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China's Super Weapons: Beware the J-20 and J-31 Stealth Fighters

The Buzz

Throughout its history, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has lagged behind the aerial programs of other world powers such as the United States. Now, the PRC has set its sights on producing indigenously designed “fifth generation” fighter jets comparable to the US F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II. Many U.S. officials and pilots suspect that the Chinese have been using hacked U.S. technology to aid their indigenous development programs. The PRC is also leveraging additive manufacturing technology (better known as 3D-printing) in order to increase speed and efficiency in manufacturing aircrafts and compete with the U.S. The J-20 Black Eagle could be fully operational by 2018, and a second model, the J-31 Gyrfalcon, by 2020. If true, China’s new generation of fighters could have a substantial impact on its ability to either defend what it considers to be sovereign airspace, or to mount an aerial offensive in a wartime scenario, particularly against Taiwan (ROC).  

Recent Advances in the PLAAF

Between 1990 and 1992 the PRC purchased 24 Su-27 Flankers from Russia and slightly modified the design to become the J-11 Flanker B+.  In response, the U.S. sold 150 F-16 Fighting Falcons to Taiwan. The acquisition of fourth generation Su-27s allowed China’s Air Force to enter modernity, and they have become progressively more capable ever since. In 2010, half of the PLAAF fleet still consisted of jets modeled after 1950s and 1960s Soviet MiG-19 Farmers and MiG-21 Fishbeds, but China’s ability to project air power has increased significantly within the past 5 years. Recently, the PRC and Russia have nearly completed a deal to transfer 24 Russian Su-35 Super Flankers, a potent “generation 4++” fighter, to the Chinese, in addition to China’s scheduled integration of fifth generation technology.

Currently the PLAAF relies on the J-11 as its primary fighter. However, this model is largely unproven. This aircraft is perhaps most recognized as the fighter variant involved in an August 2014 incident in which a single J-11 intercepted a USN P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft 135 miles east of Hainan Island. Twice the J-11 came within 50 yards of the U.S. aircraft. The aggressive maneuvering by the Chinese pilot was an example of the PLAAF making it clear that U.S. surveillance is not appreciated within the airspace over its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Fifth Generation Capabilities

Since 2008 the PRC has worked to design and manufacture fifth generation concepts, both for its own use and to sell on a global scale. Two companies in China have worked on designs: the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group (J-20) and the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (J-31). Both are subsidiaries of the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC). It is likely that the J-20 and J-31 will complement one another when integrated into the PLAAF’s arsenal. The J-20 is closer to becoming operational, with an inaugural test flight in 2011; it is expected to reach initial operating capability (IOC) by 2018. Because both jets are still in prototype stage, their exact capabilities are not certain. However, it is speculated that the J-20 will provide a long-range strike system capable of reaching anywhere in the Western Pacific region, and incorporate a stealth design; the first of its kind in the PRC. In a conflict, the J-20 would likely be deployed in air-to-air combat with the mission of limiting the enemy’s radar coverage and strike range. The J-31 could be a potent complement to the J-20, similar to the planned U.S. partnership of the F-22 and F-35.  While the J-20 is expected to possess superior dogfighting abilities, the J-31 will be “the perfect fighter for the PLA to carry out anti-access area-denial (A2AD) strategies in the Western Pacific”. The J-20 is slightly faster, with a maximum speed of Mach 2.5 compared to Mach 2 for the J-31. Both sport a combat radius of approximately 2000km (1242 miles).

U.S. officials believe that the J-31 will immediately match or exceed the capabilities of U.S. fourth generation fighters such as the F-15 Strike Eagle and F/A-18 Super Hornet, and could possibly even compete with the F-22 or F-35. But this would largely depend on several factors including the quality of Chinese pilots, the quantity of fighters produced, and the reliability of radar and other equipment on board. In late 2014, AVIC President Lin Zhouming made an even bolder prediction, saying, “When [the J-31] takes to the sky, it could definitely take down the F-35. It's a certainty.” Even if neither of the Chinese fighter jets is entirely up to par with U.S. fifth-gens, they still could drastically change the dynamic of both a conflict with the U.S. or a scenario such as an invasion of Taiwan.

