Tensions are rising high throughout the Asia-Pacific. From the Indo-Pakistani border, through Australia’s controversial border policies to China’s disputes with its neighbors in the South and East China Seas, Asian states have been increasing investments in their military capabilities. In all these cases, having forceful and credible aerial assets is a crucial part of deterrence. This is reflected in regional defense spending.
Meanwhile, the world is facing a generational shift in military aircraft. Since the final decade of the Cold War, the skies have been dominated by so-called “fourth-generation” combat aircraft: supersonic jets with increasingly sophisticated electronic capabilities, equipped with weaponry able to engage the enemy over several kilometers distance. These still make up the backbone of basically every modern air force around the world.
However, several states with large budgets and a high degree of military research and development spending are attempting to develop so-called “fifth-generation” aircraft. These jets incorporate stealth technology, which makes them difficult to detect on radar, powerful and secure communications, and advanced sensors that help pilots and ground control teams to keep “full spectrum dominance” of the battlespace.
The U.S. has been leading the way in this field. Although there is some contention as to what actually qualifies a combat aircraft for inclusion into the fifth-generation category, most sources agree that only one currently fully operational model meets the criteria: the Lockheed-Martin F-22 Raptor. The specs surrounding this aircraft are closely guarded secrets, and Washington does not export it to even close allies. Lockheed-Martin’s other fifth-generation aircraft, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, is slated for export to a number of allied states. However, the F-35 remains mired in controversy due to delays, overshot budgets, and technical glitches (see here, here and here).
The United States isn’t alone in its ambition to field fifth-generation tech. Several Asian countries are attempting to develop their own fifth-generation aircraft. China is attempting to design and produce a fighter which can offset the American advantage. In response, both Japan and South Korea are in the process of acquiring their own indigenous fifth-generation birds, with varying amounts of technology borrowed from the F-35. India is also pursuing a next-generation aircraft (although New Delhi’s is mostly looking to Moscow and its own indigenous research and development for its needs).
As The Diplomat has covered extensively, China is currently in the process of developing two different models of fifth generation fighters. The Chengdu Aerospace Corporation J-20 is supposed to be the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (PLAAF) version of the U.S. Raptor. Although much of the information surrounding the J-20 is unavailable, it is probably primarily intended as an air superiority fighter. This is due to the fact that it is primarily equipped with hardpoints for air-to-air missiles, including the short-range PL-9 and the long-range PL-12 and PL-21.
Like many of the PLAAF’s jets, important issues remain with the J-20’s twin-engine propulsion. It is currently unknown what kind of engine powers the aircraft, but it is assumed that this is either the indigenously designed WS-10 or the older Russian Saturn AL-31F. China is developing a new turbofan, the WS-15, which will be exclusively used by the J-20. It is currently unknown how near completion this engine is today. In the meantime, as reported by Franz-Stefan Gady for the Diplomat, there is speculation that China will attempt to reverse-engineer some of the technology in the Russian Saturn AL-117S turbofans installed in the Sukhoi Su-35, of which China has recently announced that it will buy 24 units. According to the PLAAF, the J-20 will be fully operational by 2018, although this timeframe is questionable and may be optimistic.
This is also true for PLAAF’s F-35 counterpart: the Shenyang J-31. Like the J-20, much of the specifications surrounding the J-31 are classified, but it is reasonable to assume that it is intended to provide advanced defense capabilities in close-air support, aerial bombing, and air interdiction operations. It can also perform suppression of enemy air defenses and can be used as a carrier-based fighter on China’s future aircraft carriers. Initial operational capability of the aircraft is expected in 2020. Like the F-35, China announced last month that it is intending to export the J-31. Unlike its U.S. counterpart, it has yet to find any buyers.
Some in the U.S. believe that both the J-20 and the J-31 have been developed at least partially with designs stolen from the F-35. U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, said the Chengdu J-20 twin-engine stealth fighter bears similarity to the F-22 Raptor while the J-31 fighter resembles the F-35 design.
“What they’ve been able to do in such a rapid period of time without any R&D, do you believe that that gives them a competitive advantage?” Manchin said during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on cybersecurity this September.
