Chinese websites began in December 2010 to publish intriguing photos of a new strike-aircraft, apparently taken on mobile phones at the airfield of the Chengdu Aircraft Design Institute. This airfield is not in a high-security zone, allowing members of the public to approach the perimeter; and the release of the images suggested that the Chinese military authorities were content to see the "leaking" of information about the new plane.
As more information became available in subsequent days, it appeared that indeed the new plane was a substantial advance on anything the Chinese had previously built. The shiver in the United States was considerable and palpable.
The new game
The J-20 is a large strike-aircraft of a similar size to the US's F-111 multirole plane that in the cold-war period could act as a medium bomber. Its size and configuration indicate a substantial range and potential weapons-load, as well as some stealth features.
The publicity around it has resulted in a flurry of articles in the conservative US press. Most view the J-20 as further evidence of China's potential military challenge; several also cite the recently tested DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile that is said to be capable of targeting US aircraft-carrier battle-groups (see Thomas Donnelly, “The Real Meaning of China's 'Stealth Fighter'”, Weekly Standard, 13 January 2011).
Some observers go further, and see the J-20 as a project capable of almost revolutionary change. Australian Air Power, for example:
"[The] JXX(J-20) is the 'game changer' in the sense that the large-scale deployment of operational production of these aircraft invalidates all of the key assumptions central to United States and allied air power force structure planning and development since the early 1990s.”
Any complexity in the story tends to be overridden by the use of the new project to channel US domestic opinion down a now-familiar track: "China is becoming the new threat". The reality, however, may be rather different.
The false trail
R James Woolsey, newly appointed director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) under the incoming president BIll Clinton, offered a trenchant and memorable characterisation of the United States's post-cold-war predicament. The US, he said at his Senate confirmation hearings in February 1993, had "slain a large dragon" only now to find itself now living "in a jungle full of a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes".
There followed the best part of two decades when taming the jungle became the order of the day. The second of these decades - with 9/11 and the ensuing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan - has been especially dangerous (see "America and the world's jungle", 27 May 2010).
Yet among the many effects of the "war on terror" has certainly been to provide a huge boost to the US defence industries. Much of the new equipment produced has, however, involved a departure from the hugely expensive aircraft and ships of the cold-war years; and the preference for (for example) mine-resistant vehicles, armed-drones and other weapons for fighting asymmetric wars has caused great problems for some of the big boys of Dwight D Eisenhower's "military-industrial complex".
A single example of the reorientation is the decision to curb production of the most advanced US fighter, the F-22 Raptor. The rationale here was that the plane was less than appropriate to the new wars Washington had to fight. Moreover, the massive cost-runs affecting the new F-35 multi-role aircraft have led to calls greatly to limit its production (and even to cancel it altogether).
The US's military budget is now at its highest (in constant dollars) than at any time during the cold war, including the Vietnam war. Yet the huge expense of these new planes - more than $100 million each, and this at a time of severe budgetary constraints at government and corporate level - make them harder to justify in the public arena. This alone makes the J-20 an ideal pretext for the US defence lobby to invoke as evidence that the US is letting its guard down in face of an emerging threat (see Andrew J Bacevich, "Cow Most Sacred: Why Military Spending Remains Untouchable", TomDispatch.com, 27 January 2011).
The wider context is a pervasive fear that the United States is losing a long-term strategic race with a China whose economy continues to grow by around 10% per year. This indeed was a strong subtext in Barack Obama's state-of-the-union address on 26 January 2011, though the military dimension was here (as during Hu Jintao's visit to the US the week before) kept subordinate to the economic one.
In any event, any news of a major military advance can be represented as deeply worrying; and if Obama's reference to a “Sputnik moment” may be applied to China's economic prowess, it can also be extended to the J-20 and comparable developments.
At the same time, some of the US's very impressive military journalism tells a rather more cautious story. The theme here is that the J-20 certainly is a surprise: a development of this size and potential sophistication was not expected But it is also a project that is still in the early stages of development (see Bill Sweetman, “Out of the Mist”, Aviation Week, 3 January 2011).
The fact that China was working on such a plane was first noted by an air-force general in November 2009, but all that has so far been observed is a series of fast taxiing runs by a single prototype - the aircraft has not yet flown. US aviation specialists believe that if consistent progress is made in the further development of the J-20 then it could be operational by perhaps 2020-22.
Among the biggest imponderables of the J-20 is the case of the power that runs it. The prototype is almost certainly powered by a version of a Russian jet engine, since Chinese engine technology still lags way behind the United States’s. Only if China can make huge advances in indigenous engine design and production will the J-20 become a significant combat-aircraft, and here Russia is highly unlikely to be of much help.
Even then, some features of the design indicate that its stealth properties will be limited. For the United States has been developing the world's most advance anti-stealth capabilities that would most likely counter anything that the Chinese can produce in the next decade or more (see David A Fulghum et al., “Stealth Slayer?”, Aviation Week, 17 January 2011).
The real policy
From a detached perspective, the J-20 is a serious new development that indicates that China is putting technical resources into advanced military projects after years when the main emphasis has been expanding the civil economy. Such projects are not, in fact, “game-changers"; though they do increase China's ability to maintain substantial defences in its wider region (see Tai Ming Cheung, Fortifying China: The Struggle to Build a Modern Defense Economy [Cornell University Press, 2008]).
Indeed this more limited ambition, rather than a determination to be a military superpower for many years to come, is most likely the intention. Yet the effect is likely to be to galvanise the United States military into a fresh era of research, development and production. For the defence lobby, the J-20 is welcome news - for it represents a new dragon in the jungle instead of a lot of elusive snakes, and that will be rather good for business (see “A world beyond control”, 22 May 2008).
Perhaps the military chiefs at Chengdu, along with their leaders in Beijing, are well aware of this. After all, by allowing the release of information about the J-20 they may also achieve the aim of diverting some of America's best scientific and technological talent into big new defence projects - while China maintains the priority of building its civil economy. Such a policy would be even more complicated for the United States: for if a jungle full of elusive snakes was difficult to "keep track of", a devious new dragon that remains one step ahead even as you think you have its measure - that is much more tricky.