Asia’s Quest For Stealth: Advanced Combat Aircraft Projects [PART 1]

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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 Shenyang to elicit greater interest in the aircraft overseas and in the PLAAF which seemed till then uninterested in what was an industry rather than military-funded project. Photos of a J-31 prototype on an aircraft carrier mockup emerged in September 2014 potentially indicating that Shenyang was also designing a carrier variant. Ultimately, if this was the true intention of the company, it can assumed that the People’s Liberation Army Naval Air Force (PLANAF) was and is being targeted as a potential purchaser of the aircraft as the only other country that might be courted for a maritime-variant is India which is currently developing its own aircraft.

The aircraft was publicly unveiled at the Zhuhai Airshow in November 2014, but its flight demo left much to be desired in the view of analysts regarding its aerodynamic efficiency and engine power. While performing turns and maneuvers, it appeared that the pilot had difficulty in keeping the nose up while frequent use of the afterburners indicated that its aerodynamic problems required greater engine output to compensate. Additionally during the demo, the engines put out large black smoke plumes which could be spotted from miles away. In any case, while the aircraft could clearly fly, obvious issues that hampered its full-potential were evident.

The flight demo at Zhuhai was attended by representatives from Egypt and Pakistan, both viewed as potential markets for the aircraft. In an attempt to further gain foreign interest, China revealed some basic specifications of the aircraft this October and the following month, began a concerted effort to attract foreign buyers. So far the J-31 appears to be similar to the F-35 in many respects but also differs in that current prototypes appear to lack a long-range camera and the plane is twin- rather than single-engine. It has been said repeatedly that the design of the J-31 may have been highly influenced by designs of the F-35 that were supposedly stolen through cyber espionage in 2009.

Appearing as the FC-31 at the Dubai Airshow in November 2015, the plane was once again presented with the export market in mind. The production-model FC-31 is set to fly in 2019 with initial operating capability being aimed for in 2022; full operational capability is expected by 2025. Beijing seems intent to offer the J-31 for export as an alternative to the F-35 but so far interest is limited and this can be for various reasons. There is the strong belief that the J-31 was built with project information stolen from the F-35 project through cyber theft. If so, the appeal might not be high of a potentially poorly executed copy of a plane that appears every week in the media with a negative report. Second, the aircraft does not appear to have nearly as extensive testing as the J-20 yet buyers are already being sought by Beijing as domestic interest is low raising questions over teething issues and the maturity of its technology. Third, while priced lower than the F-35, so too are advanced fourth- and 4.5-generation aircraft such as Su-27 variants and Gripen, aircraft which are far cheaper, more tested and mature while in the hands of skilled pilots, extremely capable and deadly.

On the other hand, China might be able to lure countries who would never be able to acquire the F-35 due to export restrictions or costs, to instead purchase the J-31 with its low sticker price as an advanced alternative to other 4.5-generation designs such as the Eurofighter or Gripen. Many countries that cannot acquire the F-35 will turn first to Moscow but Beijing is most likely hedging on the fact that it can offer the economic-investment inducements to make its aircraft the better choice while also freeing a purchasing-country from appearing to geopolitically align itself with a currently globally antagonistic Russia.

In the service of the PLAAF or PLANAF, the J-31 could conceivably have the same relationship with the J-20 that the F-22 and F-35 have with each other; in a high/low combination, the J-20 operates as the premier air superiority aircraft while the J-31 is its less-able multi-role companion. Like the J-20 though, powerplant issues are viewed as a major hurdle that must be overcome if the J-31 is to be successful. Overall, the J-20 and J-31/FC-31 are impressive aircraft that have appeared way before Western analysts predicted they would. Despite their early arrival in the views of Western analysts and regardless of their technological/design underpinnings which may be based on stolen designs, neither of the aircraft should be seen as an immediate threat or sudden and total loss of air superiority enjoyed by the West and its allies.

Designs and technology might have been stolen and incorporated, but as evident in the F-22, F-35 and PAK FA projects, the primary designs regardless of how advanced are plagued with serious teething issues that must be rectified through extensive testing. Even the optimistic appraisal for the J-20 entering service before the end of the decade must be juxtaposed against the fact that U.S. designs which were successfully tested still suffered significant issues that existed even five-years and beyond after service introduction. In the case of the J-31, foreign markets were being targeted not for development collaboration but for purchase only two years into the initial test flight. Rushing aircraft to market for the sake of publicity and sales is not only foolish but potentially disastrous.

Arguably, if the J-20 receives the engines it deserves and if it is as capable as may believe, it will play a role similar to that of the F-22 in U.S. service. Due to its price and furthermore the wide ranging threats that China faces across most of its borders, it will be too few in number to make a significant battlefield difference against Beijing’s most likely future adversaries. It will provide Beijing a technological advantage over or equal to all adversaries but will never be constructed in numbers that will give China a matching quantitative and qualitative edge over countries such as Japan or the U.S., not on its own at least.

The J-31, if as capable as it is expected to be, has the same faults. Even if China, which most likely has based the design on the faulty F-35, it has conceivably failed to rectify in only four years the same issues that the U.S. and its allies have experienced over the 1 years since the first flight of the latter; problems leading to incremental design enhancements that have served to improve the F-35. While a highly flawed aircraft, the F-35 has through some of the most extensive testing ever provided for an aircraft, been constantly improved while lessons have been learned and incorporated into it. In a rather short time, the J-31 has presented itself as an advanced-looking aircraft but one which exhibits numerous problems and that as of now, conceivably might be bested by other aircraft in the PLAAF inventory such as Su-30s acquired from Russia, license-built and improved Russian Su-27s in the form of Shenyang J-11s, and indigenously produced Chengdu J-10s that, despite being fourth-generation, have arguably been in service long enough that teething issues are all but gone.

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