China builds a superpower fighter
By David Lague
Published: February 8, 2007
BEIJING: For more than two decades, China has labored to build its first state-of-the-art jet fighter as part of the country's drive to become a leading military power.
In December, it appeared to have closed in on that ambition when it revealed, in an unusual blaze of publicity, that its new fighter, the J-10, had entered service in the air force.
Footage of the new aircraft firing missiles and refueling in flight was shown on state-controlled television, and Chinese defense magazines have published lengthy reports with photographs of the single-engine fighter.Although specific details about the J-10's performance and specifications remain highly classified, some Western and Chinese military experts say the successful development of this advanced, multirole aircraft could be the catalyst for China to become a leading force in military aviation.
They say that Chinese engineers, with help from Israel and Russia, had refined a design aimed at matching advanced aircraft such as the Lockheed Martin F-16, the frontline U.S. Air Force fighter that has also been sold to more than 20 countries."A generation of engineers was put through their major production experience on that aircraft," said Rick Fisher, an expert on the Chinese military and vice president of the International Strategy and Assessment Center, a research institute based in Alexandria, Virginia."It has enabled China to create a cadre of experts that will be building ever more advanced aircraft over the next 50 years."
Along with China's successful test of an anti-satellite missile on Jan. 11, the new fighter is further evidence that double-digit increases in defense spending over much of the last 15 years are being converted into sharply increased firepower for the People's Liberation Army.
The introduction of modern aircraft, missiles, submarines and warships over the past decade, along with the increased professionalism of its service personnel, means that China is rapidly gaining the military muscle to match its growing economic clout.
And, according to Chinese and foreign military analysts, its domestic defense industries are steadily mastering key technologies needed to reduce the military's heavy dependence on Russian weapons.
The fanfare for the J-10 was overshadowed outside China by the international outcry over the missile strike that destroyed a defunct weather satellite.
In the aftermath of the missile test, Beijing attempted to allay fears that its military buildup poses a threat to its neighbors or other major powers.
"We do not conceal our intention to build a strong and modern national defense," the deputy chief of general staff of the People's Liberation Army, Lieutenant General Zhang Qinsheng, said in an interview last Friday that was published on the front page of the official China Daily newspaper.
"But," he continued, "we also tell the world candidly that the Chinese defense policy is always defensive in nature."
Despite these assurances, new weapons such as the J-10 are likely to contribute to growing unease, particularly in Asia, about China's long-term ambitions.
The threat from China's mounting air power is most keenly felt in Taiwan. Beijing regards the self-governing island as a renegade province and refuses to rule out the use of force if Taiwan makes any move toward formal independence.
Military experts say the deployment of the J-10 in big numbers will further erode the advantage in military technology that Taiwan's air force has enjoyed over its mainland rival.
On Jan. 23, Major General Wang Cheng-hsiao of Taiwan said that China had so far put about 60 J-10s into service and that these, in combination with China's advanced Russian-designed fighters, would give the mainland "supremacy over Taiwan in the air."
Lin Chong-pin, president of a research institute based in Taipei, the Foundation on International and Cross- Strait Studies, said Taiwan's advantage "is getting narrower and narrower."
"At the moment it is just in balance," added Lin, a former deputy defense minister in the governing Democratic Progressive Party. "If Taiwan doesn't do anything, it will tip in favor of the PLA air force."
To counter the threat, Taiwan wants to buy more F-16 fighters from the United States, but most analysts believe it is unlikely that the Bush administration will agree to this request while the island's legislature continues to block funding for an earlier arms order.
China plans to overhaul its air force as part of a larger effort to modernize its military, according to the defense White Paper that the Chinese government published in December. The document said China would concentrate on developing new fighters while reducing the overall number of combat aircraft.
"The air force aims at speeding up its transition from territorial air defense to both offensive and defensive operations and increasing its capabilities in the areas of strike, air and missile defense, early warning and reconnaissance and strategic projects," it said.
Although the official Chinese media described the J-10 as a "breakthrough" for Chinese military aviation, these reports also suggested that the plane was inferior to U.S. fighters like the F-16.
The Pentagon noted in May in its annual study on Chinese military power reports that the J-10 would be similar in weight and performance to two advanced European fighters, the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Dassault Rafale.
Fisher, of the International Strategy and Assessment Center, says that of the fighters in service around the world, only the American F-22 Raptor, jointly produced by Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney for the U.S. Air Force, would clearly outmatch the J-10.
"The J-10 is a significant military capability," he said. "It's a highly maneuverable fighter."
It is unclear how many J-10's its maker, China Aviation Industry Corporation I, the country's most important aircraft manufacturer, plans to deliver to the air force.
Small numbers of single-seat and two-seat versions of the new fighter are already operational and some experts believe up to 300 could soon be produced to supplement the high-performance, Russian-designed Sukhoi Su-27 and Su-30MK aircraft already in service with the Chinese Air Force.
There has been some speculation that the production run could be expanded if the J-10, which is expected to be much cheaper than an F-16, can win export orders from countries unable to pay for expensive Western aircraft.
Prices of fighters vary sharply depending on capability but Chile is paying $60 million each for 10 F-16's it has on order from the United States. Fisher estimates a J-10 could sell for $25 million to $40 million.
The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency forecasts that up to 1,200 of these aircraft could eventually be built, according to the Pentagon report on the Chinese military.
The publicity surrounding the new aircraft - including interviews with the leading designers - appeared to be aimed at fostering a sense of national pride in the achievements of the domestic defense industry.
For most of the period when the J-10 was under development, the Western arms embargo imposed after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown meant that China was denied access to American and European aviation technology.
However, while acknowledging the technical advances China has made over that period, most experts believe the J-10 has relied heavily on technology transferred from Israel's aborted Lavi fighter project.
Prototypes of the Lavi, which was similar in capability to the F-16, had performed well in tests but Israel canceled the project in the late 1980s after the United States withdrew financial support.
Elements of its design are evident in the size and shape of the new Chinese fighter.
Fisher and other experts suggest that Israel also supplied the so-called fly- by-wire computer software that controls the aircraft in flight.
And technical difficulties that have long dogged Chinese efforts to build high-performance military jet engines forced the manufacturer to import Russian turbofan engines to power the J-10.
Locally produced engines could soon be available for the J-10 and other Chinese military aircraft, according to some analysts.
Lin, of the Foundation on International and Cross-Strait Studies in Taiwan, and some other military experts believe this combination of borrowed and adapted technology could detract from the J-10's operational performance, at least in the short term.
"This is a potpourri of parts from different countries," Lin said. "Naturally, there will be some limits to its capability. I suspect there is still room for improvement."
Last edited by J-10; 02-12-2007 at 02:05 AM.