Implications of China’s J-20 Stealth Aircraft

(Update: William A. Price has written an insightful analysis of the F-22 and J-20 issue.  For more details, read the article: Fighter Gaps.)

The Wall Street Journal ran a front page article yesterday about China’s new stealth plane, the J-20 (picture is from WSJ).  The article, “A Chinese Stealth Challenge?“, describes how the Chinese have made strides in developing a domestically produced stealth fighter plane similar to the F-22.  U.S. officials claim to have had knowledge of this development for some years.  There are three issues to ponder with this revelation.  No doubt analysts will be debating these issues over the coming days and well into the future.

First, if the U.S. had prior knowledge of this development, why has the Defense Department and White House Administration been so adamant about military spending cuts, particularly as these relate to the F-22 and F-35 fighter projects?  Does the U.S. military foresee only a minor challenge from future Chinese airpower?  Do security analysts count the receding U.S. airpower edge over the Chinese as a sunk cost?  How relevant is the closing airpower gap to U.S. national security?

Second, if the Chinese are developing an advanced stealth fighter jet, how does this impact U.S. military strategy?  Will the U.S. military have the necessary resource and technology available to fight an advanced conventional war in the next decade?  Our current drive has been to meet threats from unconventional sources, yet stories such as this bring the ongoing conventional threats into focus.

Third, in 2008 and 2009, news stories reported that the Chinese may have hacked into F-22 and F-35 databases.  Given that the Chinese J-20 aircraft bears a resemblance to the U.S. F-22 fighter, is it possible that American technologies or designs were poured into this project?  If so, what does this imply for an era where secrecy and Internet security becomes more and more important?  How do we adapt?

China is making great strides in its military modernization.  In part, this is something to be expected from rising great powers.  U.S. security analysts must expect such developments and provide strategies that allow for the peaceful rise and relationship among great powers.  However, it is currently unclear how the U.S. military and security apparatus is preparing for the closing airpower gap between the U.S. and China.  A plan and a strategy must be forthcoming, of which affordability should be a primary theme.  If the emerging plan fails to clarify its long-term rationale, further defense cuts, such as those scheduled for announcement by DoD Secretary Gates today (January 6, 2010), may appear to overvalue spending cuts in the face of clear and present dangers.


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