At around 1300hrs local time on Tuesday 11 January 2011, the new Chinese designed and built stealth aircraft known as the J-XX, or J-20 as it has become known in the West, took off for an 18 minute maiden flight around the airfield where it was built at Chengdu in Sichuan province, China.
Since the Chinese have released no significant information about this aircraft, some commentators have wondered if it is a prototype of an aircraft the Chinese hope to put into production or is merely a demonstrator or proof of concept aircraft. All indications thus far point to the aircraft being – pending successful testing and results – a prototype of an aircraft the Chinese plan to develop for production.
The first indicator is the fact that two prototypes have been built. Since, even by Chinese cost standards, these machines are very expensive to design and build they have shown that there is much more to this project than mere sophisticated experimentation.
The second indicator is the geo-political timing of the first flight; the same day that the US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates meets with Chinese President Hu Jintao in China – much to the chagrin of neoconservatives who saw the timing of the first flight of the J-20 on the same day as Gates speaks to Jintao about defence matters as a deliberate insult to America.
The J-20 aircraft is an extremely sophisticated machine clearly designed for stealth operations as defined by its shaping features which closely replicate current US stealth aircraft designs. The one stand-out feature about the J-20 as compared to US designs of similar type aircraft, however, is its relative size. Though not hugely larger than comparable US stealth aircraft, it is significantly large enough to assume that, together with its delta-wing/canard layout (which provides higher manoeuvrability) that the aircraft is designed for a series of multi-role functions ranging from straight-out combat dog-fighter/escort fighter to supercruise strike and long-range stand-off bomber to supercruise long-range reconnaissance. It is even conceivable that one day J-20’s could be seen flying in groups with some in the role of bomber while others provide fighter cover.
If tests are successful and the prototypes perform up to expectations, it is likely that in the long term the aircraft will become China’s front-line multi-role airborne weapon and go into high volume production particularly if it can be shown to be produced for multi-role purposes using a universal basic airframe for all roles. If this is the case, then China will not only have a highly sophisticated yet relatively inexpensive per unit cost aircraft, but will also have a highly valuable and very saleable aircraft to sell to China’s regional partners throughout Asia, Central Asia and possibly even the Middle East.
It is this, of course, that has the US very worried. While the US has a range of very sophisticated stealth aircraft, they are currently finding it difficult to justify further development and production in the light of America’s current economic situation. US military aircraft are exceptionally expensive to design, develop and build, indeed, it’s most advanced design so far, the F-22 Raptor, is now unlikely to go into full production. This, together with the latest development in China, has given rise to a now tangible feel permeating in some quarters in the West that China is now catching up, if not actually overtaking, the US technically in both terms of design and production capability.
If the J-20 lives up to its designer’s expectations, then this aircraft can very easily become a game-changer for US and Western foreign policy in the not too distant future. Certainly the US will need to think seriously about the future of its own aerospace industries.
But, far more importantly, it’s also going to have to think very seriously about its geo-political role in a future world where the US is no longer the top dog on the block.