Here's What You Need to Know: Beijing wants to protect its secrets.
The Chinese government has never exported, nor even tried to export, its J-20 stealth fighter. There’s one major reason why.
In the years immediately following the Chengdu-built J-20’s 2011 debut, Western analysts assumed the large, angular, twin-engine fighter would, like most Chinese weapons, become an export commodity.
Instead, Beijing decided to keep the J-20’s high-end military capabilities all to itself. Cash isn’t worth giving up the radar-evading warplane’s secrets, in the Chinese government’s estimation.
Not coincidentally, the United States adopted a similar policy regarding its own F-22 stealth fighter.
Song Zhongping, a former officer in Beijing’s strategic missile force, revealed the export ban in a December 2014 interview with China’s Phoenix T.V. news program.
“The export of advanced Chinese military technology is prohibited,” Song said. “This is in order to keep J-20’s fifth-generation technology out of hostile hands.”
That’s the same rationale the U.S. Congress cited when it formally outlawed sales of the F-22 stealth fighter in the mid-2000s. Prior to that, Japan had asked to acquire F-22s.
But Tokyo has been an occasionally unreliable friend to the U.S. when it comes to secret technology. In 2007, Japanese authorities caught a Japanese navy petty officer apparently trying to pass to China information on the U.S.-made Aegis radar.
What’s ironic about China’s J-20 sales-restriction is that many observers strongly suspect Beijing’s engineers derived the plane’s design in part from data that Chinese hackers have stolen from the American-led F-35 stealth fighter program.
The U.S. expressly designed the F-35 to be safely exportable. The F-35 is smaller, slower and less stealthy than the F-22 is. But it still includes sensitive technologies including sophisticated sensors and radar-absorbing coatings.
In any event, Song described the J-20 restriction as directly connected to the F-22 prohibition. “If one day the United States decides to export the F-22, China might consider lifting its ban, as well,” he said.
His reasoning seems to be that if America’s allies possessed F-22s, China’s allies would need J-20s to balance them. And with the F-22 proliferating, its secrets would proliferate, too — obviating any need to similarly limit the spread of the J-20’s presumably similar technology.
The J-20 export-ban doesn’t mean China is giving up on the lucrative global market for radar-evading warplanes. Shortly after the J-20’s debut, the rival Shenyang Aircraft Corporation unveiled its smaller FC-31 stealth-fighter prototype.
Unlike the government-sponsored J-20, the FC-31 is strictly a private venture that Shenyang intends to sell abroad. So far there have been no takers.
The FC-31 represents Beijing’s opportunity to compete in the lucrative world market for radar-evading fighters. If the sensitive J-20 is like America’s F-22, then the commoditized FC-31 is analogous to the U.S. F-35.
The Chinese air force began receiving copies of the J-20 for front-line use back in 2017 — 12 years after the F-22 entered service. By late 2019 there were at least 13 J-20s in service. The air force has focused its efforts on replacing the fighter’s Russian AL-31 engines with custom-made WS-10s.
David Axe served as Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels War Fix, War Is Boring and Machete Squad.
This article first appeared in March 2020.
Image: Wikimedia Commons