Implications

If the PRC decided to launch an attack across the Taiwan Strait, a contingency that it practices every year, air superiority would be essential for three reasons: the relatively small amount of airspace available over Taiwan; the ROC Air Force’s (ROCAF) ability to saturate its airspace with its own fighters, and the ROC's extensive surface-to-air missile defense system. If the PLAAF is unable to prevent or significantly limit attacks against its naval vessels when crossing the Strait, the mission would almost certainly fail. Ultimately, the PRC’s accumulation of cutting-edge fighter technology could provide the critical air advantage over the ROCAF to carry out a successful invasion, and should be cause for concern at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of war for the U.S. 

This piece first appeared on Project 2049’s blog AsiaEye here. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

TNI Is HIRING: Defense and National Security Writer and Editor

The Buzz

The National Interest, a print and online magazine focusing on international affairs, foreign policy, national security, domestic politics and more is searching for an individual to join our online editorial team. This position is based in Washington, D.C.

This specific position entails writing and editing articles concentrating on defense, military hardware and national security issues as well as other duties as needed.

This demanding but rewarding position requires the following skills:

- “Blogging” and writing on defense, military hardware and national security issues on a daily basis.

- Experience in journalism (1 year or more) or online writing/blogging, a background in defense and national security writing and familiarity with tools used in web production (basic HTML/Drupal, Photoshop, SEO, Google Analytics) will particularly stand out on an application.

- Knowledge of American, Chinese, Russian, European Union and various other nation and non-nation states’ military hardware, security strategies, technological trends etc.

- Successful candidates will also have the ability to write clearly, intelligently, and thoughtfully keeping in mind short deadlines and fast turnaround times.

- Other duties include copy-editing and fact checking online pieces (knowledge of Chicago-Style is a plus), communicating with authors, researching potential topics for publication, art selection and formatting content for TNI’s online edition.

- A bachelor’s degree in one of the following disciplines: political science, history, and/or international affairs.  A master’s degree in one of the above is highly desirable. 

All applications must submit the following: Cover letter, Resume/CV, and a writing sample of 500 words or more to: hkazianis@nationalinterest.org.

Image: U.S. Air Force Flickr.  

TopicsJob Posting

China Builds World's Largest Aircraft Carrier Dock in South China Sea

The Buzz

China has built the world’s largest aircraft carrier dock in its naval base in the South China Sea.

This week the Canadian-based Asian security magazine, Kanwa Asian Defence, reported that China had completed work on a 700 meter-long dock at its sprawling Sanya naval complex in Hainan province in the South China Sea. According to the report, the dock is able to service ships on both sides, allowing it to accommodate two aircraft carriers or other large ships at the same time.

That would make the new dock the longest in the world. Indeed, the report noted that America’s aircraft carrier docks in Norfolk, Virginia, as well as its carrier base in Japan, were between 400 and 430 meters long.

A Chinese defense official confirmed the reports during a press briefing on Friday. In response to a question about the Western report, Yang Yujun, a spokesperson for China’s Defense Ministry, said that “The onshore support facilities includes docking ports for the aircraft carriers, airports, training facilities and so on.”

Other reports in China’s state-run media said that the aircraft carrier dock had been completed in November 2014. They went on to say that “the base incorporates a pier which can dock large ships on both sides, suggesting that two carriers can dock at the PLA Navy's carrier bases at the same time.”

Chinese officials had previously said that construction on the aircraft carrier base began in 2012, and China’s sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, docked at the Hainian base briefly in September 2013. The Liaoning’s home port is at the Dalian naval base in northern Liaoning province.

According to the Kanwa report, the new dock is connected to the PLA Navy’s Yulin nuclear submarine base, making the Sanya complex the largest naval base in all of Asia. It is also strategically located in the South China Sea.

Li Jie, a Beijing-based naval expert, told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post that China is still likely to further expand the Sanya base.

"There might need to be more construction work at the Sanya carrier base to develop it further [to cater to other vessels]. So far it is just able to accommodate two-way rapid replenishment for two aircraft carriers," Li said, SCMP reported.

