The PLAAF (People’s Liberation Army Air Force) has eventually unveiled its long-awaited J-20 stealth fighter to the public during the Zhuhai Air Show’s opening ceremony. Is it possible to compare it with the F-22?
Two LRIP (Low-rate Initial Production) J-20A stealth jets did a brief 60-second fly-past at the Zhuhai Air Show 2016 in Guangdong province on the Show’s first day on Nov. 1, 2016, marking the first public appearance of the “Mighty Dragon” fighter that performed its maiden flight back in 2011.
Even though the J-20s did not fly a dramatic flight demo, the two fighters thundered above hundreds of spectators as well as political and industrial dignitaries and executives, made a few climbs, turns and formation fly-bys and then disappeared again.
The public appearance was far from being unannounced, due to the preparation at CAC earlier this month.
Four days ago even the PLAAF itself announced in an official statement, that it would demonstrate its latest J-20 stealth fighter jet at the Zhuai Air Show: Senior Colonel Shen Jinke, PLAAF- spokesman noted, that “the J-20 was designed by our aircraft researchers for future aerial combat. Test pilots from the Air Force will use it to perform at the 11th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition.”
We still know little of about this aircraft even though it bears a loose resemblance to at least three (if not more) other types of aircraft: the F-22 Raptor; the Mig 1.42 prototype; and the the Mig-31 “Firefox”, a fictional aircraft appearing in “Firefox”, a 1982 action film produced and directed by, and starring, Clint Eastwood based on a 1977 novel written by Craig Thomas.
The aircraft is believed to be equipped with IRST (Infra-Red Search and Tracking), AESA radar and several other interesting stuff, but its ability to match the most advanced western “hardware” is still much debated.
What follows is an analysis of the latest J-20’s achievements.
With the arrival of the first LRIP aircraft in December 2015 and further new aircraft since then, all “older” prototypes (2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017) were transferred in the meantime to the CFTE at Xi’an-Yanliang for further ongoing tests with regular detachments for alleged weapons testing at the PLAAF’S Flight Test and Training Base (FTTC) at Dingxin. These tests so far included captive tests with four large drop-tanks and reportedly included firings of both the new PL-15 long-range AAM as well as the new PL-10 short-range AAM. Besides that, it was reported that the WS-15 has just finished ground testing (with a thrust of about 160kN reached), and it is ready to begin the test on an IL-76LL platform.
In retrospect the year 2016 so far was an extremely successful year for CAC: reports assume that at least seven LRIP J-20As were flown; and most interesting, not only in yellow primer or standard PLAAF-grey with toned-down national markings, but apparently at least one spotting an all-new splinter scheme [similar to that used by West’s Aggressors]. Other reports assume that a few J-20A have already left Chengdu to a first OPEVAL unit, which is most likely established at the flight test center (FTTC) at Dingxin air base, where 12 new hangars were erected since 2015.
Otherwise most spectators, enthusiast and analysts still have to be patient and it is surely too early to judge to what extent the J-20 can match the stealth properties of the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II or how far its avionics are comparable. So far not even its external dimensions, specifications on its KLJ-5 AESA-radar –that is also under test on a special Tu-204C testbed – nor its type of engine were officially revealed, however following the latest reports it is not unlikely a special custom-tailored version based on the Salut AL-31FM2.
Since its maiden flight in January 2011 ten prototypes were manufactured (Note: the two demonstrators 2001, 2002 = now 2004, + the prototypes 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017 and two static test specimen) and that this type is to be the third stealth fighter jet to enter operational service following the United States’ F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II. In retrospect the J-20A has indeed reached the LRIP-phase with the J-20’s design being frozen. If the PLAAF follows now the usual procedures, a first unit equipped with these LRIP J-20As of the current interim standard will enter service within the PLAAF at around the year’s end or early 2017; much earlier than expected. As such it seems to be confirmed that even if limited in its capabilities due to the missing WS-15, the PLAAF will bring that type to service as soon as possible to exploit and explore operational tactics and procedures for this new fighter.
Concluding, the J-20 is a giant leap for the PLAAF both capability-wise and technology-wise alike. Did anyone of us expect a Chinese stealth fighter to be operational before 2020 when asked in, let’s say, 2010?
As such even if probably no match in terms of stealth to the latest F-fighters (due to no stealthy-nozzle, open chaff-and-flare boxes and other details…) it is surely much more stealthy than any other type operational in that area. Even if its engines are not the top ones desired – aka the future WS-15 – they are surely comparable (if my theory is correct and I’m quite confident!) – they give that type already a performance surely not worse than the latest J-11B … as such it is a huge step even if it might be well below the F-22’s capabilities.
History was made when all the Air Force Global Strike Command’s strategic power projection bombers simultaneously launched from Guam for their first integrated bomber operation in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.
On Aug. 17, the U.S. Air Force bomber trio (B-52 Stratofortress, B-1B Lancer and B-2 Spirit) conducted the first coordinated operation in the U.S Pacific Command AOR (Area Of Operations). The three aircraft launched in sequence from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, performed a flyover and then dispersed to conduct simultaneous operations in the South China Sea and Northeast Asia.
