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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

China Rolls Out Its First Stealth Aircraft

BEIJING — China’s first radar-evading stealth fighter staged a runway test at an airbase in central China on Wednesday and could make its first flight as early as Thursday afternoon, the Hong Kong editor of a Canadian military journal said.

But the nation’s state-run media, which called news of the tests “rumors” in Wednesday’s newspapers, sought to play down reports about the aircraft’s capabilities. And comments about the new jet’s test regimen abruptly disappeared from blogs run by Chinese military enthusiasts.

The American magazine Aviation Week & Space Technology first reported on tests of the new plane, designated the J-20, in an article released on Monday. Military analysts say that photographs of the new jet on the tarmac at an airfield near Chengdu, have been appearing on blogs since mid-December.

Andrei Chang, the editor of Kanwa Defense Weekly in Hong Kong, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday that he had been authoritatively told that the jet will make its first test flight on Thursday, weather permitting.

He said Chinese officials appeared to have deliberately allowed word of the tests to become public, even to the point of bringing the jet to a Chengdu airfield, Factory 132 of the city’s aircraft design institute, which is commonly watched by military hobbyists, in a bid to display the nation’s growing military sophistication.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is set to arrive in Beijing on Sunday to meet his Chinese counterpart, resuming top-level military consultations that have been all but frozen since the White House announced a $6 billion arms sale to Taiwan last Jan. 29.

“They want to show the U.S., show Mr. Gates, their muscle,” Mr. Chang said.

Although the growth of China’s officially disclosed military budget slowed in 2010, the country remains in the middle of a swift expansion and modernization, much of it centered on improving air, sea and space capabilities.

Chinese military officials say their buildup is entirely defensive. Most analysts say the military’s expansion is part of a long-range strategy to transform the armed forces from a domestic power to a regional one, and ultimately to a force with global reach like that of the United States.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy is reported to be building an aircraft carrier, the first of several that the Pentagon says could be deployed by 2020. The head of the United States Pacific Command, Adm. Robert Willard, told a Japanese newspaper last month that a long-anticipated anti-ship ballistic missile, intended to strike other aircraft carriers, had reached an “initial operational capability.”

Navy officials later amended that, saying that the Chinese have a workable design but that it has yet to be tested.

In news reports, military analysts have suggested that the J-20 remains well behind both Russia’s T-50 jet and the two American stealth aircraft, the F-22 and F-35, in technical sophistication and radar-evading ability. Mr. Chang said the jet’s shortcomings probably include a Chinese-manufactured engine that is substantially inferior to those of its competitors.

Photographs of the jet, taken at the airfield and posted on Chinese Web sites, show an aircraft that mimics the design of the American F-22 Raptor. Aviation Week said that the plane appeared designed to carry larger weapons than the F-22, and analysts said it would be capable of launching cruise missiles and being refueled in midair.

Military analysts quoted in Wednesday’s South China Morning Post said that it would probably take the Chinese a decade to produce the J-20 in large numbers. Mr. Chang said that the military would probably need another 10 to 15 years to develop a stealth fighter equivalent to the advanced models in the United States and Russia.
Benjamin Haas and Xiyun Yang contributed research.

Chinese J-20 Stealth Fighter In Taxi Tests

By Bill Sweetman
China’s first known stealth aircraft just emerged from a secret development program and was undergoing high-speed taxi tests late last week at Chengdu Aircraft Design Institute’s airfield. Said to be designated J-20, it is larger than most observers expected—pointing to long range and heavy weapon loads.

Its timing, Chengdu’s development record and official statements cast doubt on U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s 2009 prediction (in support of his decision to stop production of the Lockheed Martin F-22) that China would not have an operational stealth aircraft before 2020.

The debut of the J-20 was announced in a November 2009 interview on Chinese TV by Gen. He Weirong, deputy commander of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force. The general said a “fourth-generation” fighter (Chinese terminology for a stealth fighter) would be flown in 2010-11 and be operational in 2017-19.

The J-20 is a single-seat, twin-engine aircraft, bigger and heavier than the Sukhoi T-50 and the F-22. Comparison with ground-service vehicles points to an overall length of 75 ft. and a wingspan of 45 ft. or more, which would suggest a takeoff weight in the 75,000-80,000-lb. class with no external load. That in turn implies a generous internal fuel capacity. The overall length is close to that of the 1960s General Dynamics F-111, which carries 34,000 lb. of fuel.

