Chinese Air Force: A dragon can fly

Posted on September 25, 2012


Yesterday, 06:47

Concurrently with the visit of U.S. Defense Secretary Panetta in Beijing these days, the first recordings of an unknown stealth fighter have been published. That might not be a coincidence: China demonstrates that it is catching up technologically with the armor.

Georges Bridel

China is an exercise in the art, his armor technology breakthroughs usually bring in obscure ways to the public – and thus ensure in western professional workshops for excitement. These days, the first recordings of a previously unknown stealth fighter have surfaced just in time in the context of the visit of Defense Panetta in Beijing.
Russian technology

The Chinese defense and in particular the upgrade of the air combat and air defense capabilities are remarkable. The lines of development are clear: Since 1960, first Soviet MiG fighter aircraft were built under license, then even further developed – and that up to the present. The Russian high-performance fighter Sukhoi Su-27 were first built under license, then unofficially simply copied (J-11B) and then alone to carrier aircraft developed (J-15).

Feature of these developments is the incremental approach for decades. Also the first real house developments helped themselves from the pool of foreign products, among others, by the Israeli Air Force Lavi fighter, which led to the J-10. Based on the Soviet MiG-21 and with elements of the American F-16 China and Pakistan have jointly developed the lightweight fighter JF-17. Now you want to with the models J-20 and J-31 (also J-21) caught up with the latest Western fighter aircraft F-22, F-35, Rafale or Euro Fighter.

Despite the modern appearance of the Chinese aircraft, the question arises as to their properties and services. The flight performance approach to the western standards, which can be tracked already. The engines, however, still come from Russian stocks. Modern drives but are the most difficult hurdle that has to be mastered will succeed in the Chinese sooner or later, there is no doubt. Interesting is the state of the avionics (aircraft electronics such as radars, sensors, processors). Here, too, within the last ten years much progress has been made. The same can be said about the armament of modern missiles.

Achieved was the current state of air defense by a clever combination of the development or by copies of Russian systems, the relentless use of information from all sources, through knowledge transfer and through the import of COTS systems (Commercial-off-the-shelf).

Especially in the nineties of the last century, an intensive information and knowledge transfer from the former Soviet Union was to be observed, not only to China. The specialists in Russia at that time suffered under difficult economic conditions, and had to talk to sales of technology and with preliminary work on water. Not coincidentally falls accelerated this technology and knowledge transfer in the beginning of the intensive use of the Internet.
Catch up with the West

A final evaluation of the effectiveness of Chinese systems is naturally difficult, but given the speed of construction is no doubt that China will catch up with the West in the foreseeable future. Of course, there are still shortcomings in the development of a modern air force. The number of transport and tanker aircraft, which are essential for use far beyond the country’s borders, or on early warning and special aircraft for electronic warfare is still too low. The efforts to fill those gaps, but clear.

Geostrategically within a decade China will have the ability to intervene far outside its own territory. Already technically simpler aircraft from Chinese production is exported to over 15 countries, mainly in Africa and South America but also in Asia. The lighter compared to the J-20, new J-21/J-31 will find the successor to the popular Russian MiG-29 and the American F-16 many takers. That not only economic considerations are connected, but also political and strategic, there is no doubt. Europe and the U.S. must adjust to the fact that Chinese weapons systems in the western regions of interest – are stationed – about because there overlapping or suspected mineral deposits.
Not only China is catching up

Also other countries set to work to develop their own fighter aircraft. Korea about together with Indonesia, then India, Japan, as well as Turkey. In particular, India’s front hand but still not as successful as China.

The significance of this development should not be underestimated in the West. The U.S. has indeed with the F-22 a superior system for air defense, but the intended as a successor to the F-16 F-35 (Joint Strike Fighter) is struggling with the consequences of completely coated and different claims of the Armed Forces Air Force, Navy and Marines . He is already almost priceless and will have less benefits. The participation of some European countries in this monster program has been brought neither profit nor the expected technological security dividends, but in many places just as in the U.S. itself to almost insurmountable budget problems.
Forced to cooperate

The Europeans do have is with the Euro Fighter and Rafale remarkably powerful aircraft in production and in development, but soon the question of a successor, if Europe does not want arms in the air being pushed aside. It can be assumed strongly that this will no longer be required to pay by five independent, European manufacture of fighter aircraft. The consideration of a merger between EADS and BAE therefore go in the only direction possible. European defense spending is by no means limited but is being wasted by parallel industrial and operational capacities.

Possible need for future military aircraft will be manned or unmanned, remains the specifications leave. Expected future Air Force will consist of a mix of manned and unmanned aircraft. The manned aircraft is not at least in the foreseeable future can also be dispensed with.

Europe is faced with major strategic and defense challenges. The institutional, European framework is partially created already, it would only be used at last. The task now is to overcome obstacles and especially the national protectionist attitudes. All it took insight and the will that the hitherto autonomous nations in future only brings true to their interests. These are necessarily pan-European.

The author is a former head of department for the development of future military aircraft at EADS in Munich and is head of the working group for aerospace. He is also a member of the French-European Air & Space Academy.

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