The B-52 is part of the latest Stratofortress CBP (Continuous Bomber Presence) detachment to Guam: the aircraft, belonging to the 69th Bomb Squadron from Minot AFB, ND, are about to return stateside after a 6-month deployment. They will be replaced by the “several” B-1B Lancers that have deployed to Andersen on Aug. 6 to undertake the CBP mission in the Pacific.
The B-2 is one of the three stealth bombers with the 509th Bomb Wing that have arrived in Guam on Aug. 9, to conduct extended deterrence operations in the Indo-Asia-Pacific theater, where China is continuing its colonization of the disputed islands in the East and South China Seas.
Missions like the one carried out on Aug. 17 are regularly conducted by the U.S. Air Force, even if these rarely involve all three different types of bombers: for instance, in 2014, the USAF launched a long-range mission with two B-52 Stratofortresses from Barksdale Air Force Base, La., and two B-2 Spirit stealth bombers from Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo.
The strategic bombers flew a non-stop for more than 20 hours and covered about 8,000 miles from their home stations to drop ordnance against target located inside Hawaii’s Pohakuloa military weapon range: a coordinated range operation which included low approach training that enabled the air force to put their strategic force’s capability to plan, coordinate and execute such a complex mission with “the right mix” of attack platforms.
The bomber trio mission “demonstrated the U.S. commitment to supporting global security and our ability to launch a credible strategic defense force,” said Brig. Gen. Douglas Cox, the 36th Wing commander in an official statement.
“By doing this, we showed the world we can expertly integrate three different platforms with unique capabilities, meeting (Andersen AFB’s) mission by providing the president of the United States sovereign options to decisively employ airpower across the entire spectrum of engagement, thus achieving our wing’s motto, we are ‘prepared to prevail,’” Cox said.
In simple words, whilst the Air Force Global Strike Command emphasized that the routine deployments to Andersen AFB provide opportunities to train, share experiences and strengthen regional alliances, the truth is that the U.S. Air Force exploited the presence of the tri-bomber force in Guam to get some cool shots (like those in this post) and flex the muscles in the Pacific.
The stealth bombers, from Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, are due to be involved in what the U.S. Pacific Command defined a “short-term deployment” during which they will conduct “local and regional training sorties, and will integrate capabilities with key regional partners, ensuring bomber crews maintain a high state of readiness and crew proficiency.”
Interestingly, the B-2s have joined the “several” B-1B Lancers (“Bones” in accordance with the nickname used by their aircrews) that arrived in Guam on Aug. 6, marking the first B-1 deployment there in a decade.
The aircraft, belonging to the 28th Bomb Wing from Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, have replaced the B-52s in supporting the U.S. Pacific Command’s (USPACOM) Continuous Bomber Presence mission.
“Andersen welcomes the B-1 squadron, and we look forward to working together to provide safety and security to the region, our partners and our allies,” said Brig. Gen. Douglas Cox, 36th Wing commander in an Air Force release. “The B-52s did an amazing job the past few years, and we know the B-1s will continue CBP excellence going forward.”
The B-1 units bring years of repeated combat and operational experience from the Central Command theater to the Pacific. The aircraft should have just received some additional cockpit upgrades during works conducted after the Bones returned stateside in January 2016, after a 6-month deployment worth 3,800 munitions on 3,700 targets in 490 sorties in support of Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIS, during which the B-1s carried out Close Air Support and Air Interdiction missions delivering a wide variety of PGMs (Precision Guided Munitions), including JDAMs on Daesh positions.
Still, Pyongyang accused Washington of planning a pre-emptive nuclear strike, after the US announced it was deploying B-1 bombers in the Pacific for the first time in a decade.
Will the B-1s also deploy to Australia, even closer to Beijing or Pyongyang than Guam?
Back in March, Lt. Col. Damien Pickart, a spokesman for the U.S. Air Force, told to Reuters that the U.S. could deploy long-range bombers to Australia as concerns over China’s military expansion in the Asia-Pacific area continue to grow.
At that time, high-level discussions were in progress to deploy B-1 bombers in northern Australia and to expand B-52 bomber missions in the region a move that was aimed to add more pressure on China. Now that the Stratofortress bombers have been replaced by the Lancers it’s unclear whether the U.S. Air Force has achieved an agreement with the local government and plans to fly any B-1s from there.
Such operations included air combat training, long-range strike training, air defense drills as well as sea surveillance.
The CSG 3, that started operations in the Western Pacific on Feb. 4, consists of the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74), guided-missile cruiser USS Mobile Bay (CG 53) and guided-missile destroyers of Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 21, USS Stockdale (DDG 106), USS Chung-Hoon (DDG 93) and USS William P. Lawrence (DDG 110), and the aircraft of Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 9.