The J-20 has a canard delta layout (like Chengdu’s J-10) with two canted, all-moving vertical stabilizers (like the T-50) and smaller canted ventral fins. The stealth body shaping is similar to that of the F-22. The flat body sides are aligned with the canted tails, the wing-body junction is clean, and there is a sharp chine line around the forward fuselage. The cant angles are greater than they are on the Lockheed Martin F-35, and the frameless canopy is similar to that of the F-22.

The engines are most likely members of the Russian Saturn AL-31F family, also used on the J-10. The production version will require yet-to-mature indigenous engines. The inlets use diverterless supersonic inlet (DSI) technology, first adopted for the F-35 but also used by Chengdu on the J-10B—the newest version of the J-10—and the Sino-Pakistani JF-17 Thunder.

The main landing gears retract into body-side bays, indicating the likely presence of F-22-style side weapon bays ahead of them. The ground clearance is higher than on the F-22, which would facilitate loading larger weapons including air-to-surface munitions. Chinese engineers at the Zhuhai air show in November disclosed that newly developed air-to-ground weapons are now required to be compatible with the J-20.

Features at the rear of the aircraft—including underwing actuator fairings, axisymmetrical engine exhausts and the ventral fins—appear less compatible with stealth, so the J-20 may not match the all-aspect stealth of the F-22. There are two possible explanations for this: Either the aircraft seen here is the first step toward an operational design, or China’s requirements do not place as much stress on rear-aspect signatures.

The major open question at this point is whether the J-20 is a true prototype, like the T-50, or a technology demonstrator, with a status similar to the YF-22 flown in 1990. That question will be answered by whether, and how many, further J-20s enter flight testing in the next 12-24 months.

Developing an effective multi-mission stealthy aircraft presents challenges beyond the airframe, because it requires a sensor suite that uses automated data fusion, emission control and low-probability-of-intercept data links to build an operational picture for the pilot without giving away the aircraft’s own location.

A rapid development program would be a challenge for China’s combat aircraft industry, which is currently busy: The J-10B, FC-17 and Shenyang’s J-11B and carrier-based J-15 are all under development. However, the progress of China’s military aviation technology has been rapid since the first flight of the J-10 in 1996, owing to the nation’s growing economy and the push by the People’s Liberation Army for a modernized military force in all domains. Before the J-10, China’s only indigenous production combat aircraft were the Shenyang J-8 and Xian JH-7, reflecting early-1960s technology from Russia and Europe.

Engine development has lagged airframe development, with reports that the Shenyang WS-10 engine, slated to replace Russian engines in the J-11B, has been slow to reach acceptable reliability and durability levels. That may not be surprising, given that high-performance engine technology is founded on specialized alloys and processes that often have no other uses. (The existence of the J-11B, essentially a “bootleg” version of the Su-27, has been a strain on relationships between the Russian and Chinese industries.)

Progress with avionics may be indicated by the advent of the J-10B, with new features that include a canted radar bulkhead (normally associated with an active, electronically scanned array antenna), an infrared search-and-track system, and housings for new electronic warfare antennas.

One question that may go unanswered for a long time concerns the degree to which cyberespionage has aided the development of the J-20. U.S. defense industry cybersecurity experts have cited 2006—close to the date when the J-20 program would have started—as the point at which they became aware of what was later named the advanced persistent threat (APT), a campaign of cyberintrusion aimed primarily at military and defense industries and characterized by sophisticated infiltration and exfiltration techniques.

Dale Meyerrose, information security vice president for the Harris Corp. and former chief information officer for the director of national intelligence, told an Aviation Week cybersecurity conference in April 2010 that the APT had been little discussed outside the classified realm, up to that point, because “the vast majority of APT attacks are believed to come from a single country.”

Between 2009 and early 2010, Lockheed Martin found that “six to eight companies” among its subcontractors “had been totally compromised—e-mails, their networks, everything,” according to Chief Information Security Officer Anne Mullins.

The way in which the J-20 was unveiled also reflects China’s use and control of information technology to support national interests. The test airfield is located in the city of Chengdu and is not secure, with many public viewing points. Photography is technically forbidden, but reports suggest that patrols have been permitting the use of cell phone cameras. From Dec. 25‑29, these images were placed on Chinese Internet discussion boards, and after an early intervention by censors—which served to draw attention to the activity—they appeared with steadily increasing quality. Substantial international attention was thereby achieved without any official disclosures.

Photo Credit: Via Chinese Internet

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