According to a statement made by Senior Colonel Wu Qian of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, China’s first stealth fighter, the Chengdu J-20, was officially commissioned into service last week.
The J-20, which drew the attention of American defense officials when first unveiled in 2011 for its uncanny likeness to America’s air superiority fighter, the F-22, is the first stealth fighter jet to enter into active service for any nation’s military other than the United States, and is only the third to see a commission in history, behind only the F-22, and America’s latest jet, the F-35.
The J-20, which has been redesignated as the J-20A now that it has fully entered into service, underwent a series of seven prototypes before finally arriving at its current incarnation. Adjustments were made to the fighter’s nose shape, canopy, air intakes, and wheel doors over the years, culminating in what some are calling the premier fighter on the planet, though American Defense officials remains skeptical that its radar cross-section would actually be small enough to avoid intercept by America’s slower, heavier, but technologically advanced Joint Strike Fighter.
Speaking of the F-35, the J-20 doesn’t only borrow from the F-22 in its design, as Chinese officials claim their new jet possesses a multiple camera-fed distributed aperture system (DAS) that allows its pilots to see in all directions, even through the aircraft itself. The only other aircraft on the planet with a similar setup is the famed F-35.
These similarities, of course, are far from coincidence. Although China has fiercely protested allegations that they’ve developed the J-20 using stolen intelligence, or their forthcoming J-31 which appears to be modeled after the American F-35 directly, it is a verified fact that China received design specs for both aircraft and more from a Chinese businessman and his two conspirators between 2008 and 2014.
Su Bin was convicted of providing the stolen plans to the PLA Air Force last year, and sentenced to a $10,000 fine and 46 months in prison for his part in handing over designs for the F-22, F-35 and C-17 military transport plane.
Su Bin’s sentence is a just punishment for his admitted role in a conspiracy with hackers from the People’s Liberation Army Air Force to illegally access and steal sensitive U.S. military information,” John P. Carlin, the assistant attorney general for national security, said in a statement at the time of his conviction.
“Su assisted the Chinese military hackers in their efforts to illegally access and steal designs for cutting-edge military aircraft that are indispensable to our national defense.”
The fact that the J-20 is based on stolen designs potentially means one of two things. The first could be that the J-20 is truly a match for America’s F-22, widely considered to be the most advanced dog fighter on the planet, because it’s a carbon copy of the American platform. The second possibility, however, is that the J-20 will be no match for the F-22, as it was developed using a variety of proprietary technologies the Chinese could not simply harness through stolen diagrams, and would need to develop independently in order to effectively field.
Many experts agree that the second is the more likely possibility, however, that doesn’t mean the J-20 doesn’t represent a threat to American interests. America’s position as the only nation with a fully operational stealth fighter fleet is now contested, which matters in terms of geopolitical posturing, but moreover, China’s ability to mass produce these jets could eventually mean their air superiority could be secured through numbers, rather than technological prowess. If the J-20 possesses a fair portion of the F-22’s capabilities, and are produced in such a gross as to overwhelm American jets, the capability gap between individual fighters will matter significantly less.
A single J-20A may actually prove to be no match for an America F-22… but ten of them certainly would be.
Image courtesy of the People’s Liberation Army