It is a sign of our times that less than a week after the first flight of the new Chinese J-20 “Black Eagle” stealth fighter prototype, the worldwide media “experts” began to tear into the design. Commentators in Russia quickly claimed it was based on a design from their fifth-generation fighter competition, and denigrated it for probably being made mainly of aluminum. Even some aerospace journalists in the United States started “talking down” the J-20, despite never having seen more than low-quality video and photos of the aircraft. The truth is that it is far too early to make a responsible assessment of the J-20’s potential. One is reminded of the early judgments of the MiG-15 Fagot and MiG-25 Foxbat fighters, which were almost completely wrong. With that in mind, let’s see what might be responsibly said about this new bird:
1. Roles and Missions – The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) does not have a strong record of success conducting formal air operations. The only two large air campaigns in which the PLAAF has been involved, the Korean War and the Quemoy-Matsu Crisis back in the 1950s, both failed due to the inability to sustain air superiority. This inability has been a clear shortcoming of the PLAAF. Therefore, it would be absurd to assume that the J-20 has any other primary role with the PLAAF than the establishment of air superiority for Chinese military operations, whatever they might be.
2. Size and Construction – Let’s state right up front, the J-20 is big. Really big! But then again, most good stealth aircraft designs are. In fact, the actual physical size of an object has nothing to do with the radar cross section (RCS) or infrared signature of any object. The largest stealth design presently in service, the B-2A Spirit, actually has the smallest RCS. So the criticism that the J-20 is too large is simply not credible, given the combat qualities of other large fighters like the F-15 Eagle and F-22 Raptor. Russian criticism of its probable aluminum construction does not hold water either. Over 90 percent of the RCS reduction of stealth airframes comes from shaping, not materials. In fact, stealth airframes require conductive surfaces, so aluminum is actually a good basic material for learning low-observable design and construction techniques. The F-117A was composed almost totally of aluminum structures, and the J-20 likely will be also.
3. Status and Timeline – According to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the J-20 is expected in PLAAF service no earlier than 2025. With all due respect to the secretary and his intelligence sources, this is patently absurd. When the U.S. Air Force committed to its first stealth design, the F-117A Nighthawk, it took just five years to bring it into service in 1983. Does the fact that the PLAAF is not American mean that they are not also capable of “crash” programs if they desire? To assume such is to underestimate the Chinese as world-class competitors on the world technology market, something that might prove embarrassing if the J-20 were to show up in a crisis suddenly, and perform well.
4. Building and Supporting – One legitimate question being asked about the J-20 is, can the Chinese build such an airplane? Anyone who has spent time around Cold War-era Soviet/Chinese aircraft designs is familiar with their rough design and poor quality. Conversely, stealth aircraft require the highest levels of quality control in design, construction, operations, and maintenance. Over the past several decades, the Chinese have quietly been developing their manufacturing quality and skills, thanks to a combination of commercial co-production and encouraging Western-style management practices. This will likely mean a “Skunk Works/Tiger Team” production/support approach to the initial J-20 airframes. This is hardly beyond Chinese/PLAAF capabilities, and they can likely build and operate the J-20 in a real-world environment.
Nothing said in this piece is going to keep media analysts across the globe from assessing the J-20. Nevertheless, media dialogue about the J-20 needs to be responsible and free of jingoism. Let’s take a “Missouri” approach to the J-20, and let the PLAAF show us just what they are planning to do with the Black Eagle.