Fighters Flying Nowhere?

The first flight test of China’s ‘fifth generation’ J-20 fighter inspired Trud’s Mikhail Lukanin to address the subject.  If you’d like a translation of it, see Russia Today.

Lukanin notes China’s now third behind the U.S. and Russia to unveil a ‘fifth generation’ fighter, and he cites Ruslan Pukhov and Vitaliy Shlykov who conclude these future aircraft are little suited to modern wars, and are being developed exclusively to satisfy political ambitions.

About China’s “very raw prototype,” Pukhov says:

“According to its technological possibilities, China is still not ready to develop new generation aircraft, since even usual Chinese fighters are copies of foreign ones, mainly Russian aircraft.  The Chinese really still need at least ten years to get the J-20 to 5th generation fighter parameters.”

Lukanin recaps that Russia’s PAK FA, the T-50, started design in 2002, flew in 2010, and is looking for serial production by 2015.  He gives a quick, limited definition of 5th generation (that would horrify U.S. Air Force types):  supercruise, stealth, and 360° radar.

Shlykov tells Lukanin the T-50 and F-22 are unlikely to meet in battle, and employing a ‘superfighter’ in a small war like the Russian-Georgian one is senseless since today’s aircraft can handle such a conflict.  Shlykov calls the fifth generation fighter an “offspring of the arms race” created for a world war between superpowers.

Lukanin highlights the F-22’s exorbitant pricetag and the cut in its production run, and he puts the T-50’s price at $80-100 million, 4-5 times cheaper than the F-22 [perhaps it’s cheaper because it’s not a full-fledged 5th generation aircraft, at least by the USAF definition].

Finally, Lukanin returns to Pukhov, who says:

“For China and Russia, 5th generation fighters are first and foremost political projects, necessary for assuring themselves that they are leading world economies.”

Pukhov says the lion’s share of T-50 aircraft will be exported.

There are at least two interesting issues Lukanin might have addressed here, but didn’t. 

First, is it possible that China might actually be uncomfortably close to Russia in technological capabilities?  Is the J-20 really ten or more years behind the T-50?  Or how about this — is the T-50 anywhere close to the F-22?

Second, fifth generation aircraft could also become passe quickly if the U.S. moves on to a sixth generation unmanned, robotic aircraft.

There are a couple additional articles today worthy of attention.  Argumenty nedeli calls the J-20 a fifth generation Frankenstein, with the nose of the F-22, and the body of the old MiG 1.44 design.  AN says the J-20 lacks an engine [possibly also true of T-50].  The Chinese unveiling might just an elaborate PR show.

Vedomosti isn’t quite as dismissive, and says the J-20 might push Russian development faster.  The paper notes questions about what’s really inside the aircraft, and concludes the flight may have been timed for the U.S. Defense Secretary’s trip to China.

It cites Konstantin Makiyenko to the effect that, for Russia, the J-20’s first flight means it’s essential to increase the financing and pace of the T-50 program, both to preserve the military balance, and to preserve Russia’s competitiveness as an exporter.

Once again, maybe it is all about prestige and exports.

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