Video and screen shots of an aircraft fuselage covered in camouflage tarp seen in late June have fueled rumors that China may be developing a second fifth-generation aircraft, known as the J-21 “Snowy Owl.” Whether a new stealth aircraft is being developed, at a time when Chinese engineers are still struggling with the Chengdu J-20, remains to be seen, but military analysts are of the view that this is not impossible, especially if the aircraft are to play different roles.
Much speculation has surrounded Chengdu Aircraft Co.’s (CAC) J-20 stealth aircraft since it made its debut in January 2011, coinciding with then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ visit to Beijing. So far, the existence of two J-20 prototypes — the 2001 and 2002 — has been confirmed, and several test flights appear to have been held. China’s reliance on Russia for advanced engines, meanwhile, added to reports that Moscow has refused to export them to China, probably means we are unlikely to see a J-20 deployment with the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) before 2017-2019.
What is known so far, though, is that given its size (an overall length of about 70 feet), the twin-engine J-20 will likely serve as a strike fighter, like the F-111 Aardvark, rather than as an air superiority fighter. We’ll need more than a scale model used in reports last year to counter the view that the J-20 will ultimately serve as a strike fighter, and how the bomb bay evolves on actual models should provide clues as to the aircraft’s future use.
Contemporary Chinese military doctrine, furthermore, supports the logic for the development of a long-range stealth bomber. In Shaking the Heavens and Splitting the Earth, a recent study by the RAND Corp Project Air Force, the authors conclude that the primary role of the PLAAF in a combat scenario will be to launch surprise attacks against vital ground points, such as airstrips and military bases, rather than directly engage an opponent in air-to-air combat. This holds especially true if the enemy has superior air capabilities, combat experience and training, as the U.S. does, but less so in other scenarios (such as in the South China Sea) where the capabilities of China’s opponents would be far less impressive.
Literature on Chinese military strategy, as well as recent military propaganda, focuses on an initial attack by ballistic missiles from the Second Artillery Corps against airfields, radar sites, command-and-control and air-defense systems. However, although Dong Feng 11 (DF-11) and longer-range DF-15s would likely be the primary weapons used in initial attacks against targets in Taiwan and Okinawa, more remote U.S. military bases in the Pacific that would conceivably come into play in a conflict in Northeast Asia, such as Andersen Air Force Base on Guam, remain beyond reach. At present, the only means by which China could seek to disable U.S. forces on Guam is with the use of H-6K and H-6M long-range bombers equipped with YJ-63 or DH-10/CJ-10 cruise missiles. As the H-6s do not have any radar-evading capabilities, the possibility of their successfully launching a surprise attack against Guam is minimal, which signifies that an operation would require the additional deployment of a large number of aircraft cover groups (e.g., Su-27 and Su-30), air-refueling tankers (e.g., Il-78), and jammers.
This makes the benefits of the stealthy J-20 for such long-range sorties against ground-based vital points difficult to ignore, especially if this occurred in conjunction with attacks from Chinese Navy vessels, which could help overwhelm or find blindspots in the limited number of PAC-3 and other air defense systems usually deployed in the area. According to recent reports, China appears to be developing a navalized version of the DH-10 land-attack cruise missile (LACM).
Roger Cliff, who co-authored the RAND monograph, told The Diplomat earlier this week that the development of the J-20 as a strike fighter dovetailed with the Chinese literature used for the study.
“That would actually fit with what we say in Shaking the Heavens, as the references we found to stealth aircraft were in the context of attacking enemy forces on the ground,” he said. In other words, the PLAAF could be on the brink of introducing something other than Cold War-era bombers to threaten U.S. bases that hitherto were beyond the reach of the Chinese military (barring the development of a conventional ballistic missile capable of reaching that far). This would also support the contention, again supported by the literature used in the RAND study, that the Chinese regard the H-6M as only an interim solution to a long-range strike capability.
If this is indeed the role reserved for the J-20, then China will lack a fifth-generation air superiority aircraft to compete with the F-22 and F-35. The rumored J-21, which is being developed by Shenyang Aircraft Industry Group (SAC), could plug that hole, especially as there are indications that it would be a medium-weight fighter comparable in size to the F-35.
Some experts claim the J-21 could be a carrier-based stealth aircraft complementing the SAC’s non-stealth J-15 Flying Shark, while others point to its role as an export item (known as the F-60) to compete with the F-35.
Another possibility is that the PLAAF would acquire both, and use competition between CAC and SAC to accelerate the process while encouraging invention, much as it does with missile development. Under such a scenario, the J-20 would perform the role of penetrating strike aircraft and the J-21 that of an air superiority fighter, Cliff said.
Gary Li, an intelligence analyst at the UK-based Exclusive Analysis, is of the same view.
“In terms of design, the J-21 as a lighter complement to the J-20 ‘heavy fighter’ does make sense,” he told The Diplomat. “In traditional PLA thinking, there has always been a necessity for ‘light’ plus ‘heavy’ in terms of equipment.”
“I don’t think the J-21 is necessarily an admission that the J-20 is not good enough, merely that it might be designed with different roles in mind,” he said, adding that the PLA is relatively shrewd in how it spends and rarely invests in two designs that do the same thing.
Of course there is always the possibility that the footage that emerged in late June was simply disinformation. After all, some commentators argue that the Chinese military would not parade an advanced stealth aircraft on the road with so little protection. Maybe. We might not have to wait for too long before we get an answer, though, as some reports claim a first test flight is due in September.