Chinas New Fighter Jet Cant Touch the US Planes It Rips Off

China’s Chengdu J-20 fighter jet, which made its public debut at Chinas Zhuhai Airshow last week, cuts an imposing, even frightening, figure.

The supersonic, twin-engine fighter and attack aircraft packs advanced radar and sensor capabilities, with a 360-degree helmet display system that allows the pilot to see through the aircraft itself. It boasts the same kind of stealth technologies the US Air Force has been honing for decades. And it’s bigger than the F-22 Raptor it rivals, so it can carry more fuel and more weapons, extending its lethality deep into enemy territory.

The jets debut generated ripples of panic across the globe in the wake of its boisterous exhaust. Can this plane best the best of Western stealth tech, the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighters?

Nope. The J-20 is no F-22, and nowhere does it fall shorter than with its most critical trait: dodging detection. At best, its probably stealthy only from the front, says aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia, of the Teal Group. Whereas all-aspect stealth like that in the F-22 and F-35 minimizes the radar signature from all directions.

True stealth relies on the shape of the aircraft, its exhaust, material composition, cockpit shielding, and even flight characteristics. Aboulafia doubts the J-20s designers have the science down. Just notethat screaming exhaust: It sounds great, but you really dont want that in a stealth fighter, he says.

The US alleges a Chinese national hacked into its defense contractor computers to steal plans for the F-22 and the F-35—it sentenced Su Bin to three years in jail for the crime in March—but that data alone wouldnt be enough to pull off a truly stealthy design. Those blueprints dont reveal everything, Aboulafia says. Its also how its built, from the construction processes to all the little details in terms of design tolerances and things like disruptions in surface smoothness from hatches and panels.

The J-20 technically counts as a fifth-generation fighter—its got the same sort of tech and capability of its contemporaries—but it lacks the breadth of know-how and technological innovation you see in American jets.

And the jet will ensure dominance in the region once it enters service, around 2018. China will then have a solid technological edge in air-to-air combat over all its Asian neighbors, including Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam, and others, says military analyst Peter Singer. That will of course extend to its allies who purchase the jets, Singer says, including countries in Africa, southeast Asia, the Middle East, and South America.

Plus, China will likely build a ton of the J-20 and J-31 (itself a knockoff of the F-35), and could exceed US production of the F-22 and F-35 within a few years. The airplanes dont have to be as good if theyre wielded in greater numbers, or in certain scenarios that can create major complications for the U.S. and its allies, Singer says. In a way, China gets a second-mover advantage. They dont have to innovate; they simply have to catch up.

At this point, analysts dont know as much as theyd like about the J-20, but its airshow debut certainly whetted appetites for more intel to see just how much more catching up the Chinese still have to do.


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