US Drones Trump China Theatrics


Call it China’s ‘Christmas surprise.’ In a series of grainy photos given a pass by government Internet censors starting December 25, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force unveiled the country’s first stealth fighter prototype, the Chengdu J-20.

For alarmists, the Pacific balance of power seemed to shift in an instant. Armed with hundreds of fast, elusive J-20s in coming years, the PLAAF could dominate the South China Sea, reaffirming China’s rise as a global power and elbowing aside less audacious, tech-savvy rivals. ‘(The) Asia-Pacific’s political landscape will be changed as China’s military capability can win over countries in this region,’ warns Arthur Ding, an analyst based in Taiwan.

In truth, the J-20’s appearance raises more questions than it answers. For a start, it’s unclear what the new fighter is for, how well it might perform, and how easily Beijing might transition the prototype to a mass-produced design.

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Still, there’s no arguing with the symbolic power of the J-20’s debut. If nothing else, the first bow of the plane from Chengdu made a statement: The Chinese Communist Party is serious about air power.

That the sleek new fighter might represent the major symbol of a propaganda campaign should come as no surprise. Parades, military exercises and weapons tests represent ‘an effort to remind domestic audiences of the sophistication of the weaponry of the state,’ says US author Jeffrey Wasserstrom, in his book China in the 21st Century. The same principle applies to foreign audiences of China’s elaborate military theatre.

The same doesn’t apply to the country that is arguably China’s greatest strategic rival. With only a few exceptions, the United States exposes its major aerospace developments early, frequently and usually matter-of-factly. The absence of dramatic accoutrement can obscure the potentially profound effects of a new aircraft as much as the presence of drama can exaggerate a plane’s impact on strategy.

Drone Debut

Case in point: in September, the US Air Force introduced an aircraft to one of its major Pacific outposts that will weigh more heavily—and immediately—on the regional balance of power than the J-20 probably ever will. On September 20, the Air Force’s 36th Wing, based in Guam, received the first of three RQ-4B Global Hawk spy drones. The wing marked the occasion with a brief, public ceremony and a press release with photos.

The drone’s Pacific debut was, frankly, boring. But the tedium belied a profound strategic shift. Together, the three Guam-based RQ-4s, plus later reinforcements, will be capable of maintaining non-stop surveillance of vast swaths of the Pacific tens of thousands of miles in area, using a wide range of sensors.

Spy aircraft are nothing new, but spy aircraft of this calibre are new. Being pilotless, the RQ-4 and other drones aren’t limited by a human being’s need to sleep, eat and eliminate, nor by the human body’s physiological limits or the space that it occupies. In short, drones can stay in the air as long as their airframes and fuel supplies allow. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAVs ‘have an advantage of providing persistence,’ US Air Force Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula explains. This persistence means a drone is better able to spot targets and guide in attackers, shrinking what Deptula calls the ‘intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance-strike equation’ to ‘a matter of single-digit minutes.’

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