China’s Chengdu J-20 fighter jet, which made its public debut at China’s Zhuhai Airshow last week, cuts an imposing, even frightening, figure.
The supersonic, twin-engine fighter and attack aircraft packs advanced radar and sensor capabilities, with a 360-degree helmet display system that allows the pilot to through the aircraft itself. It boasts the same kind of stealth technologies the US Air Force has been honing for decades. And it’s bigger than the F-22 Raptor it rivals, so it can carry more fuel and more weapons, extending its lethality deep into enemy territory.
The jet’s debut generated ripples of panic across the globe in the wake of its boisterous exhaust. Can this plane best the best of Western stealth tech, the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighters?
Nope. The J-20 is no F-22, and nowhere does it fall shorter than with its most critical trait: dodging detection. “At best, it’s probably stealthy only from the front,” says aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia, of the Teal Group. “Whereas all-aspect stealth like that in the F-22 and F-35 minimizes the radar signature from all directions.”
True stealth relies on the shape of the aircraft, its exhaust, material composition, cockpit shielding, and even flight characteristics. Aboulafia doubts the J-20’s designers have the science down. Just note that screaming exhaust: “It sounds great, but you really don’t want that in a stealth fighter,” he says.
The US alleges a Chinese national hacked into its defense contractor computers to steal plans for the F-22 and the F-35—it sentenced Su Bin to three years in jail for the crime in March—but that data alone wouldn’t be enough to pull off a truly stealthy design. Those blueprints don’t reveal everything, Aboulafia says. “It’s also how it’s built, from the construction processes to all the little details in terms of design tolerances and things like disruptions in surface smoothness from hatches and panels.”
The J-20 technically counts as a fifth-generation fighter—it’s got the same sort of tech and capability of its contemporaries—but it lacks the breadth of know-how and technological innovation you see in American jets.
Take the J-20 front canards, the elevator-like surfaces ahead of the wing. They’re no good for stealth flight, and they’re likely there to counteract an inherent instability in the design. The J-20 lacks the maneuverability and electronics, communications, and sensing capabilities of its US counterparts. “In head-to-head combat, the J-20 would lose in seconds,” Aboulafia says.
Yet, it may not matter if the J-20 plays the Fiero to America’s Ferrari. It’s not supposed to take on the F-22. The jet’s real threat is its ability to use what little stealth it does have to penetrate a conflict zone and attack aircraft supporting front-line combatants, like refueling tankers and AWACS surveillance airplanes, and other big targets.
And the jet will ensure dominance in the region once it enters service, around 2018. “China will then have a solid technological edge in air-to-air combat over all its Asian neighbors, including Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam, and others,” says military analyst Peter Singer. That will of course extend to its allies who purchase the jets, Singer says, including countries in Africa, southeast Asia, the Middle East, and South America.
Plus, China will likely build a ton of the J-20 and J-31 (itself a knockoff of the F-35), and could exceed US production of the F-22 and F-35 within a few years. “The airplanes don’t have to be as good if they’re wielded in greater numbers, or in certain scenarios that can create major complications for the U.S. and its allies,” Singer says. In a way, China gets a second-mover advantage. “They don’t have to innovate; they simply have to catch up.”
At this point, analysts don’t know as much as they’d like about the J-20, but its airshow debut certainly whetted appetites for more intel to see just how much more catching up the Chinese still have to do.