It’s an arms race Beijing claims it doesn’t want, Russia can’t afford, the United States believes it can’t afford and Japan probably isn’t prepared for on its own.
All the same, the intensifying competition to build radar-evading jet fighters has had a powerful effect on the politics, industry and military forces of the Pacific's four greatest powers – and none more so than Japan’s.
The most recent chapter in a tale that began in 2005 opened with a grainy photograph of a black-painted warplane, published on an Internet forum six months ago. On Christmas Day, Chinese government Internet censors allowed the first amateur photo of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s new J-20 stealth-fighter demonstrator to linger online.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The J-20, a product of the Chengdu design bureau, is a visually impressive aircraft, substantially bigger than Western warplanes such as the F-15 and F/A-18 and adorned with sharp angles meant to reduce its radar reflectivity. Such angles are also seen on the latest US F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters, both built by Lockheed Martin, plus on the Sukhoi T-50 from Russia.
More photos and videos of the J-20 soon followed. But Beijing remained silent about the new plane’s purpose and capability. Foreign analysts, meanwhile, worked themselves into something of a panic.
‘Any notion that an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter or F/A-18E/F Super Hornet will be capable of competing against this Chengdu design in air combat, let alone penetrate airspace defended by this fighter, would be simply absurd,’ wrote Carlo Kopp and Peter Goon, from the think tank Air Power Australia.
If the PLAAF masters engines to match the J-20’s airframe, ‘Asian Pacific’s political landscape will be changed,’ claimed Arthur Ding, a Taiwanese analyst.
Finally, a Chinese official opened up about the J-20. It was in late May, at a press conference during PLA chief Gen. Chen Bingde’s weeklong visit to Washington, D.C. ‘We do not want to use our money to buy equipment or advanced weapons to challenge the United States,’ Chen said in response to a question about the J-20.
There was a ‘gaping gap’ between US and Chinese technology, the general admitted.
But it was too late for Chen to stop an arms race. The J-20’s appearance had already prompted the United States and its closest Pacific ally, Japan, to accelerate the modernization of their own air arsenals. Russia, cash-strapped as always, doggedly plugged away at a planned decade-long test programme using two T-50 prototypes.
Despite a ballooning federal budget deficit and flattening defence spending, Washington shifted billions of dollars into efforts to improve its fleet of F-15 Eagle and F-22 Raptor fighters, while also reaffirming its commitment to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, the total cost of which was projected to exceed $1 trillion.
Tokyo’s reaction to the J-20 was arguably even more dramatic. In a surprise move for a country that carefully avoids military confrontation, Japan revived a plan to develop its own stealth warplane – from scratch.
Today, the so-called Shinshin (‘spirit’) fighter – the product of the Advanced Technology Demonstrator, or ‘ATD-X,’ programme – exists only as a small-scale, radio-controlled model, two non-flying mock-ups and various isolated bits of technology including engines, electronics and the canopy. But plans are in place to fly a fully-functioning demonstrator no later than 2014.
What happens after that is open to speculation. Sometime after 2016, a derivative of the Shinshin could join the F-22, the F-35, the T-50 and potentially the J-20 as combat-ready stealth warplanes in widespread military use.
More likely, Tokyo will continue using Shinshin for its original purpose, as a sacrificial player in a complex political, military and industrial game, the ultimate goal of which is to win Japan a stake in a more affordable (for Japan) and potentially more effective US stealth fighter.
Either way, the J-20’s appearance has raised the stakes for Tokyo and the Japanese air force. Tokyo is facing a shortage of combat-ready fighters, a problem the Chinese warplane’s appearance underscored in dramatic fashion.
The question is whether Japan will design and build new fighters on its own, despite the high cost and extreme risk of such an endeavour – or continue relying on the Americans to supply its warplanes, a strategy that comes with its own political and industrial costs.