He added: “China will finish two home-built aircraft carriers, and more large vessels will join those two to form fighting flotillas. That means that more docks and ports need to be ready not only in the south but also in the north."

The fact that the dock can accommodate two aircraft carriers is further confirmation that China is building additional aircraft carriers. The location of the Sanya base, in the South China Sea, demonstrates that China intends to use the aircraft carriers to project power further from its shores.

China claims nearly the entire South China Sea, parts of which are also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. China also has overlapping claims with Indonesia but Jakarta does not officially consider itself to be a claimant to the South China Sea dispute.

Incidentally, in his press conference on Friday, Yang Yujun, the Defense Ministry spokesperson, also accused the United States of trying to militarize the South China Sea.

"China is extremely concerned at the United States' pushing of the militarization of the South China Sea region," Yang said, adding: "What they are doing can't help but make people wonder whether they want nothing better than chaos."

Yang made the comments in reference to recent U.S. military drills in the South China Sea. China’s military also conducted a massive military drill in the South China Sea this week, but Yang insisted these were routine and not directed at any third party.

Zachary Keck is the managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @Zachary Keck.

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Leaked Report Reveals China Is Building New Aircraft Carrier

The Buzz

China has all but confirmed that it is building an indigenous aircraft carrier, and that it may even be a nuclear-powered one.

On Thursday, huanqiu.com, the Chinese-language version of the state-run Global Times, published an internal document of the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation, one of China’s two largest shipbuilding companies. CSIC is a state-owned company.

The report lists building nuclear submarines and an aircraft carrier as the company’s “priority missions.” It also states that progress on these projects has been smooth.

"The priority missions of building the aircraft carrier and nuclear-submarines have been carried out smoothly and with outstanding achievements," the document states, according to a translation provided by Taiwanese media outlets. The same Taiwanese reports go on to say that the document suggests that China’s first homegrown aircraft carrier is likely to be nuclear-powered, without elaborating.

Adding credence to this viewpoint is that this week huanqiu.com also featured promiently a new Russian report that claims that China’s first homegrown aircraft carriers will be nuclear powered. Specifically, earlier this week Sputnik News reported, citing an assessment by Vasily Kashin, an expert from the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, that “it is known that China plans to build large nuclear aircraft carriers, equipped with electromagnetic catapults. Work on the main units and elements of the ship is already underway, and the project documentation part of it has been completed.”

China has long been suspected of building indigenous aircraft carriers. For example, the U.S. Department of Defense’s latest assessment of Chinese military power states: “China also continues to pursue an indigenous aircraft carrier program and could build multiple aircraft carriers over the next 15 years.”

The Pentagon report goes on to note that compared to the Liaoning, the refurbished Soviet-carrier the People’s Liberation Army Navy currently operates, China’s homegrown carriers “would be capable of improved endurance and of carrying and launching more varied types of aircraft, including electronic warfare, early warning, and anti-submarine, thus increasing the potential striking power of a PLA Navy ‘carrier battle group’ in safeguarding China’s interests in areas outside its immediate periphery.”

China has done nothing to dissuade foreign observers of the view that it is building indigenous aircraft carriers. To the contrary, one Chinese defense spokesperson told reporters that while the Liaoning is China’s first aircraft carrier, it will not be the only one.

Similarly, in January 2014 media reports in China quoted Liaoning party chief Wang Min as saying that work on China’s second aircraft carrier had begun in the city of Dalian, and that Beijing ultimately expected to build four aircraft carriers. These reports, however, were quickly removed by China’s censors.

Assuming it remains online, the Global Times’ publication of the internal CSIC document is therefore the closest China has come to confirming that is currently building a homegrown aircraft carrier.

Notably, the new report comes on the heels of Russian reports that China is exploring different options for forming carrier battle groups. Those reports were reprinted by Chinese state media outlets.

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Alliance Flux in the Middle East

Paul Pillar

Some recent policy decisions by Middle Eastern governments have the potential to shake up regional alignments, or what are widely perceived to be alignments. In the near term this will have little to do with the Iran nuclear agreement, despite the attention the agreement is getting at the moment. That accord will not lead to realignments as great as its opponents fear, and its larger impact on regional diplomacy will be gradual and only slightly apparent in the near term.

