Fighter technologies have evolved at an impressive rate since the end of the Cold War. In industrial defense establishments across the world, the production and development of relatively cheap and viable versions of fourth generation aircraft continues. Incorporation of modern electronics suites and advanced upgrades have extended the life of such platforms for decades. At the same time, defense corporations and government contracted tech giants are focusing on newer breeds – fifth generation aircraft that boast the latest in stealth technologies, advanced interlinked sensor suites and more.
While the side-by-side upgrades of the old and development of the new have in large part been a mainstay in America, Russia and Europe for decades, this hasn’t been the case in Asia. Previously, the procurement and operation of combat fighter platforms in Asia saw most countries benefit from the industrial patronage of the big Cold War powers. Chinese airfields and Indian hangars were equipped with durable Sukhoi and Mikoyan-designed fighters, while Japan’s skies were home to contracted versions of some of the United States’ best.
However, economic growth and industrial expansion in Asia has triggered a drive towards producing strong domestic industrial bases in which two countries in the region, India and China, have raced far ahead of regional neighbors when it comes to the rapid maturation of new air combat technologies. Indigenous development processes in both countries are noticeably taking a more strategic, rather than tactical, form. Demand from these countries in the global arms market for new capabilities has led to the consolidation of many existing bilateral trade and industrial relationships in the region. Beijing is edging closer to Islamabad, while New Delhi has actively sought involvement in joint industrial ventures with countries like Russia, the United States and many of India’s southeasterly neighbors.
It’s clear that emerging military-industrial partnerships represent a strategic balancing act on the continent, something which can most visibly be seen by looking at the endeavors of the region’s indigenous air combat industries.
Both India and China have, in their bid to acquire competitive fourth generation fighter capabilities, engaged in productive joint ventures with regional neighbors aimed at constructing light and versatile air superiority aircraft. Considering specific developments, today’s emerging balance of capabilities from such ventures indicates a significant focus on perceived security threats, from enduring tensions between India and Pakistan to emerging conflicts of interest between China and India.
For Beijing, lessons learned from previous experiences with Russia have enabled the rise of capable domestic production programs. The most internationally visible of those, a Sino-Pakistani lightweight fighter called the JF-17 Thunder, was recently announced as ready for export, with potential customers from Southeast Asia to Africa.
By comparison, India’s development of the HAL Tejas, a delta-wing single engine multi-role lightweight fighter, represents New Delhi’s similar commitment to the indigenous development of platforms that can both balance against threats from abroad and capably operate in the distinct roles of land-based strike craft and sea-launched first response unit.
While there are some unmistakable differences between the two craft – the Tejas is an entirely new design compared to the heavily Mikoyan-influenced Thunder – it’s fairly clear that the present production and equipment of both planes is reactive. The Tejas and the Thunder, with numerous hard-points for mixed mission profiles, good range and the ability to fire air-launched cruise missiles, match each other closely, representing the balancing of capabilities that ultimately is the primary goal of Asia’s new military-industrial partnerships.
However, focus on Russian-based fourth generation aircraft is beginning to fade as new technology begins to emerge. With the testing of China’s J-20 fifth generation stealth-equipped fighter in January, China has demonstrated its ability to engage in the domestic development of aircraft that have the potential to compete with the best technology that countries like America and Russia have to offer.
In strategic terms, and in light of suggested export partners like Pakistan, the J-20 represents a counterpoint to the joint Russo-Indian Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA), a multi-variant stealth-equipped platform that promises to be the backbone of both countries’ future combat air forces. On the one hand, the FGFA has seen successful prototype tests and promises to deliver advanced air superiority capabilities. The J-20, on the other hand, as yet is likely lacking when it comes to the incorporation of advanced electronics capabilities and fifth-generation stealth-accommodating engines.
Still, with a minimal radar cross-section, powerful (if not yet stealth-equipped) propulsion and, given the size of the plane, a considerable amount of internal payload storage, it’s worth remembering that the general design of the J-20 indicates awareness of the challenges of facing the kind of capabilities that the FGFA would gift India and others. Even at its most basic level, the J-20 represents a not-so-invisible threat to China’s near-abroad as not only a potential competitor to future air superiority platforms, but as a long-range, stealthy fighter-bomber that could be the bane of military installations, ancillary forces and naval units across the region.
Ultimately, it’s likely that the development of combat fighter industries and partnerships in Asia will continue to denote the strategic mindset of the region’s various balancing powers. The domestically-based capabilities of countries to assert influence through the use of dynamic production programs and strategically-positioned strike forces in the near-abroad remains a telling benchmark for judging the state of affairs between countries. Considering how reactive the development of new combat fighter programs appears to have been in Asia, it’s a benchmark that looks set to be increasingly determined by the shape of future joint ventures between regional partners.
Christopher Whyte is a Washington DC area analyst and graduate student in Political Science in International Relations at George Mason University, Virginia.