Threat Tuesday – Reconsidering the J-20

J-20 in Flight (

After a few weeks and the apparent first test flight of the J-20, some of the initial “drama” is settling down.  I am loathe to say that the initial analysis was “alarmist” or “sensationalist” but time does allow one to step back and consider factors that may not have been recognized in the initial euphoria/fear reaction.

Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson over at China Signpost have taken those few moments and reconsidered the J-20.  Their analysis can be found here.  Read it all.  For you lazy ones who like previews, here are the key judgments:

–China’s J-20 fighter has the potential to be a formidable air combat system in the Asia-Pacific region, but a number of technical hurdles will need to be overcome before mass production can commence.

–Key technical capabilities that we await demonstration of are thrust vectoring, sensor fusion, active electronically scanned radars, and a higher level of tanker and AWACS support. Operating a low-observable aircraft also requires major maintenance inputs.

–The Chinese aerospace industry is making rapid technical progress, but the ability to build late-generation, supercruise-capable engines issue in particular will be a key bottleneck that helps decide the J-20’s initial operational capability (IOC) date as a true stealth platform.

Threat Tuesday – J-20 First Flight and Combat Thoughts

So just what do we call the new Chinese stealthy fighter?  Conventional nomenclature calls for it to be named J-XX, the XX being a yet-to-be-identified number.  Many in the West have taken to calling it the J-20.

Just as interesting is the aircraft nickname.  It appears Chinese bloggers may have been the first to tag the aircraft with the nickname “Black Eagle.”  A black eagle is a Asian bird of prey; certainly fitting for a cutting-edge Chinese fighter.  However, I cannot help but laugh that some American bloggers have taken to referring to the plane as the “Chengdu Chicken.”

Being a wargamer, I am curious how to simulate the airplane in a combat scenario.  The recently published Clash of Arms game Persian Incursion has a simple yet demonstrative air combat system as well as the American F-22 and F/A-18 E/F as well as the Chinese J-10 and J-11A (Su-27 Flanker copy).  So let’s play a little what if….

In the game, if a J-10 tries to shoot down an F-22 it can use the PL-12 Active Radar Homing (ARH) or PL-8 Infrared Homing (IRH) missiles.  Although the PL-12 can usually engage a target in “BVR Zone 3” – ranging from 31-40nm, against a Stealthy target it cannot engage until it gets to “BVR Zone 2” (21-30nm) because it cannot see the target.  At this range, the game rates the PL-12 with a 15% chance of a hit.  If using a PL-8 IRH missile, an engagement must take place within the “Dogfight Zone” at a range of 10nm or less.  Here, the PL-8 is credited with a mere 2% chance of a hit.

On the other hand, an F-22 trying to shot down a J-10 can use its AIM-120C-7 ARH missiles at a range of 41-50nm with a 75% chance of a kill.  In a dogfight, the AIM-9M IRH can be used with a 50% chance.   In a F-22 vs J-10 dogfight, the F-22 has a tremendous advantage.

But if you must engage a stealthy target – like the J-20 – the AIM-120C-7 can engage no further out than 21-30nm or the same range a PL-12 can engage your stealthy F-22.

Now we don’t know what sensor suite is on the J-20.  It may not be that advanced, like  Airpower Australia points out:

The intended sensor suite remains unknown. China has yet to demonstrate an AESA radar, or an advanced indigenous Emitter Locating System (ELS). However, these could become available by the time this airframe enters production. Suitable Russian hardware is currently in late development and/or test.

The problem is the Chinese may be able to offset their poor airborne sensor with ground-based systems.  Again, from Airpower Australia:

In the Western world, most intellectual and development effort in air defence radar and missiles since 1991 has been concentrated into two discrete areas, specifically to provide TMD (Theatre Ballistic Missile Defence) capabilities at the upper end, and C-RAM (Counter Rocket Artillery Mortar) capabilities at the lower end. Capabilities to intercept and destroy high performance low observable aircraft and guided munitions have received little if any attention.

Conversely, Russia has since 1991 invested most of its intellectual and material effort in air defence radar and missile development into two very different areas. At the upper tier, counter-stealth radars exploiting VHF-band technology have been developed and some exported, while at the lower end, the focus has been firmly on providing C-PGM (Counter-PGM) capabilities to defeat Western smart munitions. China has followed the Russian lead in IADS capability development, with indigenous and imported Russian technology.

So there is a good chance that if the J-20 was to come out and fight, our air defenses may not know it is there until the Chinese missile hit.

Interpolating some of the data in Persian Incurison, an F/A-18E/F taking on a J-20 would get to trade shots at the same initial range, 21-30nm. The FA-18 would have something like a 20% chance of getting the J-20 (assuming the stealth is not quite as good as the F-22) whereas the J-20 has a 60-85% chance of getting the FA-18.

Hmm…wouldn’t want to be Hornet driver in that scenario….

More J-20 – What Does It Mean?

Much debate back and forth over what the unveiling of the Chinese J-20 means.  I bring to your attention two of the more recent articles that try to put it into perspective:

And of course, some more video.

