What we know for sure about the new Chinese J-20 stealth fighter jet is subject to some debate.  We know that, according to claims within the Chinese government, that it was designed to compete directly with the latest in American fighter jet technology: the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.  Outwardly, its appearance resembles that of the F-22.  Internally, the latest advances in Chinese air-combat technology are supposed to make it a formidable opponent for the best of the West’s fighter aircraft.  That’s assuming you believe China’s claims.  They are, of course, the same nation that produces the Geely GE, which looks exactly like a Rolls Royce on the outside…

…but rides like the $30,000 platform it’s built on.

The Chinese have a long and illustrious history of using spies to skip the research and development phase when developing new technologies, so I can’t help but use a critical eye when reading China’s claims of total air superiority.  In July of this year, a U.S. District Judge in Los Angeles sentenced a Chinese spy named Su Bin to 46 months in jail for his hand in a hacker led, Chinese spy ring that included, you guessed it, plans for the F-22 and F-35 platforms.

Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst with the Teal Group, believes the new J-20 to be a direct rip off of the F-22 in a number of ways, but with one glaring exception: it’s just not as good, particularly in the stealth department.  The glaring difference between the J-20 and the F-22 are the front canards, which are similar to the elevator surfaces usually found on the tail of an aircraft.  These surfaces, while making the jet aesthetically different than the American fighter, also severely inhibit the plane’s stealth capabilities.

The Chinese may have had the blueprints for our planes, but they lacked the thorough understanding of stealth technology and the methods that need to be utilized in order to reduce a radar signature from all directions.  Based on the design of the craft, Aboulafia suggests that the J-20 would only be stealth from the front, but would otherwise be detectable due to how the radar waves would bounce off of plane’s angled surfaces. “In head-to-head combat, the J-20 would lose in seconds,” Aboulafia went on to claim.

To add insult to knock-off injury, China also has another next generation fighter in production: the J-31, itself a direct aesthetic copy of the F-35.  Of course, based on current issues with the original F-35, it might be in China’s best interest to wait it out and steal another copy of the Joint Strike Fighter’s plans once we can keep them in the air.

The United States may not need to be too concerned about China’s new plane, but other nations in the region may.  Although the J-20 doesn’t seem to be a technological match for the US, nations like Japan, Indonesia and Vietnam are all generations behind China’s counterfeit-fighter, giving the People’s Republic a distinct advantage in any skirmish that could develop in the area.  It is also likely that China will make the J-20 available for sale to its allies in Asia and the Middle East.

If China decides to mass produce the J-20, as they tend to with military aircraft they hope to utilize as well as sell, it could cause issues for the U.S. and allied defenses worldwide.  A single J-20 may be no match for our F-22, but ten J-20s would certainly pose a threat.  Because China’s production methods are less expensive, and they were able to skip over the costly research phase, China could easily out-produce the United States in terms of fifth generation fighters.

Justin Bronk, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, believes the mass production of J-20s could spell trouble in the future, “They might not be a matchup one-on-one with the F-35 but they may well be able to put far more of them in the sky in the next few years.”

China may not have beat the U.S. with their copy-cat plane, but that doesn’t mean the new fighter doesn’t dramatically increase China’s tactical capabilities.  The fighter will provide China with longer range strike capabilities with far larger weapon payloads than ever before available to the communist nation.

The J-20 likely won’t go into mass production until 2018, and until we get a better look at the craft and what it’s capable of, most analysts agree that the best we can do is speculate.  One thing is certain, however, regardless of where China got the plans, they just took a major leap in offensive capability.  With a number of ongoing territorial disputes with U.S. allied nations in the South China sea, the unveiling of this new fighter must be seen as a bit of indignant posturing toward an already tense region.


Images courtesy of the Associated Press and AutoHome