By Radhakrishna Rao
The recent maiden flight of China’s second stealth fighter twin engine J-31 Falcon Eagle, which claimed to feature fifth generation combat aircraft technologies, was not a wholly unexpected event. The test flight, which coincided with the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, was perhaps meant to deliver the message that China will leave no stone unturned to be recognised as the second country after the US to simultaneously develop two stealth fighters.
In 2011, China created a flutter in global strategic circles with the debut flight of its J-20 Chengdu Black Eagle stealth fighter. Added to this, the recent test flight of J-31 has been viewed as having given Chinese aeronautical technology a phenomenal impetus; even though experts maintain that it will take time for the fighter to reach its operational readiness. The development of two stealth fighters in itself is a clear indication of the robustness of the Chinese defence industry in simultaneously running two advanced programmes. Further, the success of J-31 and its predecessor J-20 would go a long way in lending a sophisticated edge to the Chinese defence production base and contributing towards growth in China’s defence exports. Perhaps in the not so distant future, China could even pose a challenge to Russia in the area of defence exports.
Whether the country will draw on the resources and technologies developed for these two fighters to come out with a high performance fifth generation combat aircraft, however, is yet to be seen. As things stand now, how the country manages technological impediments and enormous costs involved in qualifying these fighters for routine operations remains a critical issue. If China decides to deploy the two stealth fighters post the completion of their qualification trials, it could give a major push to Chinese air power; strengthening its long range strike capability and ultimately aiding the Communist giant to pose a serious challenge to the air supremacy of the US. All said and done, however, China’s growing prowess in aerospace technology has been questioned by aerospace technology experts. There remains a significant gap between China and the US insofar as advanced fighter jet technology is concerned. In particular, there are serious doubts about the mastery China has achieved in the area of signature management which holds the key to the dynamics of the stealth of a combat aircraft.
In light of this, is China’s new stealth fighter still as big a deal as it is made out to be? For, most experts believe that the engine of this fighter is the modified version of the Russian made Klimov RD-93 engines and that it would take China up to a decade to develop and produce an engine capable of powering its futuristic fighters. This implies then, that the biggest challenge ahead for China is developing reliable aircraft engines.
Does this fighter symbolise China’s leap ahead in aerospace technology? Here, again, the possibility of China having developed the fighter from scratch seems highly doubtful. Industrial espionage may have given Chinese aeronautical engineers a head start in building this stealth fighter through a process of reverse engineering. According to media reports, the resemblance of the Chinese stealth fighter to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter could imply the possibility of China having used the blueprints that the US aerospace and defence giant, Lockheed Martin, had reported stolen in 2009. “The general design of this aircraft is reminiscent of the F-35 with edge alignment and chines associated with this generation of low-observable aircraft,” says Doug Barrie, Senior Fellow for Military Aerospace at the London based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Perhaps the most worrying development for the Indian defence strategists is the Chinese plan to build a naval variant of the fighter for deployment on its aircraft carriers. Certain reports suggest that the sturdy landing gear of J-31 could imply a definitive Chinese plan to boost its aerial combat capability in oceanic waters.
In September 2012, China stated it has pressed into service, a 58,500-tonne aircraft carrier built around the Ukrainian-origin floating casino Liaoning that it had bought as scrap. This development hints at the possibility of China preparing the ground for the deployment of this and other aircraft carriers presently under development in the Indian Ocean. Against such a scenario, the Indian navy could be forced to go in for a totally new kind of aircraft carrier equipped with the capability to accommodate a fleet of an advanced fighter aircraft. In fact, the Indian navy’s keen interest in the naval variant of F-35 is a pointer towards its futuristic vision that takes into account the Chinese threat in the Indian Ocean.
To conclude, none can deny the possibility of China emerging as a front runner in regional military power through the tactical advantages inherent in its two stealth fighters. Looking beyond the foreseeable future, however, China would need to develop far more sophisticated fighter aircrafts to dominate the Asian skies as a means to expanding its influence globally. Nonetheless, the immediate concern for Beijing is to turn these two stealth fighters into formidable fighting machines that would give the Chinese air force a veritable head-start over its contemporaries in the sky.
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