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Straining Hard to Find a Peer Threat

September 3, 2009
Chinese Chengdu J-10 Fighter. Photo by Retxham at Wikimedia Commons.

Chinese Chengdu J-10 Fighter. Photo by Retxham at Wikimedia Commons.

Some in the Media will go to great links to justify continuing Cold War building policies, while our troops fight new wars in Afghanistan and elsewhere. For instance, the Wall Street Journal here is trying to “talk up” the threat posed by new and planned Chinese fighters:

China’s fifth-generation efforts date back to the early 1990s and will start with two heavy fighters from China’s two main fighter companies. A Chinese source told me in early 2005 that the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation, famous for developing the fourth-generation J-10 fighter, was considering the development of a medium-weight fifth-generation plane comparable to the F-35. This could mean that Chengdu’s fighter will be built in vertical take-off and aircraft carrier versions. In 2006, the competing Shenyang Aircraft Corporation revealed a concept for a single-engine forward-swept-wing fighter that would be highly maneuverable and potentially stealthy. It seems the PLA envisions two levels to its program: a heavy fighter for maintaining air superiority, and a medium-weight plane that’s cheaper and more versatile.

Even before China’s fifth-generation fighter flies, advances in electronics and engines will enable new “four-plus” generation fighters, like the J-10B that recently began flight testing. These fighters and eventual fifth-generation fighters will pose a more effective challenge to current and future U.S. air forces, and will make obsolete the fourth-generation fighter fleets of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

Even if these so-called advanced Chinese fighters performed as expected (they don’t, more in a sec), the idea that Chinese pilots can match Western training methods takes more than a grain of salt to fathom. Our allies having trained alongside seasoned USAF pilots for decades, also enjoy the benefit of our own lessons from numerous and ongoing conflcits, while China hasn’t fought a major air war since Korea.

Back to the planes themselves, here is Strategypage on these “wonder weapons” which aren’t even up to our 30 year old F-16 standards:

The J-10 already has a reputation as a maintenance nightmare, and that the Chinese are having a hard time keeping the aircraft operational in reasonable numbers. But the J-10 is the first modern jet fighter designed and built in China. The aircraft is an attempt to create a modern fighter-bomber that could compete with foreign designs. The experiment was not completely successful.

Work on the J-10 began over twenty years ago, in an attempt to develop an aircraft that could compete with the Russian MiG-29s and Su-27s, and the American F-16. But the first prototype did not fly until 1998. There were problems, and it wasn’t until 2000 that the basic design flaws were fixed. By 2002, nine prototypes had been built, and flight testing was going forward to find, and fix, hundreds of smaller problems. It was a great learning experience for Chinese engineers, but it was becoming apparent that the J10 was not going to be competitive with the Su-27s/30s China was buying from Russia.

F-15K Slam Eagle from the Republic of Korea Air Force.

F-15K Slam Eagle from the Republic of Korea Air Force.

In contrast, South Korea  has the the F-15K Slam Eagle, an advanced version of the F-15 Strike Eagle, and is seeking a stealth fighter such as the F-22 Raptor or even the recently revealed F-15 Silent Eagle. Japan wants the F-22 as well to replace its 200 venerable Eagles. These Air Forces have been operating 4th Generation planes forever and have the advanced missiles to go along with them, while China has just barely made it into the same company in terms of quality.

So we think our allies are safe enough, leaving out the fact they could count on quick American air support from the only true 5th Generation fighter out there, the F-22 Raptor. And our friends are not standing still anyway seeing as how they are speeding ahead with their own modernization plans, hardly necessary given the current quality of potential adversaries, but ongoing just the same.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    September 5, 2009 6:05 pm

    “But of course, China is not a threat as of now. The more people speculate that China is a threat to the US, and the more people feed into, the more likely it becomes a self-fulfilling expectation turned truth. Competition, in terms of strategic resources and who the top dog is, will and has always been done on the marketplace. China is a little too savvy, too rational, too smart to be drawn into a shooting war. If anything, all this wild speculation and irresponsible peer threat journalism (not yours!) will result in an America pulling the trigger first.”

