31 December 2010

"J-20": A Chinese "Backfire"?

The aviation forums recently have been buzzing with discussion on the new Chinese "stealth fighter" recently spotted doing fast taxi runs.

In one of the discussions, the writer warned about the danger of "mirror-imaging", citing the incorrect evaluations of the Tu-22M "Backfire".

Now follows some slightly-educated guesses that may well be completely wrong.

I do not think, as Air Power Australia does, that J-20 is an F-35 rival. For five reasons:

1. It looks too large and too blocky for effective manoeuvrability in a situation where air-to-air combat is looking like going back into within-visual-range fights.

2. We still have no indication of the super-cruise capabilities of this thing, if it even has any.

3. Chinese missiles still aren't up to US standards. No-one is talking about any PLAAF missiles rivalling the AIM-9X/ASRAAM/IRIS-T weapons used by "Western" forces.

4. It doesn't really fit into believed and stated Chinese strategy. This talks about the defence of two "island chains", the second going out as far as Guam and the Northern Marianas.

5. There are plenty of capable Chinese SAM capabilities on the mainland and in their ships that will at least force F-35s to carry internal ordinance only. That's before we get to J-11 and J-15.


The classic scenario for a war involving China involves Taiwan. In this scenario, the defence of the Republic of China would be assisted by US carrier groups and air strikes from as far away as Guam, but more often from Japan or the Philippines.

It would be very useful for the PLA to attack land bases and the carriers directly. The propaganda potential of sinking a US carrier would be simply huge - and right now the Chinese lack the effective assets to do it.

DF-21D, which the US now evaluates as having achieved "Initial Operational Capability", lacks key elements in the "kill chain", such as the capability to locate a CVBG without being counter-detected and attacked. The US is rapidly improving AEGIS to cope with it as well.

The Chinese need an alternative strategy. Their other attack aircraft either have limited range (FB-7) and/or are vulnerable to AAM (Su-30/H-6).

Their planned carrier force will run into similar problems, particularly from the new US SSNs, as there is currently no "Chinese AEGIS" (or Russian one for that matter)

This is where the Chinese could do with a "stealth Backfire".

The Tu-22M "Backfire" turned out to be an aircraft designed for medium-range strikes with stand-off missiles against US carrier groups and land-based targets (e.g. Keflavik, which would play host to NATO maritime reconnaissance aircraft). Any "Backfire" raid against a US carrier group, though, would have had to get through the gauntlet of a rather capable CAP (Combat Air Patrol) made up of F-14s and F/A-18s. Even F-4s would have caused it severe problems. You either need luck a lot of "Backfires"; i.e. one hundred plus, or a fighter escort. It's a lot of resources involved.

However, with a stealth aircraft, you get a decent chance of avoiding said CAP and getting into sufficient range (say 20 kilometres) to launch a missile attack that is going to be difficult to defend against.

This also applies to strikes against land targets.


In conclusion, if this becomes operational, it will be a new and potent Chinese capability, but not because it can beat the F-35.


Anonymous said...

Some Comments:
1. The F-22 is also huge and blocky but is super maneuverable due to its generous control surfaces, massive thrust, sophisticated FCS logic, and tvc. The jury is out on the J-20 so we can't judge as yet.
2. I expect the J-20 to lag behind in terms of engine tech. Reports are they are using Russian engines similar to those on the PAK-FA w/c the russians admit are interim units with new-gen engines perhaps a decade away. Anyway, the F-35 does not claim SC capability so this does not necessarily preclude the J-20 from a similar role.
3. In terms of combat-proven AAMs, AMRAAM has the best record. Still, Russian AAMs are highly regarded. Definitewly an area the chinese will need to improve upon.
4. J-20's large size implies a lot of internal fuel and a long range or/long loiter capability, both desirable traits.
5. Not sure what you mean..

In a Taiwan conflict, you'ld expect the US carriers to be parked to the East of Taiwan. A long-range coult take a circuitous route around the Island avoiding its IADS to challenge the USN. How effective they would be in penetrating the CBG's multi-layer defense can only be guessed at. Personally, I think Chinesesubs would be a greater threat.

Silent Hunter said...

5. The Chinese have a considerable number of fighters as is; including the J-7, J-10 and J-11.

They also possess S-300 equivalent SAMs on land and on their ships.

With those capabilities, any attack on mainland China will need to use stealth aircraft to have a reasonable chance of success.

The F-35 has limited weapons capability internally. To call stuff like HARM, it will need to mount them on external hardpoints, increasing its RCS considerably.

Anonymous said...

If I were in charge of defending the Mainland, my primary concern would be long-range cruise missiles launched from Ohio-class SSGNs, surface ships and aircraft. These could be complemented by B-2 Bombers carrying bunker busters or up to 200 SDBs, each programmed to hit individual targets. These could lay waste to coastal installations, airbases, IADS facilities, etc.
These could set the stage for further attacks from stealthy F-35s, each carrying 2 x 2000-lb JDAMs, 2 x AMRAAMS and multiple Sidewinders, the latter on stealthy pylons to reduce RCS. Or, the F-35s could swap the JDAMs for up to 16 SDBs. F-22s could also be loaded for the DEAD mission or configured with 8 x AAMs for the counter-air mission. To further confuse the defense, these attacks would coincide with heavy ECM activity plus the use of decoys such as MALDS to draw out SAM radars that were playing possum. The stealth fighters would use their AESA radars to generate high-resolution ground images to identify static and mobile targets for attack by stand-off precision weapons such as SDB-II. With much of the IADS neutralized, non-stealthy aircraft could bring their weight to bear. That's the scenario I envision unfolding.

jams o donnell said...

Here's hoping we don't see US and Chinese fifth generation fighters going head to head any time soon

Happy New Year

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty confident it won't be anytime soon as I don't think the Chinese plane is anywhere near ready for production. it will be interesting to whether its the T-50 or the J-20 which wins the race to actual deployment to field units. Both are commendable first attempts at stealth combat aircraft. Now the bugs have to be identified and worked out in a lengthy and meticulous test program. Good luck to both.

VCDH said...

While I certainly don't deny the ability of this aircraft to conduct a "Backfire" type mission, I'm wondering if it's wise for us to apply Soviet era terminology to this discussion. The Backfire was designed as a strategic unit with conventional applications, much like the B-52 [with the 'conventional' part being very debatable in this respect].

I believe that the PLAN will always consider US and US-Allied aircraft [and this includes the carriers] to be her primary threat, especially land based air from Taiwan and Okinawa with Korea and The Philippines forming a lesser threat. With that in mind, the J-20 is a logical extension of their aircraft inventory.

Is this a credible threat? Probably not yet, I once read in a mediocre book that what was the job of a genius is simply the work of a tinsmith in the future. It's easy to make something look like a stealthy fighter, making it work like one is something else entirely. Just look at the F-22 and that project has been underway for 20 years. I doubt the J-20 has been in development half as long.