Features | Security | East Asia

China Won’t Rule The Skies

…anytime soon, says Loren Thompson. It’s a long way from having its own version of the F-22 fighter to challenge the US.

By Loren Thompson for

One of the persistent characteristics of the F-22 Raptor fighter programme over its 25-year history has been the propensity of supposed experts to misjudge the plane’s capabilities.  Accounts periodically appear about how this or that new radar has ‘unmasked’ the stealthy aircraft—and all of them have been wrong.

Other reports wrongly describe the performance features, mission potential and maintenance costs of on-board equipment.  And then there are the stories concerning how soon potential adversaries of the United States such as Russia or China will field their own ‘fifth generation’ fighters.

Such stories are intrinsically speculative, because so much of what the F-22 contains or can do is secret.  For instance, sources often refer to the Raptor as a ‘flying antenna,’ without really describing the imposing array of sensors and signal-processing systems incorporated into the design.  Similarly, the stealth (or ‘low observable’) features of the airframe are often discussed in public forums, but without any detailed technical treatment of the many technologies that must be integrated in order to render the plane nearly invisible to adversaries.

As a consequence, because so little of what makes the F-22 unique is in the public record, claims that China may one day soon field an equivalent tactical aircraft shouldn’t be taken seriously.  Not only does China lack the necessary experience or expertise in a number of relevant technologies, but it has never demonstrated the system-integration skills required to bring all those technologies together in a functioning airframe.  Despite frequent reports in US media about the forays of Chinese cyber-sleuths into US information networks, they’ve never managed to breech the firewalls surrounding highly-classified fighter technology. And, even if they had, the ability of Chinese engineers to utilize the insights obtained would be doubtful.

Obviously, if China were to successfully field a fighter with even a fraction of the F-22’s versatility or survivability, that would present major problems for neighbours such as Taiwan—there’s no air surveillance radar in the world today that can successfully track a fifth-generation fighter.

By the same token, though, a Chinese Raptor-equivalent would pose less danger to US fifth-generation fighters than might be imagined, because it would lack the sensors and munitions necessary to actually target the US plane.  At least initially, engagements would have to be based on the improbable tactic of using visual sightings and on-board guns, because the stealth features of the F-22 design would render heat-seeking and radar-guided missiles largely useless.

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Because the US military has invested decades in understanding how adversaries might seek to foil the stealth features of its aircraft, it’s likely to figure out how to destroy or disable fifth-generation fighters long before the Peoples Liberation Army does.  Despite its recent economic mis-steps, America still accounts for nearly half of all global military spending, and its investment in military technology is many times that of China.  So not only will it probably find early answers to any tactical-aircraft challenge posed by China, but it already is devising fixes to vulnerabilities Chinese scientists may have identified in the F-22’s defences.

Americans have good reason to doubt that their military will still enjoy unfettered access to the Western Pacific in the years ahead.  But the proper response to China’s growing economic and military power is to realistically assess what the People’s Republic might be capable of within current planning horizons.  Fielding fifth-generation fighters in any significant numbers is not a feasible proposition for Beijing.  There are more potent tools within China’s grasp to assert its regional power, and most of those tools can be had sooner than an indigenous force of fifth-generation fighters.

Dr. Loren Thompson is Chief Operating Officer of the Lexington Institute, located near Washington, D.C.