Military buffs are buzzing about new photos of what appears to be a Chinese stealth fighter prototype, the Chengdu J-20. The Australian has some of the photos, which appeared on unofficial Chinese websites. It looks like the airplane is performing a high-speed taxi test, which means it could be close to making its first test flight.
Analysts say the Chinese are still missing a lot of important pieces for deploying an operational stealth fighter, not least of which are the sophisticated sensor and electronic-warfare systems which matter just as much to stealth as the fuselage of the plane. Still, it looks like the People’s Liberation Army Air Force might be a lot closer to fielding a contender against our F-22 Raptor than most suspected. (The prototype in the photos is substantially larger than the F-22, so it might be more of a fighter-bomber.)
This is sobering news, coming on the heels of the Chinese aircraft carrier killing missile, another weapon system that could only be aimed at the United States and her allies. The People’s Liberation Army Navy is also close to putting its own aircraft carrier in the water. It’s a refitted Russian ship that’s been getting a lot of attention in the shipyard lately. It’s unlikely the Chinese are expending all that effort to equip her with a closed-circuit TV system for showing raunchy videos.
China has been stepping up its complaints about American arms sales to Taiwan, prompting a visit by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to Beijing next week. This will be followed by a visit from Chinese president Hu Jintao to Washington. The Australian reports “the U.S. and its Asian allies have also been alarmed by China’s naval maneuvers and more forceful stance on territorial issues.” Intensive work on upgraded weapon systems does not soothe these concerns.
In return, a professor at China’s National Defense University, essentially their answer to West Point, accused the U.S. of wanting to “retain its global hegemony and also preserve its regional interests.” God, I hope so. I wonder if it would be possible to enroll certain members of the Obama Administration at the National Defense University. Do they have an exchange program?
Viewed dispassionately from the perspective of history, there’s nothing shocking about an outmoded military trying to upgrade itself. Defense research is not inherently evil, or even provocative. We can’t really fault China for trying to play catch-up… but we can, and should, be deeply suspicious of what systems they choose to develop with the most enthusiasm, and who they could possibly be deployed against.
Diplomacy might be able to slow the military research of adversary nations a bit, but nothing can truly stop it. That’s why we should never stop ours. Air superiority is a journey, not a destination. Our F-22 Raptor looks like it will still be the better plane when the J-20 hits the skies in a few years… but we only have 187 of them, and we aren’t building any more. Its designated successor, the F-35, is stuck in development hell. It might even become operational after the Chinese launch their first squadrons of J-20s. It seems like a lot of factors are converging to give China a brief window of military advantage in the latter years of this decade. I hope our diplomats can talk them out of using it.