Blink and you missed it. That was the story from the Zhuhai air show on November 1, when China’s first stealth fighter – the Chengdu J-20 – made its public debut.
Of course, the whole idea is that the J-20 doesn’t appear at all, with an exterior designed to fool enemy radar. But there was still disappointment in Zhuhai when the two J-20s on show didn’t make any low passes during their minute’s flight above the city.
In fact, their immediate impact was limited to a nearby car park, where their supersonic flyby set off a cacophony of car alarms.
The aerial display comes at a time in which tensions over disputed regions in the East and South China Seas show no sign of abating. Beijing needs a modern military with the ability to project power outside its own borders, and the J-20 can be used as a long-range strike aircraft, which flies deep into enemy territory to launch missiles against targets. The aircraft can also be employed as an elite fighter like the US military’s F-22, for aerial combat.
The J-20’s appearance is a sign of the Chinese moving away from a reliance on Russian technology and making more of their own weapons. Twenty five years of stellar economic growth have helped Beijing to increase its defence spending by about 10% a year, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Much of this has gone into R&D.
Unsurprisingly, Chinese commentators were thrilled by the plane’s performance. “Its aerodynamic configuration is totally different from Russian jets or the jets we are familiar with. It’s absolutely Chinese… the Chinese aerospace system and the Chinese combat ammunition system all symbolise the nature of the PLA Air Force,” Du Wenlong, an analyst with the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences, told the ThePaper.cn.
There was a host of other military technology on display in Zhuhai – now the largest arms expo in Asia – including radar capable of detecting stealth fighters. China’s largest missile maker was also promoting what it calls the “world’s best anti-ship missile”, the CM-302. China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation, one of the country’s largest defence contractors, talked up its destructive power, and the state media claimed it was good value for money. “Nations on a budget are target customers”, the China Daily explained, mixing its metaphors somewhat.
While the CM-302 missile is available for export, the plan for the J-20 is to keep it for domestic use, and some analysts are claiming that the new fighter could get China’s strike capacity to an elite level, delivering the advanced capabilities of a fifth generation fighter jet, including radar avoidance, infrared visibility and supersonic cruise. Most of the international media has been matching the J-20 up with America’s F-35, which made its first flight almost 10 years ago. Justin Bronk, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute in the UK, told the South China Morning Post that the J-20 scores well, with “longer range, more internal fuel capacity, and larger internal weapons capability”.
However, there was a countervailing view from the US Air Force Chief of Staff David Goldfein at a Pentagon briefing in the summer, when he pooh-poohed the match-up between the F-35 and the J-20 as “almost an irrelevant comparison”. His belief was that the Chinese still trail the Americans by some distance in military might. “Fifth generation technology: it’s no longer about a platform, it’s about a family of systems and it’s about a network and that’s what gives us an asymmetric advantage,” he argued.
Others have asked – if the J-20 is so good – why did the Chinese sign a deal with the Russians last year for 24 Sukhoi jets. One potential explanation is that the Chinese agreed to the contract because they haven’t managed to develop a reliable jet engine of their own. Indeed, there is speculation that the J-20 is powered by twin Russian-built engines found on an earlier version of the Sukhoi aircraft sold to the Chinese.
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