How Not To Think About The New Chinese J-20 Stealth Fighter

Now that the last few skeptics have been converted to the idea that the J-20 is a real airplane, and not the product of a network of Chinese teenage boys armed with Photoshop, the internetz are rife with speculation about the project’s schedule, technology and capabilities.

Much of it is both premature and misguided, the result of several basic errors in analysis, politics and prejudice.

The first mistake is “mirror imaging”. The Tu-22M Backfire was not a B-1, but the USAF wanted it to be one, because they desperately wanted to resurrect the B-1. The MiG-25 looked like the air-superiority fighters that the USAF was sketching in the late 1960s, but it was nothing of the sort. And just because the front end of the J-20 looks like an F-22 does not mean that it is an F-22 clone.

One problem with mirror-imaging is the unspoken assumption that the other guys face the same challenges that you do. But to take a couple of examples, the Russians in the Cold War never had to worry about a dense, layered surface-to-air missile threat and the US does not face an adversary with a significant carrier force.

A related source of error is an attempt to exploit the appearance of a new Chinese or Russian system to support a pre-existing belief system. That’s why people who want more defense spending will upsell the threat, and predict that the new whatever-it-is will be operational next week and in production at a rate of 100 per year, and those on the other side will point to the adversary’s primitive technology level, and argue that the new aircraft is merely an X-plane. The right answer usually lies between those points, but more importantly, it won’t be found that way.

There’s a healthy dose of cultural prejudice behind both errors. Mirror-imaging, in the Cold War and today, is supported by the idea that Communists are unimaginative bureaucrats who can’t innovate their way out of a wet paper bag. We found out this wasn’t true, on a massive scale, after 1991:  for instance, the combination of helmet-mounted sights and high off-boresight missiles sent the US scrambling to develop the AIM-9X, and US spy satellites fly on Energomash RD-180 engines.

China’s military engineers and planners have unintentionally reinforced this image over the decades, preferring to upgrade Soviet-era systems rather than developing new platforms. But that tends to obscure the fact that (to take one example) the latest version of the HQ-2 surface-to-air missile bears only an external resemblance to the Soviet V-750.

Since the current military modernization started, new weapons have been increasingly innovative. The question of Israeli technical assistance notwithstanding, the J-10 does not resemble any other fighter, and the J-10B less so. In other domains, systems like the Type 022 fast missile boat resemble nothing anywhere else (and could that be one reason for the fast-paced ONR/DARPA LRASM program?).

Next question:  what does the J-20 look like from a Chinese perspective? Watch this space.


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