China’s defense industry seems to be up to its new trick of unveiling its latest toy when a senior U.S. official visits Beijing.
Following the playbook established in January 2011 when Chengdu’s J-20 stealth fighter had its maiden test flight just in time to overshadow the visit of then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, rival aerospace firm Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC) accidentally-on-purpose allowed some high-definition images of its own fifth-generation fighter jet to appear on the web over the weekend. Coincidentally, current Pentagon chief Leon Panetta had just kicked off an Asian tour that included a stopover in Beijing.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may have been on the end of a similar welcome when she visited China in early September. Grainy images of the PLA Navy’s latest destroyer, the Type 052D, turned up on the web along with a Global Times story just as CCP heir apparent Xi Jinping vanished for two weeks.
In truth, the Shen Fei (or Falcon Eagle), as SAC appears to have nicknamed the aircraft judging from its tail markings, is less of a mystery than the J-20 was when it emerged. As J. Michael Cole noted here in August, a Shen Fei-shaped airframe covered in camouflaged webbing enjoyed a well-publicized tour of China’s road network in June on its way from Shenyang to the China Flight Test Establishment at Xian-Yanglian Airbase, Shaanxi Province.
Now the wraps are off, it’s clear that the Shen Fei is based on a design dubbed the F-60 that has been doing the rounds as a model aircraft since at least September 2011. Described by IHS Jane’s aviation expert Robert Hewson as an “F-35-sized F-22”, it is much closer in platform than the J-20 to these two Lockheed Martin designs, which are fulfilling the U.S.’ next-generation manned fighter requirements.
Some argue that the Shen Fei is a result of some pretty serious cyber-espionage, which may explain why Panetta brought up “the growing threat posed to both economic and security interests by cyber intrusions” in his meeting with Chinese Defense Minister General Liang Guanglie on September 18. And although Western intelligence officials regularly imply that Chinese technological advances are aided by the dark arts, a glance at the F-22, F-35, Russia’s T-50 PAK FA and Japan’s ATD-X show that stealthy fifth-generation fighters tend to have a similar platform.
The Shen Fei and J-20 continue this trend, but the complexities of modern fighter aircraft design and production suggest that there’s still plenty of work for both SAC and Chengdu to do before they can compete with Russia and the West. As Lockheed Martin has found out with the both the F-22 and the F-35, fifth-generation fighters are hard to get right: the F-22 was recently grounded with a system problem that was causing pilots to black out, while the F-35 is behind schedule, over budget and testing the patience of the U.S. Air Force to the limits.
The key challenge facing Chinese designers is not in coming up with a stealthy platform, but the systems that go inside it. These include electro-optic sensors and an AESA fire-control radar – a generational jump in technology that comes as standard on F-35s and F-22s; stealthy coatings; and reliable engines. The latter are a particular bugbear for China, which has for years relied on Russian technology to power its fast jets. Many Western observers believe the Shen Fei is powered by two Russian-sourced Klimov RD-93 turbofans, reinforcing perceptions that this particular weakness is holding China back. The fact that the same images show that these engines appear to be ill-fitting suggests that Shenyang may be following the lead of Chengdu, which is believed to be trying out a number of different engines on the J-20.
But in other ways the Shen Fei is different from the J-20. Its unveiling did not include a test flight or state media coverage and it is not painted in PLA Air Force colors or markings. That suggests that it may be a company-financed project and would also corroborate reports that Chengdu beat SAC with the J-20 to provide the PLAAF with its fifth-gen fighter. Then again, the two platforms’ differing size also supports assertions that they could have different roles: the J-20 a long-range strike aircraft, with the Shen Fei acting as an air-superiority fighter.
As with most indigenous Chinese military programs, much is shrouded in mystery and speculation. The Shen Fei’s twin-wheel nose gear has led some to argue that it could be a future carrier fighter (on account of the reinforced undercarriage that most carrier-based aircraft are fitted with). Alternatively, it could be that SAC has just borrowed the technology from the Sukhoi Su-33-derived J-15 that it is building for the PLA Navy.
Either way, the Shen Fei’s appearance after years of rumors, scale models and surreal sightings has confirmed one thing: that China-watching occasionally has its benefits. Given Beijing’s punitive attitude to official secrets and the understandable concern around the Asia-Pacific region at its myriad military programs, it’s a relief that this 21st century version of Kremlinology pays off, at least some of the time.
James Hardy is Asia-Pacific Editor of IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly.