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China's J-20 Stealth Fighter vs. America's F-35, Taiwan's F-16 and Japan's F-15: Who Wins?

September 22, 2016 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: ChinaJ-20F-35F-15F-16MilitaryTechnologyWarSouth China SeaPolitics

China's J-20 Stealth Fighter vs. America's F-35, Taiwan's F-16 and Japan's F-15: Who Wins?

Who would win the ultimate battle for Asia's skies? 

The Chinese Military has advanced dramatically over the past quarter century.

No longer is Beijing’s armed forces filled with recruits that are poorly trained or lacking the arms needed to fight a major war.

China has invested in platforms that are specifically designed to take on the United States in contested parts of Asia, such as Taiwan, the East China Sea and the hotly disputed South China Sea. Systems include the much discussed DF-21D (or commonly referred to in the press as the ‘carrier-killer’ missile), cruise missiles, advanced mines, submarines, drones and other anti-access/area-denial weapons of war.

In the air, Beijing has also made some major advances. Of specific note is the J-20, or China’s new 5th generation fighter. Meant to counter America’s 4th and 5th generation planes as well as aircraft from Japan, Taiwan and others, the plane has generated tremendous interest in the U.S. as well as international defense community.

But how would the plane do in combat? Could it take on, for example, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter? What about Taiwan’s F-16s or Japan’s F-15s? Below, we have taken past articles written by Dave Majumdar and two by Kyle Mizokami and packed them into this one post for your reading pleasure.

 So who would win a future battle for Asia’s skies? Read on. 

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By Dave Majumdar: The United States Air Force would maintain an “asymmetric” advantage over potential adversaries in the Western Pacific even after the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force inducts the Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter into operational service. That’s the contention of the service’s top uniformed officer—who was asked about the potential geopolitical implications of the introduction of the new Chinese warplane.

“When we apply fifth-generation technology, it’s no longer about a platform, it’s about a family of systems,” Air Force chief of staff Gen. David Goldfein told reporters at the Pentagon on Aug. 10. “It’s about a network and that’s what gives us an asymmetrical advantage, so that why when I hear about an F-35 versus a J-20, it’s almost an irrelevant question.”

Indeed, as Goldfein noted, the Air Force will likely to continue its focus on a family of systems approach where networking and the sharing of data are key instead of fixating on the performance of individual platforms. A direct comparison of the Lockheed Martin F-35 and the J-20—in Goldfein’s view—would harken back to the his days of flying the Lockheed Martin F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighter—which was almost entirely cut off from outside contact when buttoned down to penetrate enemy airspace. “You’ll see us focusing far more on the family of systems and how we connect them together and far less on individual platforms,” Goldfein said.

While Goldfein used the Nighthawk as a comparison—he probably did not intend to suggest that the J-20’s systems are quite as basic as the 1980s-era F-117. While accurate information about the J-20 is scarce, there are indications that the Chinese aircraft is equipped with a phased array radar, a robust electronic warfare systems and an electro-optical/infrared sensor that is similar in concept to the F-35’s systems. However, while it is possible that the Chinese aircraft might have decent sensors—Air Force officials have suggested that the J-20 lacks the “sensor fusion” and networking to be as effective as the F-22 or F-35.

One area that the Chinese are almost certainly lacking is what Air Combat Command commander Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle once described to me as “spike management.” Fifth-generation aircraft such as the F-22 and F-35 have cockpit displays that indicate to the pilot the various angles and ranges from which their aircraft can be detected and tracked by various enemy radars. The pilots use that information to evade the enemy by making sure to avoid zones where they could be detected and engaged. It is a technology that took decades for the United States to master—through a lot of trial and error.

Meanwhile, at the same press conference, Air Force secretary Deborah Lee James decried the possibility of facing another year where the Congress fails to pass a budget. Even if Congress passes a full year continuing resolution (CR)—which maintains the previous year’s spending levels—it would massively disrupt the Air Force’s procurement efforts because the service would not be able to award new start program contracts. “We certainly hope that won’t be the case, we know the Congressional staffs are working very hard even while their members are back home this summer, but we are hearing that either a six-month CR or one-year CR is at least a possibility,” James said.

Indeed, Congressional sources are not optimistic about the prospects for a new budget in the fall. Thus, the Pentagon faces additional budget turbulence even as it grapples with a readiness crisis.

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By Kyle Mizokami: The balance of air superiority over the island of Taiwan is slowly shifting. Once assured by a fleet of sleek, modern Republic of China Air Force fighters, the rise of China—and the decline of Taiwan’s defense budget—has gradually changed the equation in favor of China.

Following the end of the Chinese Civil War, the government of the Republic of China evacuated to the island of Taiwan. Less than two hundred miles separate the island from a hostile Chinese mainland. Yet as long as Taiwan maintained a strong navy and air force, and more importantly, as long as China remained poor, Taiwan might as well have been on the far side of the moon.

But China is no longer poor, and it is building a military that matches its newfound wealth. China is able to build more combat aircraft than Taiwan can support, and has embarked on a two simultaneous fifth generation fighter programs.

The Chengdu J-20 “Soaring Dragon”—which is currently in development—will be one of the most dangerous threats ever posed to Taiwan’s national security. A large, twin engine aircraft with stealthy characteristics and long range, a version of  the J-20 (and there may indeed be more than one) might be configured as a long-range air superiority fighter.

Previous Chinese fighters were hobbled by relatively short ranges that limited the amount of time they could spend over Taiwan. The J-20, with its long, wide fuselage has plenty of room for internal fuel storage. The J-20 will be able to sortie from mainland bases and have the fuel to conduct fighter sweeps over the island, hunting Taiwan’s air force. If the J-20’s stealthy design is effective as its might designers intend, Taiwanese radars could have difficulty tracking the fifth generation fighter.

The J-20’s suite of sensors probably include a new nose-mounted active electronically scanned array AESA radar—currently thought to be under development—and an infra-red search and track (IRST) system, which would allow it to passively track and shoot down aircraft enemy planes.

Once over the island, the J-20 might be able dish out a formidable amount of firepower. The Soaring Dragon has three internal weapons bays—two for short-range missiles and one for medium to long-range missiles. A normal payload for the air superiority mission might be four PL-9 infrared short range missiles and four PL-15 radar-guided long-range missiles. Powered by a ramjet engine, the PL-15 might have a range anywhere between ninety-five to 125 miles.

The J-20’s primary Taiwanese opponent, the F-16 Fighting Falcon, is a different beast altogether. Originally a lightweight, day-only fighter design to complement the U.S. Air Force’s F-15 Eagle, the F-16 has evolved into an all-weather multi-role aircraft. Relatively inexpensive and capable of a wide variety of missions, the F-16 was a good fit for Taiwan.

Taiwan’s 150 F-16A Block 20 aircraft were ordered in 1992 and delivered between 1997 and 2001, making the oldest nearly twenty years old. The Block 20 version included an AN/APG-66(V)3 radar capable of guiding AIM-7 Sparrow and AIM-120C7 AMRAAM medium-range radar-guided missiles, Raytheon electronic countermeasures pods and a Pratt & Whitney F-100-PW-220 turbofan engine.

In 2011, an order for sixty-six new F-16s fell through. Subsequently, the United States and Taiwan concentrated on upgrading the island nation’s existing F-16 fleet. Most of the improvements will be “under the hood”, consisting of sensor, navigation and armament upgrades. Each will be equipped with the APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR), a new radar system with hardware and software derived from the F-22 and F-35 radars.

Taiwan is also considering equipping F-16s with the SNIPER pod, an air-to-ground precision targeting pod that is also useful in an air-to-air infrared search and track role. In addition to the pod, the Taiwanese would buy the AIM-9X Sidewinder—the most advanced dogfighting missile—in the U.S. inventory as part of the package.

Loaded for the air superiority mission, a Taiwanese F-16 might be equipped with four AIM-9X Sidewinders and two AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles.

So, in a duel, who would win? Again, like other comparisons, we have to differentiate between the beyond visual range battle and the visual range battle.

In the beyond visual range battle, the J-20 will probably outshoot the F-16. The J-20—at least if the designers are successful—will probably have a formidable combination of stealth, decent radar and very long range missiles. There is a possibility that the F-16’s SABR might be able to detect the J-20 at a fair distance—but the Taiwanese fighter will be hobbled by the AMRAAM missile’s performance in a jamming environment. Armed with PL-15 missiles and cloaked by its stealth, J-20 could theoretically be able to engage the F-16 before the Taiwanese pilot even knows the Soaring Dragon is there.