Has China been rattled by the F-35's growing presence in the Asia-Pacific?
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 27th Feb 18
With China’s air force deploying its “latest stealth jet fighter” – the J-20 Chengdu – one of the provocations could be the Indian Air Force (IAF) deployment of its top-of-the-line Sukhoi-30MKI fighter in Assam, near the disputed Sino-India border.
The English language website “China Military Online” – an official People’s Liberation Army (PLA) news outlet – quoted an expert to state on Monday that the J-20 has been urgently operationalised because of the threat posed by the US, Japan, South Korea and India.
This is perhaps the most authoritative portrayal so far of Indian air power as a threat to China.
China Military Online states it is “Authorized by the Central Military Commission of the People's Republic of China (PRC) and sponsored by the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Daily.”
The J-20, which is China's first stealth fighter, made its maiden flight in 2011. It was first inveiled at China’s Zhuhai Air Show in 2016 and began delivery to the PLAAF in March 2017. Assuming it has no major flaws, this is an incredibly fast development trajectory, especially compared to the American F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter.
On February 9, an official statement on the Weibo account of the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) had revealed that the J-20 had been deployed with combat units.
Meanwhile, China is developing a second stealth fighter, the FC-31, which will fly off PLA Navy aircraft carriers. Beijing also hopes to target the international market with the FC-31.
The J-20 is a twin-engine, multi-role fighter that has exceptionally long range and can fly faster than 2,000 kilometers per hour. Its radar-scattering airframe, constructed from advanced, radar-absorbing materials makes it hard to detect at long ranges.
In wartime, experts assess that the PLAAF would use the J-20 to strike enemy “force multiplier” aircraft like refuelling tankers, reconnaissance aircraft and airborne command posts. Alternatively, it could be used for “stealth strikes”, slipping past enemy radars to attack high-value targets, warships or communication facilities.
While the J-20 is unquestionably the PLAAF’s most advanced fighter, aerospace experts also point to significant weaknesses.
The South China Morning Post, a reputed Hong Kong newspaper, has reported that China is still struggling to develop the Xian WS-15 engines (codenamed Emei) that the J-20 was built to fly with. As a stop-gap, the J-20 is flying with the less powerful WS-10B Taihang engine, compromising its performance.
Mirroring India’s struggles with the Kaveri engine, Chinese scientists have failed to to crack the challenge of developing “single crystal” turbine blades that can withstand the extreme temperatures in the combustion chamber of a high-performance fighter.
The Post concluded that the J-20 would only enter mass production when the WS-15 is performing suitably, which could take as long as eight years.
Meanwhile, the US Air Force has begun deploying the F-35 in Japan’s Kadena air base. Japan, which has a F-35 production plant in-country, has 42 F-35s on order. South Korea will get its first F-35s this year, with 40 due to be delivered by 2021. Singapore too seems likely to opt for the F-35. Experts believe this rising threat might have rushed Beijing into prematurely introducing the J-20 into service.
As this newspaper first reported (February 15, IAF looks to buy fifth-generation F-35 fighter) the IAF too has begun weighing the advantages of buying the US fifth-generation stealth fighter.