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Glimpse of China’s New Fighter Fuels Rumors

Aug. 5, 2012 - 12:39PM   |  
By WENDELL MINNICK   |   Comments
A screen shot from a YouTube video shows the transport along a Chinese highway of what analysts suggest is the J-21 stealth fighter.
A screen shot from a YouTube video shows the transport along a Chinese highway of what analysts suggest is the J-21 stealth fighter. (YouTube)
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TAIPEI — Rumors, guesstimates and doctored photos are all part of the labyrinth of Chinese military blogs. Western analysts often dismiss or ignore them — but not videos.

In late June, several videos appeared on the Internet showing a fighter fuselage, wrapped in a tarp, being transported along a highway from Shenyang Aircraft Corp. (SAC) to the Chinese Flight Test Establishment, an air force test center at Xian-Yanliang Airbase, Shaanxi Province.

The configuration matches descriptions of China’s second stealth fighter, the J-21 Snowy Owl, including that of a model displayed by university students connected to SAC at the International UAV Innovation Grand Prix held in Beijing in September 2011.

The model was a twin-engine stealthy fighter with internal carriage and configured for an active electronically scanned array radar, said Richard Fisher, author of the book “China’s Military Modernization” and a fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Alexandria, Va.

China unveiled its first stealth fighter, the twin-engine J-20 Black Eagle, built by the Chengdu Aircraft Co. (CAC), in January 2011. CAC and SAC were in competition for a requirement for a fifth-generation fighter for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and PLA Navy (PLAN).

With the unveiling of the J-20, it was assumed CAC had won the competition.

However, the sighting of the J-21 raises questions.

“It is possible that the J-21 is still in competition with the J-20 for the PLAAF’s fifth-generation fighter role ... or the PLAAF could even wind up buying both,” said Roger Cliff, senior fellow at the Project 2049 Institute, a non-partisan Asia studies group in Arlington, Va.

Fisher believes CAC won the competition for the original fifth-generation “heavy” fighter, but said there was also a competition for a new medium-weight fifth-generation fighter.

“There have been suggestions that Shen-yang’s new fighter may not be a PLA-supported program, but instead funded by the Aviation Industries Corp. in the hopes that the PLA will buy it later,” he said.

There is also the possibility that the J-21 is a carrier-based fighter.

SAC is already building the J-15 Flying Shark for China’s carrier program, and the PLAN will need a more advanced fighter capable of penetrating hostile air defense networks. The J-15, instead, is modeled on the less-than-stealthy Russian-built Sukhoi Su-33 carrier-based fighter, and some of its avionics and equipment comes from the J-11B multirole fighter program, which is based on Russia’s Su-27 fighter.

There are also unconfirmed rumors on Chinese military blogs that the J-21 will be offered for export as the F-60, a cheaper alternative to the export-restrictive Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Cliff believes it will not be a serious competitor to the F-35. Countries that are currently buying the F-35 are U.S. allies who would not buy a Chinese fighter, he said.

“India won’t buy it. Russia won’t buy it,” Cliff said. “That pretty much leaves countries like Pakistan, Brazil, some Middle East countries, none of whom [the U.S. is] likely to sell the F-35 to anytime this decade or next.”

Cliff said he sees no interest from countries like Saudi Arabia, which have procured Chinese equipment in the past.

“Saudi Arabia has bought stuff from China in the past, and we probably would sell them F-35s, but they have agreed to a huge F-15 package,” he said. “And if they look to buy something more advanced in the future, they will probably want F-35s, not some down-market Chinese plane.”

The answer to whether the J-21 is actually a real platform could be answered soon. According to Chinese military blogs, the first flight test of the fighter is scheduled for September.

Outfitting Ships With LACMs?

The PLAAF is outfitting a test ship with a naval version of the DH-10 land attack cruise missile (LACM). Photographs on the China Defense Blog reveal missile canisters identical to the DH-10 land-based variant.

“This sort of arrangement is reminiscent to the deployment of the BGM-109 Tomahawk on United States Navy surface combatants by way of the MK-143 Armored Box Launcher,” the blog said.

“Looks to be the standard 3 x LACM box launcher plunked on a ship,” said Gary Li, an intelligence analyst for U.K.-based Exclusive Analysis. “It’s in the testing phase, but people are saying it might be put on the Type 52C destroyer. If so, it would give the PLAN a hell of a punch.”

Chinese naval ships have carried anti-ship cruise missiles for more than two decades now, but this is the first time LACMs have been outfitted on a surface ship.

The 4,000-kilometer-range DH-10 has a reported 10-meter circular error probable targeting rate. It uses a combined integrated inertial navigation system, GPS guidance, terrain contour mapping system, and digital scene-matching terminal-homing system to locate and destroy its target.

“The introduction of extended-range land-attack cruise missiles into the inventory of the PLA Navy would represent a significant diversification of its mission,” said Mark Stokes, executive director of the Project 2049 Institute and an expert on Chinese missiles.

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