With a brief, 10-minute first flight Oct. 31 of its second advanced fifth-generation fighter jet, China is accelerating its airpower challenge. Meeting this challenge will require a greater investment in next-generation technology and better exploitation of current technology.
In its new twin-engine J-31 Falcon, the Shenyang Aircraft Co. has produced a medium-weight, and more importantly, simpler and less expensive complement to the Chengdu Aircraft Corp.’s J-20 heavy, low-observable fighter, revealed in late 2010. As such, it is possible that the J-31 may enter Chinese Air Force and Navy units faster and in greater numbers than the J-20.
In part, this will be due to their respective engines. The expected 15- to 16-ton-thrust WS-15 engine used by the J-20 has yet to be revealed, while in 2008, the China Gas Turbine Establishment revealed a 9.5-ton-thrust turbofan program appropriate for the J-31, an indication of greater confidence in this program.
When it enters service, the J-31 may have performance capabilities approaching that of the Lockheed Martin F-35A, which it resembles in size, low-observable shape, use of advanced digital systems such as active electronically scanned array radar and internal weapon carriage.
Also like the F-35, it appears to be optimized for multirole strike missions minus supercruise, but will carry a suite of comparable long-range anti-air and precision ground-attack munitions. Given Shenyang’s lead in developing China’s first carrier-based fighter, the J-15 Black Shark, Chinese sources report that a version of the J-31 will equip new Chinese aircraft carriers expected in the early 2020s.
Shenyang could easily market this fighter at a price less than that of the latest F-16, and perhaps competitive with newer Russian Sukhoi Su-30 models, raising the prospect of export breakthroughs in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and perhaps Europe.
But Shenyang also can be expected to further improve its growing line of modified Sukhoi clones, five models of which are in production using the indigenous Shenyang-Liming WS-10A Taihang turbofan. In addition, Shenyang may soon start testing China’s first large unmanned combat aerial vehicle, a stealthy, turbofan-powered delta-wing aircraft similar in size and configuration to the Boeing Phantom Ray.
It is thus noteworthy that China’s Air Force Commander Xu Qiliang has been appointed as one of two new vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission of the People’s Liberation Army. In late 2009, Xu revealed ambitions for China to become a major aerospace power.
Under Xu’s tenure, it is likely that new capabilities for active defense in space will be revealed, as well as a more assertive use of China’s fourth-generation Chengdu and Shenyang/Sukhoi fighters armed with precision-guided munitions, and supported by new electronic and tanking support aircraft.
China may add aerial intimidation tactics to its escalating use of maritime forces to intimidate Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines over maritime and territorial disputes.
This will pressure the U.S. Air Force and Navy to defend expensive fighter programs while finding resources to invest in next-generation programs. The prospect of a faster Chinese buildup of fifth-generation fighters makes reviving F-22 production more attractive, while adding importance to acquiring an adequate number of F-35s.
Perhaps it is necessary to leverage new components, such as the 12-ton-thrust General Electric F414EPE, and new lightweight active array radar systems to turn the U.S. T-X trainer program, or an existing platform, such as Taiwan’s Indigenous Defense Fighter, into the basis for an inexpensive fighter.
Checking China will also require building on trends started by the Obama administration’s Asian “pivot” policy, plus the work of the Pentagon’s new Air-Sea Battle Office, with a more serious effort to fashion a deterrence architecture that includes new aerospace capabilities for U.S. and allied forces.
First, the September U.S.-Japan decision to place a second forward based X-band radar in Japan should be followed by a Philippine-U.S. agreement to place a 6,000-kilometer-range SBX radar in the Philippines, which would allow the U.S. to complement new Japanese, South Korean, Australian and Taiwanese long-range radar units, providing all with constant warning of Chinese air and missile activity.
A far more robust surveillance network should then be complemented with new short- to intermediate-range missiles based on land, ships and submarines.
Missile defenses alone are inadequate to deter increasing numbers of Chinese missiles. The goal would be to build a non-nuclear reconnaissance strike complex that would allow U.S., allied and friendly forces to quickly take out Chinese naval forces, deterring Beijing from using its growing naval might.
China will protest mightily, but its Army is assembling the same kind of missile strike complex of sensors and long-range missiles. Furthermore, Beijing has essentially rejected more than 20 years of effort by Washington and others to engage in talks on its dangerous proliferation and nuclear missile buildup, and to moderate its conduct at sea. A new deterrence architecture for Asia is possible, necessary and a worthy goal for U.S. regional leadership.
Richard Fisher, a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Alexandria, Va.