The agreement by the Turkish government to cooperate more actively than previously with the United States in combating the so-called Islamic State or ISIS in northern Syria represents a more immediate shaking up. The recent suicide bombing by an ISIS member that killed 32 victims in a Turkish town is one of the immediate precipitants of the Turkish decision, but the thinking behind the decision is more complicated than that. President Erdogan seems at least as interested in ensuring that Kurdish rebels do not establish themselves in the patch of land that is the focus of the U.S.-Turkish agreement as that ISIS not establish itself there. These priorities are demonstrated by Turkish military operations since the agreement was announced, which have included strikes against Kurdish targets as well as ISIS ones. To the extent that the newest twist in Turkish policy involves a partial lessening of what has been another Turkish priority, which is the toppling of Bashar Assad, the twist represents a reversal of sorts. But Erdogan's determination in recent times to shove out Assad is itself a reversal of what had been years of cordial relations between Turkey and the Assad regime.

Domestic politics have much to do with the Turkish gyrations. The failure of Erdogan's AK party to win a parliamentary majority in recent elections—due mainly to the success of a liberal Kurdish-dominated party—is directly related to the latest twist in Turkish policy toward the Kurds. AK is looking for support in forming a governing coalition from a nationalist party opposed to political openings to the Kurds. Thus Erdogan has effectively closed his own earlier opening—another reversal of a reversal.

Domestic political change is also involved in recent policy revisions by another major regional state—Saudi Arabia—that are likely to have even greater consequences for regional alignments. The assumption of the Saudi throne by King Salman and the accretion of power by his young son have been associated especially with a more aggressive stance in the neighborhood, especially prosecution of the war in Yemen. But another significant change since the transition from Abdullah to Salman has been a rapprochement with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Brotherhood's Palestinian offshoot, Hamas, after years of strong Saudi opposition to the Brotherhood. The Saudis recently received a visit from Hamas political chief Khaled Meshaal, although they sought to downplay the significance of it. The improvement of relations with Hamas was made possible partly by the estrangement between Hamas and the Assad regime in Syria. The conventional wisdom about the Saudi overture to Hamas is that this is part of an effort to displace Iranian influence and to bolster Sunni unity with regard to conflicts such as the one in Yemen.

The conventional wisdom may be largely correct with regard to Saudi objectives, but the further consequences may not be what the Saudis intend. A softened posture toward the Brotherhood and a partnership with Hamas puts the Saudis on a possible collision course with both the Egypt of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Israel, for whom bashing of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas have been dominant features of their respective policies. Confrontations are likely to arise that will expose the fragility and artificiality of what is commonly described as an “alliance” between Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and the supposed convergence of interests between Saudi Arabia and Israel with respect to Iran. Saudi Arabia and al-Sisi's Egypt have almost nothing in common beyond being Sunni and Arab, and Saudi Arabia and Israel have nothing in common besides being states defined largely in terms of a specific (but different in each case) religion. The next major armed conflict in the Gaza Strip—and barring a major change in Israeli policy, this is a matter of when rather than if—would be the sort of confrontation that would lay these realities bare.

Looking beyond the immediate ripple effects of current diplomatic doings and thinking about farther-reaching ripples, it is not at all crazy to suggest, as Leon Hadar has, that Israel's best long-term interests lie in the direction of developing (or rather, recalling the days of the shah, redeveloping) a partnership with Iran. For the time being the invective and enmity that flow in both directions of that relationship make such a development seem out of reach, but the geopolitical considerations that argue for it are still there. The same can be said of Israel's relations with Turkey, the other major non-Arab power in the region.

The chief implication for U.S. policy is to be aware of how fragile and ephemeral putative alliances and alignments in this region can be, to realize that domestic political changes far short of revolution or regime change can have major effects on those alignments, and to be nimble and to avoid getting wedded to what is fragile and ephemeral.  

TopicsIsrael Turkey Iran Saudi Arabia RegionsMiddle East

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