Andrew Erickson

The U.S. Naval War College’s Andrew Erickson speaks with The Diplomat about China’s missile advances, the J-20 stealth fighter and what China’s military rise means for the region.

1. Why write this book? Why is it worth reading now?

Chinese Aerospace Power, and the conference that supported it, was a long time in the making. It’s the first book devoted to linking China’s growing military aerospace capabilities with their maritime implications – an important gap that we were determined to fill to offer insights for U.S. Navy leaders and all other interested parties. We knew that the topic was important, but wanted to take the time to get it right. As the fifth volume in the Naval Institute Press’s “Studies in Chinese Maritime Development” Series, Chinese Aerospace Power is part of larger, ongoing scholarly analysis that the Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute is working to offer on Beijing’s recent turn to the sea.

In keeping with CMSI’s philosophy, contributors employ differing methodologies and arrive at diverse conclusions to further constructive academic debate. The common denominator is close, disciplined scrutiny of Chinese developments and sources. Designed to stand independently, the chapters may be read selectively, or sequentially, as the reader prefers. We want Chinese Aerospace Power to be a useful resource for scholars, researchers, and concerned citizens both inside and outside the U.S. government and around the world. In the words of Bradley Perrett, Aviation Week’s Asia-Pacific bureau chief in Beijing, “Many readers will be surprised by the extent of Chinese progress described by the contributors to this work.”

2. Chinese aerospace technology has made great strides over the last 20 years. In your view, what is China’s single greatest achievement in this area? What would you consider its greatest failing and/or area in need of improvement?

Today, China is the first developing country to achieve some measure of aerospace success across the board – although its rocket and satellite development have thus far greatly outpaced its aircraft manufacturing capacity. Missiles have been Beijing’s greatest aerospace strength since the late 1950s. They remain so today, as one of the few areas in which China has achieved architectural innovation and has deployed at least one major weapons system that no other nation possesses today. (This is the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, or ASBM, whose ground-launched nature and 1,500+ kilometer range fall within parameters that the U.S. and Russia have foresworn by treaty. Iran demonstrated a crude short-range ASBM, the Khalij Fars, in February 2011, but in terms of capability and sophistication it can’t be compared to China’s). Aircraft have long represented one of China’s greatest areas of weakness, but are now improving rapidly with indigenous development and production of the J-10 multirole fighter and the J-15 carrier-based fighter and J-20 stealth aircraft in development.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

In terms of specific hardware, failure to produce world-class aero engines has long handicapped China’s aviation efforts, but Beijing is now investing tremendous resources here – albeit in a rather dispersed fashion – and significant progress is likely being made with military turbofans. Civilian turbofans, given comprehensive efficiency, safety, and service requirements, represent the greatest challenge of all; here China’s near-term potential remains limited. More broadly, “software” challenges, such as effective integration of weapons and supporting systems in real-time combat conditions, represent perhaps the greatest area of improvement needed for China’s aerospace forces, and for its military more generally, to achieve their technological potential.

3. There are large sections of the book dedicated to China’s anti-ship missiles, both cruise and ballistic. It’s very clear China has developed a military might that is very “missile-centric.” Considering this, do you feel that China’s military has made the leap from being defensive in nature to now moving to a more offensive orientation to take advantage of its missile capabilities?

In many respects, offense and defense are in the eye of the beholder. What Beijing terms “counter-intervention” capabilities for “active defense” are, from Washington’s perspective, “anti-access area denial” capabilities designed to be used offensively, at least at the operational level. These are really two sides of the same coin. To further its remaining territorial and maritime claims in the three “Near Seas” (the Yellow, East China, and South China Seas), China is working to hold U.S. and allied forces increasingly at risk there via asymmetric means. China’s consequent development of the world’s most missile-centric major military poses significant challenges to its neighbors and potential adversaries.

Accordingly, we devoted separate sections of Chinese Aerospace Power to the maritime strike applications of Chinese cruise and ballistic missiles, respectively – the sheer breadth and rate of Beijing’s progress in those areas are extremely impressive. A major take-away from our volume, which draws on the findings of all contributors in their specific fields, is that American and allied forces in the Near Seas and their approaches face a growing and significant threat from enhanced Chinese long-range precision strike capabilities, particularly from missiles. The implications for the U.S. Navy are clear: its future fleet must reduce its vulnerability by emphasizing undersea and unmanned systems, in addition to active countermeasures.

4. When the book was written, the J-20 was just beginning its first of many flight tests. What are your thoughts on the plane as it stands today? Many have tried to place the planes capabilities in comparison with the F-22 or F-35. Are such comparisons fair? Is the plane more of a testing platform or something in your view that could be brought to full-scale production?

Despite short test flights beginning in January 2011, it’s too early to tell how soon China’s Project 718 J-20 will reach initial operational capability (IOC) and production, and how it will ultimately perform in practice. It seems designed as a relatively low-observable long-range strike aircraft capable of carrying significant amounts of weapons to fire on moving ships at sea. It may represent part of an institutional competition among the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force and Navy and the Second Artillery, in which the former two services seek to prevent China’s land-based missile force from monopolizing anti-U.S. carrier strike group capabilities by producing their own capabilities in that area.

The J-20’s performance parameters are difficult to compare with existing foreign platforms, as their realization in practice hinges on the resolution, or at least minimization, of multiple technical challenges. Its stealthiness might be limited by less-than-ideal architecture, and caring for its sensitive skin constantly – something with which China currently lacks experience – would be essential to maintain low radar signature amid surface wear. Thrust vectoring, sensor fusion, active electronically scanned radars, and increased tanker and AWACS support are essential subcomponents of J-20 capability realization, yet remain either lacking entirely or have yet to be demonstrated conclusively. Construction of late-generation, supercruise-capable engines may determine the J-20’s IOC date as a true stealth platform. Nevertheless, China’s aviation industry has demonstrated significant capability in its production of the J-10, and should not be underestimated. PLA Air Force Gen. He Weirong cites 2017-19 as the likely date range for J-20 IOC; U.S. government sources cite 2018. The J-20’s deployment could increase pressure on the U.S. to field additional F-22s and perhaps even to sell the F-22 to key East Asian allies Japan and South Korea. It will almost certainly support F-35 program development; some former F-16 customers may seek to purchase F-35s.

5. With respect to China, scholars and analysts may find it difficult to prevent their work from being overtaken by events. In light of China’s constant military-technological progress, how did you keep the volume up-to-date?

Good question! I’m well acquainted with this challenge; I live with it all the time. I often joke with my Chinese friends that China is exhausting to keep up with analytically – if only the nation could take a year off from its lightning fast growth, it would give foreign scholars a fighting chance to catch up. With respect to Chinese Aerospace Power specifically, ensuring that the volume would remain timely and relevant for some time to come was one of my primary concerns. I spent summer 2010 in Seoul teaching a class at Yonsei University. Weekday mornings, I would go on a run up Mt. Ansan, have breakfast, edit the volume, hold class, meet with students, and edit the volume some more. A U.S. Air Force couple generously hosted me at their downtown apartment on weekends, which provided a useful change of scene. There’s something about sitting with your laptop overlooking the Han River that focuses the mind. One of the best decisions we made was to select the best possible experts to attend the original CMSI conference and contribute chapters based on their cutting-edge knowledge. Another was to include additional chapters from similarly-capable authorities that filled key gaps in subject matter. Fortunately, all contributors were receptive to the numerous and substantial revision requests that we imposed on them. And the Naval Institute Press team provided its usual helpful support, allowing us to add key data points up to the very last minute.