Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Chinese J-20 and its ramifications...

Uddipan Mukherjee

It was nothing less than ironical when an Indian-born American was convicted of espionage, and that too in clandestine deals with China.

Noshir Gowadia was recently sentenced to 32 years in prison on the charge of selling details of the engine exhaust system of the B-2 bombers, the technology passed on to Chinese engineers who designed a stealthy cruise missile.

More significantly, it could have been used by the Chinese in developing their fifth generation fighter aircraft (FGFA): the J-20.

The flight testing of the aircraft in early January has evoked worried reactions from diplomatic and military quarters the world over. Americans have been deeply hit, not so much regarding efficacy of the aircraft, but more due to the psychological aspect of Beijing tilting the Asia-Pacific strategic equation towards itself.

The Chinese manoeuvre was obviously intended towards USA. To synchronise the test with Defence Secretary Robert Gates' visit was too much of a coincidence. Gates reached Beijing on 11 January to meet his Chinese counterpart to resume top-level military consultations that were stalled since Washington announced a $6 billion arms sale to Taiwan about a year back.

On top of this, Hu Jintao's statement that he was kept in oblivion of the flight testing of J-20 hardly makes much sense and rather erects a facade of ‘benign gentlemanship’ through which the Chinese are constantly attempting to project their 'peaceful rise' concept. Interestingly, it has even cast some doubts regarding the real hold of the Communist Party over the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

In this regard, China analyst Andrew Erickson of the US Naval War College opines: “The PLA may have its own perspective and its own organisational interests, but the Party still controls the gun.” Furthermore, the test also preceded the Hu-Obama Summit. Again real military signals across to the US, no doubt.

The J-20 flying from Chengdu airfield was also a pointer towards Taiwan. Beijing is clearly upholding its 'One China Policy'. And Taiwan has reacted bluntly. In fact, barely 7 days after the test flight of J-20, Taiwan conducted a public test firing of 19 surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles. Taiwan’s President Ying-Jeou was present during the drill. Unfortunately, a quarter of the missiles missed their targets.

The test flying of the J-20 was also aimed at Japan. This was to psychologically pre-empt any strategic-military ambitions harboured by Tokyo and to deter it in the naval disputes. However, it must have given Robert Gates the desired opportunity to showcase much of the products of Lockheed Martin to the Japanese in the wake of the J-20 flight.

And last but not the least; J-20 has implications for the Indo-Russia partnership on strategic and defence technology. The two countries are involved in a combined project of building a FGFA called T-50. In fact, a number of successful sorties have already been made by the Russians. Naturally, after J-20, the Russo-India duo will have to pull up their socks.

J-20 seemed to be the world’s first ‘stealthy strike’ fighter aircraft. On the other hand, F-22 of USA and T-50 are considered ‘air superiority’ fighters. J-20 has been optimised for a ground attack role. Sheer length of the aircraft (estimated to be 60-65 feet long) suggests that it not only can carry heavy weapons but also larger internal fuel for long range missions.

J-20 can reportedly fly up to a range of 3000 km. This suggests that North India and the North Eastern region of the sub-continent will be under its range. Hence the threat level to India only increases.

Yet, doubts have been cast on the actual ability of the Chinese to acquire the stealth technology. Australia's independent defence think tank, Air Power Australia says: “The design displays repeated application of United States developed shaping design rules used previously in the F-22 Raptor design, and in some portions of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter design”. There is a murmur by some analysts that PLA Air Force (PLAAF) probably pieced together the J-20 design from an American Stealth F-117A which was shot down in Serbia in 1999 during a NATO air strike.

In fact, Douglas Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies says: “The J-20 is reminiscent of the Russian MiG-1.42 both in terms of plan, form and also with regard to the rear fuselage configuration.”

And to quote Erickson: “China’s J-20 fighter has the potential to be a formidable air combat system in the Asia-Pacific region, but a number of technical hurdles will need to be overcome before mass production can commence.” However, PLAAF Deputy Commander General He Weirong says that J-20 may become militarily operational between 2017 and 2019.

Does India have a response?

The Indian Air Force (IAF) already has a multi-role aircraft project which can switch between role of fighter aircraft and a ground attack aircraft. Some defence experts hold the view that IAF has taken the right decision to stick with fully stealthy multi-role aircraft rather than a semi-stealthy strike aircraft. India’s Ministry of Defence is also supposed to carry out a study on the J-20 and IAF will be accordingly briefed on it. If IAF feels that Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft-Multi-role Combat Aircraft (AMCA) requires any changes in the wake of J-20, then Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) will be notified.

On the other hand, the Indo-Russian T-50 is designed to have a top speed of approximately Mach 2, or twice the speed of sound. Moreover, the aircraft will be equipped with radar whose beams are electronically steered to detect targets with maximum accuracy. India is a key partner in this project and is expected to pay a sizeable chunk of the $3 billion to fund development of the stealth fighter.

The Indian strategic community remains unfazed about the J-20 flight. Their view is that the Russians are adept at aircraft technology. Thus, India does not really need to worry since we are collaborating in the project. However, a mere perusal into the Asian Military Balance (2010) released by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, points to the bare fact that India is a laggard in terms of military competence vis-à-vis China.

Strategic analyst, Gurmeet Kanwal reflects the harsh reality in The Tribune: “the military gap between India and China is growing steadily due to the double-digit annual growth in the Chinese defence budget while India's military modernisation continues to remain mired in red tape.”

Furthermore, India is too dependent on foreign help in making that giant leap into the ‘higher’ technology regime. Examples abound: viz. cryogenics, stealth technology, cruise missiles, anti-satellite weapons, battle tanks, civilian nuclear energy and the like.

With procrastination, inefficiency and graft being major impediments to defence autarky; New Delhi becomes a less likely candidate for a potent player in the effulgent Asia-Pacific dynamics.