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The J-20, the stealth plane of China’s excessive ambitions


A rare document for the Chinese military dealing with the development of fifth-generation aircraft was translated for The Diplomat website on Tuesday. This document is a study which, nearly 20 years ago, laid the strategic foundations for what was to become the J-20, nicknamed the “majestic dragon” and which has become the symbol, still quite mysterious, of new Chinese ambitions. .

“It is the most complete public document available to date” on “one of the most enigmatic Chinese air programs”: the J-20, the fifth generation Chinese fighter aircraft. The site The Diplomat, specializing in Asian geopolitical news, was delighted, Tuesday, February 15, to have translated a Chinese text… 19 years old.

Why so much excitement for a document soberly titled “Strategic Study of the Development of the Chinese Fighter Aircraft Program” which was written in 2003, at a time technologically and militarily very different from today?

The origins of the “majestic dragon”

First, because it is a document that should never have fallen into Western hands. Photos of each page of this study intended for the Chinese Communist Party’s central military commission – “which is not classified as a defense secret”, underlines The Diplomat – had been posted in 2016 on some obscure Chinese sites, and by chance or by error, on one or two English-speaking forums which are interested in the Chinese military questions. It then took a few more years for Chinese military aviation experts to come across it and finally decide to translate it.

But from there to interest beyond a small circle of fans of Chinese combat aircraft? In fact, the J-20 would be “one of the most enigmatic aircraft programs in the world”, assures The Diplomat. It might be a bit strong. “All countries try to keep information about the characteristics of their combat aircraft as secret as possible”, nuance Marc Julienne, head of China activities at the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri), contacted by France 24. He n prevents: “in Western countries, there are control authorities [des dépenses publiques] which allow to have a minimum of information. This is not the case in China where the opacity is almost total, “says Justin Bronk, specialist in war aviation issues in China and Russia for the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) in London, contacted by France 24. .

The translated document therefore provides a rare window into the beginning of the history of an aircraft, nicknamed the “majestic dragon” in China and presented as the technological flagship of the Chinese army. This “strategic study of the development of the Chinese fighter aircraft program” does not directly refer to the J-20 under this name – at the time it only existed in the concept state – and only goes summarily in the characteristics that the future Chinese hunter should have. Thus on the military level, “there is nothing new in this document”, confirms Alexandre Vautravers, expert in security and armament and editor-in-chief of the Swiss Military Review (RMS), contacted by France 24.

But “it is a very interesting text from a historical point of view, because it allows us to better understand how China saw the evolution of the geopolitical and technological context by 2020 and how this aircraft could respond to the challenges to come”, sums up Marc Julienne.

One thing is certain: the shadow of the United States hangs over all the considerations of the document. “The fixed idea is to remain competitive with American planes and Washington was already presented at the time as the power that would seek to prevent China from emerging on the international scene”, specifies the Ifri expert.

Stand up to the F-35

The J-20 was to become a major asset in the hands of the Chinese military. First, to be able to stand up militarily to the United States. “You have to understand the context. China has succeeded over the past twenty years in making significant qualitative progress in the ballistic and maritime fields. Aviation was lagging behind a bit”, sums up Marc Julienne.

In the sights of the Chinese people’s army: the F-35 and the F-22, that is to say the fifth generation American planes. “The fifth generation corresponds to a very significant technological leap, with aircraft having much greater maneuverability and which are much more stealthy”, explains Alexandre Vautravers.

The United States was the only one with such fighters. The J-20, whose first flight was made in 2011 and which officially entered service in 2017 (without being yet operational for combat) allows China to achieve the feat of being the second country to enter this very restricted circle.

Above all, Beijing “has overtaken Russia in this area, even though China had, until now, always depended on Soviet and then Russian technology for its combat aircraft”, recalls Justin Bronk, from Rusi.

And this is the other Chinese pride with the J-20: it is the first fighter 100% “made in China”. So, of course, the results may not be up to the initial expectations. “It is, for example, less stealthy than the F-35 and, overall, its combat capabilities seem even lower,” summarizes this specialist in Chinese military aviation. “But it is in any case a feat rich in lessons for future models,” he adds.

With aerial views of Taiwan?

But this stealth fighter doesn’t just serve as a geopolitical asset to prove that Beijing can fly in the same court as the United States. It is also a sign of greater Chinese military assurance. “From an operational point of view, it is the first aircraft that allows China to go beyond domestic airspace to operate in contested airspace,” explains Alexandre Vautravers.

The J-20 thus allows the Chinese air force not to remain confined to territorial defense tasks and to project itself effectively beyond the borders for offensive missions. In other words, it would be a centerpiece if Beijing decided to “unify” Taiwan by force.

This aircraft also has one last feature that says a lot about its role. “It carries very precise long-range missiles to target supply planes or NATO Awacs surveillance planes,” says Alexandre Vautravers. They are perfectly armed fighters to disrupt NATO’s air fleets, in which air-to-air tankers and surveillance planes are key elements.

What worry Washington and its allies, who seek to limit the influence of Beijing in the Asian region and, above all, ensure that they will fly to the aid of Taiwan in the event of conflict? Not so fast, because “if the technology is advanced, we don’t know at all how much the Chinese army is capable of using it”, notes Justin Bronk. It is therefore not clear if there are enough trained pilots to maneuver its fighters and if the current models satisfy the authorities or if they will wait for the second generation (already in production) or the third to deploy it fully.

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