Japan has also been developing its own fifth-generation air superiority fighter as it looks to replace its ageing F-15s. Developed by the Ministry of Defense Technical Research and Development Institute, the Mitubishi ATD-X Shinshin project was launched after Washington refused to sell Tokyo the F-22 Raptor. However, the ATD-X (also known as the Mitsubishi F-3) is meant to enter service by the late 2020s. In the meantime, Japan has ordered 42 F-35s, which are supposed to serve as a stopgap measure between its F-15s and the ATD-X. It is assumed that the Shinshin will incorporate at least some of the F-35’s stealth technology.
If completed, the F-3 is supposed to incorporate some cutting-edge technology. The aircraft will be fitted with an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. The radar will have capabilities for electronic countermeasures, communications functions, and possibly even microwave weapon functions. The Shinshin is planned to have a flight-by-optics flight control system. Data is transmitted by optical fibers rather than wires. In this way data is transmitted faster and is immune to electromagnetic disturbance.
Furthermore, the new Japanese aircraft will have a so-called self repairing flight control capability. It will allow the aircraft to detect failures or damage in its flight control surfaces. The system will calibrate remaining control surfaces accordingly to retain controlled flight.
South Korea’s next generation fighter is also a long-term project. The Korea Aerospace Industries KF-X isn’t strictly speaking a fifth-generation aircraft, but is termed as “4,5 generational” platform. The KF-X is an ambitious program, aiming to provide Seoul with a stealth fighter with capabilities better than the best current fourth-generation fighters (including the F-16s it currently possesses), but short of the F-35 and its counterparts. This is probably due to both costs as well as the necessity of having a fighter that will be invisible to North Korean radars, while having enough capabilities to intercept Chinese and even Japanese fifth-generation aircraft.
As previously discussed by Robert Farley for the Diplomat, Seoul has agreed to purchase 40 F-35s, alongside 25 different technologies. This will give Seoul the necessary tech and materials to design and construct the KF-X. However, four of these technologies are currently being withheld due to pressure from the U.S. Congress and defense industries.
According to Farley, “The four technologies in question are the active electronically scanned radar, the infrared search-and-rescue systems, the electro-optical targeting pod, and the radio frequency jammer. Reports indicate that Korea will attempt to develop the latter two technologies indigenously, and the former two in cooperation with foreign (non-US) industry.”
The reason behind the U.S. reluctance is probably due to the fact the South Korea is hoping to export the KF-X once it’s completed. Indonesia has already signed up to the program, and will receive 80 fighters once they are completed; Seoul has said that it will field 120 KF-Xs by 2025-2030. If Seoul manages to produce a fighter that actually works, it could present an affordable alternative to the F-35.
However, as Dave Majumdar notes, it is unlikely that South Korea will be able to develop all of the relevant technologies (or acquire them from other sources) in a timely fashion. The DoD decision could lead to a cancellation of the entire F-35 deal, which would leave Korea without a fifth-generation fighter for the foreseeable future.
The final major indigenously developed Asian fifth-generation fighter is India’s Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), currently under development by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. As opposed to Japan and South Korea (and China, if the espionage reports are accurate), India doesn’t currently and likely won’t in the future have access to the F-35’s technology. Furthermore, as part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Make in India” campaign, much of the technology and hardware installed in the AMCA will be indigenously developed. However, there are speculations that HAL will be able to acquire some of the necessary technology from Russia, which is in the testing stages of its own fifth-generation fighter, the Sukhoi PAK-FA T-50.
The AMCA is supposed to supplement, rather than outright replace, many of India’s current platforms. Like the F-35, the AMCA is supposed to be a multirole fighter, able to conduct both air-to-air combat and air-to-ground sorties. It will be powered by twin GTRE K-10 turbofans, the successor of the cancelled Kaveri engine. This will be designed and produced with help from a undecided foreign company (the odds are that this will either be the French Snecma M88 or U.S. General Electric’s F-414.) HAL is planning to design a carrier-based platform of the AMCA as well. These would probably operate from the new Vikrant-class aircraft carrier. According to the Times of India, the AMCA will be ready for testing in 2023-2024.
The next-generation battle for Asia’s skies is on. Which of these birds will prevail over the continent?
Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to the Chengdu J-20 as the J-21. The J-31 is sometimes referred to as the J-21 or the F60.