designs which now comprise roughly half of its strength.
On November 24, the eighth prototype of the J-20, fuselage 2017, took to the air for the first time after the seventh prototype, fuselage 2016, rolled out just two months prior. According to China Military Online, the official publication of the Chinese Defense Ministry, the J-20 has so far met its requirements in tests and has entered its test-flight completion stage. According to Fu Qianshao, deputy editor of the PLAAF Aviation Magazine, prototypes 2016 and 2017 are essentially what the serial-production version of the J-20 will be. Fu stated, “It is possible that the China-made J-20 fighters will soon be deployed to PLA (People’s Liberation Army) troops.”
The J-20 was born out of the late 1990’s J-XX program which was intended to develop and ultimately put into service an indigenous fifth-generation aircraft. In what was a shock to the Western intelligence community, the large twin-engine Chengdu Aerospace Corporation J-20 first took to the air in January 2011. Just one year after the introduction of Russia’s’ PAK FA T-50, the appearance of an indigenous stealth fighter in China caught intelligence analysts off guard as many thought China would not be able to flight test a stealth aircraft until later in the decade. Furthermore, though photos and rumors spread on the internet in the months prior, the test flight was conducted just hours before then U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates met with China’s President Hu Jintao; a surprise that some thought was coordinated by Beijing to send a message to the U.S. of Beijing’s growing aerial-technology prowess.
While reliable technical information is scarce, it does appear that the J-20 is an analogue to the F-22 and is primarily intended for air superiority missions. Its impressive size implies that it was conceived to be built around large engines and with ample fuel storage in mind, both of which are ideal in an aircraft destined for long-range, air-superiority or strike missions. Additionally it has a sizeable internal weapons bay that allows the aircraft to remain stealthy on strike missions. The eventual powerplant for the J-20 remains unknown in the West. China has been developing the WS-15 turbofan but its status remains unknown and it speculated that the Russian Saturn AL-31 turbofan might be used in early examples.
The Pentagon has estimated that the J-20 might achieve operational capability by 2018 and enter service in 2020. It is conceivable that the J-20 might achieve operational capability even earlier though, perhaps by 2017. Regardless, there are still numerous issues that must be hammered out and the full potential of the J-20 will not be realized in its early production run. In early 2014, some in the Pentagon hinted that the J-20 might be offered for export but that is no longer the case. The J-20 is the pinnacle of combat aircraft design in China and for that reason, much like how Washington views the F-22, Beijing does not want to give away the best card in its deck. Furthermore there would be the issue of price and the virtually non-existent market for such an aircraft.
Apart from the J-20, China is also testing the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation J-31/F-31 (F-31 is the intended designation of the aircraft once it achieves operational capability). Smaller than the J-20 and not shrouded in nearly as much secrecy, the J-31 appears to be a lower-end fifth-generation aircraft and intended to be an alternative to the F-35 in the export market. In September 2012, photos began appearing online of a new stealth aircraft in China which would become known as the J-31. On October 31, 2012, this plane took to the air for the first time, almost two full years after the first flight of the J-20.
In November 2012, the appearance of a scale model of the J-31 at the China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition hinted at the distinct possibility that the aircraft unlike the J-20, was intended for the export market. By late 2013, images were seen online of a possible strike version of the J-31. IHS Jane’s saw this as perhaps a move by