China has the resources and technology--some of it obtained quasi-legally and illegally--to build a fifth-generation fighter, say U.S. Air Force and intelligence officials. But Beijing's aerospace industry may be missing key skills needed for it to match the performance of advanced, Western-built combat aircraft.
What neither Beijing nor the Western defense community yet knows is whether Chinese technicians can generate the systems engineering and integration capabilities required to actually build in large production numbers and arm advanced aircraft with features similar to those of the aging B-2 and F-22 or the newer but less stealthy F-35 (AW&ST Nov.16, p. 26).
"You need a combination of the right shape, structural design, surface coatings, aerodynamic performance and flight control system," says a U.S. Air Force official. "It's not magic, but there's still a lot of art in it."
It remains to be determined if the People's Liberation Army Air Force (Plaaf) will pursue a fighter design optimized for low observability or how much it will be willing to trade in terms of performance, supportability and delivery schedule.
The requirement--dubbed J-XX by the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence in 1997--may well seek a more "balanced" approach to stealth, likely focusing on front-quadrant radar-cross-section reduction and the use of reapplicable coatings, rather than pursuing an all-aspect design. A twin-engine delta-canard concept has previously been suggested to be the general design approach.
While China is unlikely to field a platform with F-22-like capabilities within 10 years--as claimed by the Plaaf's deputy chief, Gen. He Weirong--a new fighter is in development and may soon make its first flight, say Chinese aerospace industry and U.S. intelligence officials.
The U.S. intelligence official, a veteran analyst of China's airpower, summarizes his view of the nation's access to advanced technologies. "Between legal, quasi-legal [diverted] and espionage-based tech transfer, I'm sure China has obtained most of the data available on how we build our stealthy aircraft structures and the materials involved," he says. "They also have taken full advantage of our open patent system, our open engineering undergrad and grad schools, our publish-or-perish academic promotion process and the ease with which an integrated, centralized [government] can thwart artificial, social-democratic distinctions between military, police, civil and commercial data."
Aging F-22 and B-2 designs are another factor. They have given Chinese researchers more than 20 years to chase down those technologies. The B-2 has already gone through its first service-life-extension program.
"[With] what they've gotten from us, Japan, [South Korea], Russia and the European Union, they have access to all they need data-wise," the intelligence official says. "Their only limitations are investment cash and the ability to work out production process engineering and integration, which we still do better than anyone. [Those skills] really reflect corporate culture and learning curve more than anything readily documented, although ISO 9000/9001/9002 and similar software documentation standardization are making that easier to steal, too."
China's J-10 strike fighter, which has an F-16-like capability, is considered the country's best indigenous effort so far in terms of engines, avionics and aerodynamic performance. It began large-scale service in 2006. China's military aircraft are profiting from knowledge about commercial composite-structure production garnered from building components for Boeing airliners and space materials.
The original J-10 work drew heavily on the Israeli Lavi program--Tel Aviv has generally proved a valuable source of technology for Beijing--and has benefited from Russian support.
Beijing also has used the J-11B development of the Russian Su-27 Flanker as the platform to introduce indigenous avionics, fire-control radar, weapons and powerplant. Further iterations of the systems produced for the J-11B may be earmarked for the J-XX.
The J-11B is designed to carry the PL-12 medium-range active radar-guided missile, rather than the export model of the Russian R-77 (AA-12 Adder). The PL-12 development reflects the overall improvement in China's national guided-weapons technology base, even if the program had significant Russian input.
"Right now, the only arms race China is really facing is with India, and [Beijing is] winning," the intelligence official says.
While that contest has no direct impact on the U.S., at least some Pentagon planners believe it will accelerate China's large-force, war-making capability, while the U.S. is focusing its spending and technology development on limited-war and insurgency-type conflicts.
"In my view, we're wasting billions on slow- and low-flying MC-12s [surveillance aircraft], MQ-1/-9 [remotely piloted aircraft], C-27J [light transports] and less-than-world-class, lowest-common-denominator, design-to-price [F-35] JSF," the intelligence official says.
A veteran combat pilot with insight into the F-22 program says building an advanced fighter, even if it did not match the F-22's or F-35's performance, could be a serious threat to the U.S. stealth fleet if the new aircraft are built in large enough numbers to overcome an allied force through sheer attrition.
"Those fourth-generation fighters, when pitted against 187 F22s in large numbers, will eventually wear [the stealth fighters] down," says an aerospace industry official. "They only carry eight air-to-air missiles. They don't have to match Raptor capabilities if they build an advanced fighter in F-35 numbers."
It would not be considered an impossible technological leap for China to build an F-35-like fighter with some stealth capabilities in 10 years. "They could throw a lot of resources at it," a senior U.S. Air Force official says. "But we've yet to see a real organic design from China. So far, they've leveraged Russian or Israeli technology. They don't have a lot of radar engineering capability, nor experience in integrating a complete structure. That's the big question.
"You can paste on some [signature-lowering] capabilities, but changing a very large target to a large target doesn't buy you too much operational advantage," the Air Force official says. "You need very small stealth-signature numbers."
The F-22 had an all-aspect requirement of -40 dBsm., while the F-35 came in at -30 dBsm. with some gaps in coverage.
The idea that the J-10 will serve as a technological springboard is considered unlikely.
"I believe the Chinese have a difficult road if their design is tied to the J-10," he says. "As you know, significantly reduced signature requires more then coatings. The J-10 has many features which may produce the desired aerodynamic effects but would be a negative for signature reduction. I am sure they can somewhat reduce the signature with a few design tweaks and coatings, but the operational relevance would be questionable.
"They can certainly refine their composite-structure competency, and basic [stealth] coatings are widely known and available," the Air Force official says. "The milestone will be when we see more refined shaping."