Fifth-Generation Face Off
11 January 2011
US Defense Secretary Gates is in China at present, and the Chinese have confirmed to him that their prototype fifth-generation fighter, the Chengdu J-20 “Black Eagle,” has had its first test flight. Very little is known about the J-20, there has been no confirmation that the photographs claiming to be of the J-20 are in fact that aircraft, and its specifications will remain unknown for some time because they are not yet known even to the plane’s designers. The strengths and weaknesses of the design, and what weapons it can and will mount, will only be discovered through extensive testing, which has not yet occurred.
Because so little is known about the J-20, no straight-across comparison can be made with its presumptive competition, the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and the Sukhoi T-50/PAK-FA. The F-22 is operational; the T-50 is still in development, though some significant details are known concerning its specifications; the J-20 would seem to be still relatively early in its development. Aviation Week says that the T-50 will be operational and begin deliveries in 2015. The operational dates quoted for the J-20 are 2017-2019. It should be expected, however, that these dates will slip. For the time being, only the US has an operational fifth-generation fighter, and it will not export the F-22 at present. India has entered into an agreement to purchase a large number of T-50s, which I wrote about in Air Superiority in South Asia.
Because we can’t yet really compare the specifications of all three, much less have a dogfight between the fighters (although this would be something to watch), anything that is said about their relative capacities would be speculative. But several interesting strategic points follow from the bare fact of China operating a prototype fifth-generation fighter.
1. China intends to participate in a very expensive, technologically demanding arms race. This is interesting because it appears, from a long term strategic perspective, that the age of crewed air superiority fighters is nearing its end. Great technological strides are being made with unmanned aircraft, the best manned aircraft (like the F-22) are almost too expensive to produce (only 168 F-22s have been built), and alternative forms of precision weapons systems are likely to get more bang for the buck. Ultimately, there will be technological spin-offs from China’s development of an aircraft of this degree of sophistication, but it is not likely that spin-offs alone would be enough to justify such a program.
The arms race in fifth-generation fighters is a peer-to-peer (or, as is sometimes said, near-peer) competition. Note in this connection that neither Russia nor China is seeking peer-to-peer competition in aircraft carriers, and, while China is working on its missile boats, it is nowhere near being a peer-to-peer competitor with Russia or the US, and does not seem to be investing the resources to pursue such a competition. So why the fighter? As expensive as they are, an F-22 costs 150 million; a Nimitz-class carrier costs 4.5 billion. You can get 30 F-22s for the price of one carrier. This is the possible peer-to-peer competition; carriers would be an impossible competition.
2. The Chinese will produce a fifth-generation fighter. The Russian and Chinese fifth-generation fighters are behind the US program by more than a decade. What this means is that while it is expected, indeed inevitable, that both Russia and China will produce an operational fifth-generation fighter, by the time they do so, the US will have presumably moved on to further developments. Whether these developments will include a sixth-generation fighter, an unmanned fighter, or something else entirely, we do not know — but we do know time is no more standing still for US technology than it is standing still for Russian or Chinese technology.
Manned fighter jets are now highly mature technologies. Incremental developments will improve performance of many different systems, and an incremental advantage over one’s adversary can mean the difference between winning and losing, but the differences that emerge from mature technologies are not order-of-magnitude improvements. So while an incremental improvement may mean an edge in combat, an incremental improvement will not necessarily establish air superiority. It is precisely for this reason that I argued in Air Superiority in South Asia that Pakistan’s plan to have at least 250 JF-17s, some of them produced domestically, is a rational response to India’s plans to Acquire the Sukhoi fifth-generation fighter. Because of the incremental nature of the technological improvements, the JF-17 is a near-peer, and in a near-peer competition numbers can be as important as technology.
3. There are no secrets when it comes to high technology weaponry. After Oppenheimer directed the Manhattan Project, he made a point of telling anyone who would listen that the atomic bomb was not a “military secret.” Yes, it is true that it takes time, effort, lots of money, and a considerable industrial infrastructure to produce an atomic bomb, but the idea is out there. So it is with almost all high technology weapons systems. The dawning age of precision weaponry, which we are now seeing, is no secret either. As I remarked in Sinking a Carrier: Precisification of Concept, China’s DF21-D ASBM is as close to a “pure physics” weapons system as the atomic bomb itself. For such enterprises there are high barriers to entry, but these barriers are not secrets.
The performance of pure physics weapons systems will consistently and incrementally improve as computers and their software improve, designs are refined, materials technology advances, and the industrial infrastructure is tooled to produce such weapons systems to higher precision tolerances. Nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles are nearly pure physics weapons. Fighters, however, like rifles and tanks and helicopter gunships, are at least as much about training, expertise and doctrine as they are about physics. The doctrine for the use of nuclear weapons is strategy itself; they are essentially strategic weapons. But the doctrine for the use of the fighter or a tank or a helicopter gunship is tactical and operational. How each weapons system is employed in combined arms operations will make more difference than the incremental technological improvements represented by new generations of these currently mature technologies.
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