J-20 Video

Hattip to Steven Trimble and his wonderful DEW LINE Blog for collecting videos of the J-20 on what look to be taxi tests.

Also interesting, and maybe not quite a coincidence, the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Dominance (which in the real world was formerly called the N2) spoke with defense writers on Wednesday.  Intel guys usually are loathsome to go on record with press types so this was unusual.  Of course, the topic of China came up.  Highlights from the DoD version include:

Vice Adm. David J. “Jack” Dorsett, director of naval intelligence and deputy chief of naval operations for information dominance, spoke to defense writers about China’s emerging military capabilities.

“They’ve entered operational capability quicker than we frequently project,” Dorsett said.

“We’ve been on the mark on an awful lot of our assessments,” he added, “but there have been a handful of things we’ve underestimated.”

During his meeting with reporters, Dorsett said Chinese advances should be viewed in perspective. Their stealth fighter, he said, will not be fully operationally capable for years, and the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile system has been test-fired over land, but is not believed to have been tested over water against maneuvering targets.But recent developments in ballistic-missile technology have increased the probability that China could hit a maneuvering target — such as an aircraft carrier — with a missile salvo, Dorsett said.

“How proficient they are, or what that level of probability is, we don’t know,” he said. “And frankly, I’m guessing that they don’t know.”

China’s stealth aircraft, he said, likely is in early development. Based on pictures he has seen of the Chinese so-called J-20 stealth aircraft, Dorsett said, it’s not clear when it will be fully tested and operational.

“For example, while they’re developing technology and capabilities, it has just been [during] the last year and a half, two years, that we’ve seen the Chinese navy deploy out of area for any period of time,” he said.“In … late 2008, when they deployed a three-ship task group to the Gulf of Aden to conduct counterpiracy operations, that was a big step for them,” Dorsett added. “Three ships to the Gulf of Aden, compared to what the U.S. Navy does on a daily basis, … you can’t contrast the two, because the difference is so great.”

“They’ve got a used, very old Russian carrier that they’re going to probably start conducting sea trials with later this year,” he said. “They are planning on building indigenous aircraft carriers that will come into their order of battle later on, over the next decade.”But by 2020, Chinese aircraft carrier proficiency and capability will still be very limited, Dorsett said, because integrating flying aircraft into not just flight deck operations but battle group operations “takes a fair amount of time.”

“The U.S. Navy has had … 100 years of flight activity. So it’s going to take time for them to build that capability,” he said. “They’re pragmatic; they’ve got a game plan that deals in decades.”

Dorsett said in his view, China is trying to build a navy that becomes a near-term regional power, with long-term significant global implications in support of their nation.

“They want a naval force that can be deployed to protect their resource flow or their vital national interests, such as the anti-piracy operations,” he said.

The Chinese are maturing in their use of capabilities, Dorsett said. “But have you seen them deploy large groups of naval forces?” he added. “No. Have we seen large, joint, sophisticated exercises? No. Do they have any combat proficiency? No. That’s what I’m saying –- they are at the front end of developing that military capability.”

Threat Tuesday – Chinese J-20 Fighter

Courtesy Chinese Internet

Behold the latest in technological innovation from the Middle Kingdom! The internet was alive with photos in late December of the new Chinese stealth aircraft.

Much is being written, but for the more technical I direct your attention to two great Airpower Australia monographs titled “What China’s New J-20 Stealth Fighter Means for the F-35 JSF and F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet” and “Chengdu J-XX[J-20] Stealth Fighter: A Preliminary Assessment.”

My favorite parts:

By the time the F-35 makes IOC (if it ever does) it will be, to use that well-known technical term, ‘toast’.

And if the F-35 is ‘toast’ that makes the F/A-18E/F ‘cinders’ – this 1985 ‘old wine in a new bottle’ aircraft has some fancy new electronics, but none that will save it from destruction in combat.

So, why have these non-viable US designs been allowed to persist, and the corollary question, why has the production of the USA’s only aerodynamically and kinematically competitive fighter, the F-22A Raptor, been killed?

Any notion that an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter or F/A-18E/F Super Hornet will be capable of competing against this Chengdu design in air combat, let alone penetrate airspace defended by this fighter, would be simply absurd. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet are both aerodynamically and kinematically quite inferior to the as presented J-XX/J-20 design, and even the shape based VLO capability in the J-XX/J-20, as presented, will effectively neutralise any sensor advantage either type might possess against earlier Russian and Chinese fighter designs.

Now things might not be as bad as some think, a lesson that we are being reminded of through a look back at this article written in 1977 from Bill Sweetman on the Soviet TU-22 BACKFIRE bomber.  As one blogger put it:

It’s a masterpiece of military writing. It includes close technical analysis based on available intelligence, an elaboration of the political and strategic consequences of tactical development, and an evaluation of the causes and consequences of misunderstandings about the capabilities of the Tu-22.

I’m looking forward to the same as we learn more of this new Chinese superfighter.