CSG 5, begun its summer patrol of the Indo-Asia Pacific, on Jun. 4, and consists of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), guided-missile cruisers USS Shiloh (CG 67) and USS Chancellorsville (CG 62) and guided-missile destroyers from Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 15, USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54), USS McCampbell (DDG 85), USS Benfold (DDG 65); the aircraft of Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 5, is forward-deployed to Yokosuka, Japan and routinely, patrols the Western Pacific.
According to the U.S. Navy, the CSGs (Carrier Strike Groups) began coordinated operations in international waters to demonstrate “the United States unique capability to operate multiple carrier strike groups in close proximity.”
U.S. Navy aircraft carriers regularly conduct dual carrier strike group operations in the Western Pacific and sometimes also in the South China Sea, East China Sea and Philippine Sea: this occurs when carriers deployed to the 7th Fleet area of operations from the U.S. West Coast are joined with the forward deployed carrier strike group from Japan. When it happens a force of 12,000 sailors, 140 aircraft, six combatants and two carriers operates in the same sea: an impressive “show of force.”
Previously, in Sept. 2012, USS George Washington (CVN 73) and USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) strike groups conducted combined operation in the South China Sea and East China Sea. In 2001, USS Constellation (CV 64) and Carl Vinson operated together in the South China Sea.
Along with the two carrier strike groups and the B-52 providing extended deterrence, Washington has also deployed to the Philippines the first temporary detachment of Navy EA-18G Growlers.
The electronic attack aircraft have arrived at Clark Air Base, on Jun. 15. Even though they are officially there to train with the local FA-50, the detachment, made of 4 aircraft and 120 personnel with the Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 138, “will support routine operations that enhance regional maritime domain awareness and assure access to the air and maritime domains in accordance with international law.”
Therefore, the strategical deployment brought not far from the disputed waters in the South China Sea some cutting-edge aircraft capable to perform electronic escort missions on both U.S. ships and spyplanes that are frequently shadowed by Chinese spyplanes or intelligence gathering ships. Furthermore, the Growlers could jam, if needed, the Chinese radars on the Spratly, Paracel, Pratas and the rest of the islands, including those that have been artificially created, decreasing Beijing ability to establish an ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone) similar to that in the East China Sea and to support its warplanes in the area.
The presence of (some more…) EA-18Gs could theoretically limit the operations of the Chinese Air Force (PLAAF) and Navy (PLANAF) that, according to “Flashpoint China: Chinese air power and regional security” published by Harpia Publishing and written by Andreas Rupprecht, one of the most authoritative sources on Chinese Air Power, “are able to ensure virtually continuos, round-the-clock aerial coverage and combat air patrols over the area during a crisis or a conflict.”
In particular, the PLANAF is pretty active in the area with a regiment each of H-6 bombers and JH-7 fighter-bombers and no fewer than three regiments of J-11 interceptors covering the South China Sea . “The availability of long-range J-11s and aerial refueling assets implies that much of the SCS [South China Sea] is now de-facto Chinese airspace,” says Rupprecht.
It’s not a coincidence that a recent close encounter in the area involved few weeks ago two Chinese J-11 tactical aircraft that carried out an “unsafe” intercept of a U.S. EP-3E reconnaissance aircraft on a routine mission in international airspace over the South China Sea.
The Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 138 is an expeditionary squadron based at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington, that has previously taken part in deployments across the region. The Growler detachment comes after a first temporary Air Contingent made of five A-10C Thunderbolt aircraft, three HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters and approximately 200 personnel deployed from multiple Pacific Air Forces units that took part in exercise Balikatan and completed their final mission on April 28, 2016.
Airborne change of command U.S. Navy-style over South China Sea.
On Mar 7, revitalizing a time-honored naval tradition, three F/A-18E Super Hornets assigned to the Warhawks of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 97 executed an airborne change of command overhead USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) as Cmdr. Doug Peterson was relieved by Cmdr. Matt Doyle as commanding officer.
As the aircraft carrier was sailing in the South China Sea the three “Rhinos” (as the Super Hornets are dubbed by their aircrews) performed a symbolic formation lead change with Capt. Richard Brophy, Commander, Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 9, presiding over the transfer of leadership while a flight deck full of Warhawk Sailors and other spectators watched below.
As reported by NavyTimes.com, with China claiming most of the islands of the region, many experts believe that the aircraft carrier was dispatched in the area to perform a deliberate show of force to emphasize U.S. Navy’s right to operate in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
The Pentagon stated that the Stennis entered the South China Sea twice, while crusing towars and back from joint exercises with South Korea.
Noteworthy, during the transit in the South China Sea the USS John C. Stennis was followed by People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warships which remained in the vicinity of the U.S. Navy carrier.
However according to a U.S. Navy press release the interactions with the Chinese Navy were professional.
Moreover in an effort to reduce tensions in the area the USS John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group (CSG) command ship Blue Ridge will visit China later this spring where 7th Fleet head Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin will hold talks with his counterparts about the chance to increase communication between the two countries to avoid confrontations at sea.
Image credit: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kenneth Rodriguez Santiago and Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Tomas Compian / U.S. Navy