Most of the press accounts of China’s test flight of its new J-20 “stealth fighter” took their spin either by gauging whether it was a middle-finger welcome salute to Defense Secretary Robert Gates during his trip to Beijing, or whether Chinese leader Hu Jintao knew about the insult beforehand.
What’s been missed in all this is that the military significance of the J-20 lies less in its stealth performance – about which little is known – but in its size. This is not a small, short-range fighter, but a medium bomber. It’s a big airplane and a big deal. As the Australian Air Power think tank reports:
In terms of gross sizing the [J-20] most closely resembles the smaller configurations proposed for the “theatre bomber” [version of the F-22 Raptor], which was to be a dedicated bomber and [surveillance] airframe, intended to supercruise to targets at combat radii in excess of 1,000 nautical miles, a niche occupied by the…F/FB-111 family of aircraft during the Cold War. Claims that the Chengdu design is a “Sino-F-22A” make little sense, if the latter were true the aircraft would be considerably smaller….In technological strategy terms the combination of stealth and [sustained supersonic flight, known as] supercruise yields high lethality and survivability, supercruise yields high per-sortie productivity, and the sizing and thus combat radius of the airframe provide a basic design with the flexibility to be used effectively across the spectrum of roles covered by the Cold War design F/FB-111 and proposed FB-22 families of aircraft.
To translate from geek-speak: The new Chinese plane is a revival of an idea championed by former Air Force Secretary James Roche to build an enlarged version of the F-22 to fulfill the medium-range bomber role of the old F-111. It can go a long way, carry a lot of ordnance, and penetrate modern air defense networks. The F-22B project was scrapped in the Bush years and, of course, the Obama administration in 2009 chose to end F-22 production altogether, but it seems the Chinese thought it was a good idea.
Such a capability would add an important new arrow to the People’s Liberation Army’s quiver, allowing it not only to reach farther – possibly as far as Guam, where immense investments in new facilities (for submarines, B-2 bombers and a supply hub) are being made – but to sustain a punishing air campaign of the “shock and awe” variety. We should expect the Chinese to build a large fleet of these planes, more than the 187 Raptors of the U.S. Air Force. The J-20 will complement but ultimately prove far more decisive than the large fleet of cruise and ballistic missiles that the PLA has been building for more than a decade.
The big brains in the Pentagon have been arguing that the Chinese military buildup is designed to “deny access” to current U.S. forces in the Western Pacific, but the J-20 seems to be more of an instrument of traditional power projection. In other words, the PLA not only wants to kick us out but to move into the resulting security vacuum. The boldface conclusion of the Australia Air Power report is stark:
The emergence of China's new J-20 stealth fighter will have a profound strategic impact, for both the United States and its numerous Pacific Rim allies. There can be no doubt that it is proof positive of the absolute and complete failure of the current [Pentagon] plan for recapitalisation of the United States tactical fighter fleet, and the fleets of its allies....[T]he J-20 is a “game changer” in the sense that the large scale deployment of operational production examples of these aircraft invalidates all of the key assumptions central to United States and allied air power and force structure planning and development, since the early 1990s.
Whether or not Hu Jintao had been briefed on the J-20 test-flight schedule is immaterial: The decision to invest in such an airplane no doubt began well before his rule and is a reflection of the ambitions that China’s leaders – indeed, probably a majority of Chinese people – share. They’ve sent a message that the Aussies (and Japanese and Koreans and Indians) hear loud and clear. What does the Obama administration hear?
Thomas Donnelly is the director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.