China Puts Up a Fighter
Beijing's fifth-generation military challenge to the U.S
ZHUKOVSKY, Russia—With few exceptions, Beijing rarely says much of substance about its ongoing military build-up or its strategic thinking. But the overriding message from the recent Moscow Airshow and other airshows, plus occasional interviews with Chinese and Russian engineers, is that Beijing is not conceding next-generation air superiority to anyone, least of all the United States.
Exhibit A is Beijing's long-running effort to build a fifth-generation fighter plane equivalent to the U.S. F-22 and F-35. Such planes use extensive stealth and advanced radar and can usually "supercruise," or fly supersonically for extended periods without using fuel-guzzling afterburners. In what may be the only public reference to the program by a Chinese official, the Commander of the People's Liberation Army Navy mentioned their requirement for a fighter capable of "supersonic cruise" during 60th anniversary celebrations in April. Today this can only be achieved by the U.S. F-22A Raptor, the world's only operational fifth-generation fighter.
To be sure, China faces many technical obstacles. Development of advanced engines capable of 15-ton thrust levels is a particularly serious bottleneck. But China's fifth-generation efforts date back to the early 1990s and will start with two heavy fighters from China's two main fighter companies. A Chinese source told me in early 2005 that the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation, famous for developing the fourth-generation J-10 fighter, was considering the development of a medium-weight fifth-generation plane comparable to the F-35. This could mean that Chengdu's fighter will be built in vertical take-off and aircraft carrier versions. In 2006, the competing Shenyang Aircraft Corporation revealed a concept for a single-engine forward-swept-wing fighter that would be highly maneuverable and potentially stealthy. It seems the PLA envisions two levels to its program: a heavy fighter for maintaining air superiority, and a medium-weight plane that's cheaper and more versatile.
Even before China's fifth-generation fighter flies, advances in electronics and engines will enable new "four-plus" generation fighters, like the J-10B that recently began flight testing. These fighters and eventual fifth-generation fighters will pose a more effective challenge to current and future U.S. air forces, and will make obsolete the fourth-generation fighter fleets of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. The U.S. Navy currently has no program for a fifth-generation fighter as good as the F-22, but instead intends to rely on the slower F-35C, which is optimized for attack missions.
The PLA aims to use these programs as a vehicle for beefing up its research and development capacity to reduce its reliance on Russian and other foreign technologies. A Ukrainian source here disclosed that his company is in discussions with Chengdu-associated institutes on the development of what could become a second fifth-generation engine program for China. But an official with the Sukhoi fighter company, which has sold many planes to China, stated pointedly that they are not helping China with its fifth-generation program. They're cooperating with India instead on New Delhi's own fifth-generation fighter development. Russia's main reason appears to be business; China has not signed a treaty protecting intellectual property. China could be motivated by technological nationalism.
China's moves to go it alone could have several consequences. Beijing's current reliance on Russian technologies effectively gives Moscow a veto over China's sales of its planes to third parties. As Beijing gains expertise designing its own indigenous engines, it will free itself from this constraint, allowing greater latitude to sell advanced fighters for its own aims. The new J-10B may already be slated for Pakistan, advancing the arms race on the Indian subcontinent.
There are worrying signs that the U.S. either does not fully appreciate the consequences of Chinese advanced fourth-generation and fifth-generation fighters entering the market, or is willfully ignoring them. In July, Defense Secretary Robert Gates publicly predicted that by 2020 "nearly 1,100 [combat aircraft in the U.S. Air Force] will be the most advanced fifth-generation F-35s and F-22s. China, by contrast, is projected to have no fifth-generation aircraft by 2020. And by 2025, the gap only widens." Armed with this apparent assessment by the U.S. intelligence community, by the end of July the Obama administration had overruled congressional objections and stopped production of the F-22A at 187 by 2012.
This is a big gamble, and seems like a bad bet in light of China's apparent determination to push forward with its own fifth-generation program. If this bet does go south, it could cost America future air superiority in the Pacific. It could deny a key U.S. ally, Japan, a significant non-nuclear means for deterring Chinese aggression. It could also be bad for the U.S. companies like Lockheed-Martin and Boeing commercially. Washington's inability to offer a fifth-generation "champion" fighter could push South Korea and Japan to turn to French technologies to develop their own fifth-generation programs.
Mr. Gates and the U.S. intelligence community could prove to be correct, but they have so far offered little public data to explain the prediction that has served to justify such a potentially fateful decision. Meanwhile, despite the PLA's lack of meaningful transparency Beijing's own goals are crystal clear. It would be far smarter for the U.S. to prepare for the likelihood that Beijing will develop and build far more than 187 fifth-generation air-superiority fighters.
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