    This is very true. I see China very much as a paper tiger. It is as if the West is willing its own decline. The US’s performance in Iraq and Afghanistan (which isn’t as a bad as the left would have you believe) can’t be compared to how the US would perform in an all out general war. I think the US would be killing the Chinese wholesale. Many also mistakenly see China as a hegemony which it isn’t. China has many fractures………

  2. AaronW permalink
    September 3, 2009 3:47 pm

    But of course, China is not a threat as of now. The more people speculate that China is a threat to the US, and the more people feed into, the more likely it becomes a self-fulfilling expectation turned truth. Competition, in terms of strategic resources and who the top dog is, will and has always been done on the marketplace. China is a little too savvy, too rational, too smart to be drawn into a shooting war. If anything, all this wild speculation and irresponsible peer threat journalism (not yours!) will result in an America pulling the trigger first.

  3. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 3, 2009 2:29 pm

    Concerning me underestimating China, I do not underestimate their missile threat, which we really should be worrying about, as the Navy already is. I do discount the J-10 as reason for more F-22 Raptor fighters, which clearly we can’t afford enough of, but the Chinese likely will build many of their aircraft. My point is, we risk more by being overwhelmed with numbers than capability, but I don’t see even this as an immediate problem as long as we have lots of legacy aircraft. I feel these are being worn our quickly and we can’t build enough Raptors to replace them, and probably not enough F-35s.

    But against the F-16-like J-10, just give me more F-16s or Super Hornets or old Eagles armed with AMRAAM and problem solved. No need to panic.

  4. Some Random Dude permalink
    September 3, 2009 12:17 pm

    You under estimate China quiet a bit. There development cycles are very quick compared to western miliatries. I’d expect them to field a near competitor to the F-22 within 20 years, so we had better keep investing in air dominance. Just because we are ahead now doesn’t mean it will be so, especially if we don’t build new planes and let the industrial capacity to do so ebb away into the ether (or worse, countries like China).

  5. Hudson permalink
    September 3, 2009 10:41 am

    “The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is expected to unveil its long-anticipated fourth-generation combat jet this week during the Zhuhai air show. Despite being touted as the first indigenous fighter, the J-10 is filled with a combination of technologies either bought or stolen from America.

    The Chengdu J-10 advanced combat fighter is clearly a product of years of military cooperation between Israel and China, taking much of its design from the now defunct U.S.-Israeli Lavi project.

    The exact amount of Israeli support for the J-10 project is debatable; however, there is overwhelming evidence that much of the new jet fighter’s design comes from the joint U.S.-Israeli project from the 1980s.”

    I copied the above from a 2002 news source. The Israelis wanted the U.S. to help them build their own fighter, but we refused on the grounds that it would compete with the F-16. So the Israelis gave up and sold the technology to China. Thus the J-10 has good parentage, but as you report, the Chinese are having problems with it.

  6. September 3, 2009 9:46 am

    Mike
    Your same (correct) argument that numbers of smaller naval vessels combined with many missiles pose a great threat to small big-ship forces………can similarly be made concerning fighter aircraft. Virtualy ANY airplane can be used to launch a missile, doesn’t matter if it’s a fifth generation fighter or a WWII vintage fighter. Depending upon either the advanced technology of the missiles, or their NUMBERS, they, and not the aircraft they were launched from, are the real threat.

    Re: training?……I hear it a lot. Mostly from TopGun wannabees. Doesn’t mean jack. Again, it’s the missiles (or their numbers)that are the threat, not the pilot, not the training, not the supermodern winged wonder.

    The greatest weapon any adversary could have against us…..is our own hubris.
    Never underestimate an apponent. Never.

  7. William permalink
    September 3, 2009 6:57 am

    Mike, you’re probably right. I was just commenting that the J-10 fuseage seems to have borrowed ideas from the EF Typhoon, at least to some degree.

  8. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 3, 2009 6:53 am

    William, I am still convinced she is a F-16 wannabe. This is not to say she can’t be updated with newer electronics and weapons, which I would insist we and our allies do to our own numerous stocks legacy aircraft, instead of always seeking the “perfect” fighter.

  9. William permalink
    September 3, 2009 6:45 am

    The Engine air-intake aside, it has been mentioned quite a few times that the J-10 has more than a passing resemblance to the EF Typhoon.

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