:: October 2012 Letter ::
Remember when an aircraft could scare you? Not like, “For Halloween, I’m going as the A380 Business Plan. Boo!” scared, but like, “The new MiG-25 can do Mach 3 and will shoot down all our XB-70 Valkyries and then they’ll invade and we’ll have to speak Russian and eat borsch” scared. Clint Eastwood in Firefox scared. The Cold War’s end dampened our aeronautical fears, leaving planners to fret over Saddam’s dilapidated MiG and Mirage fleet. In fact, since the ‘90s, the concept of “strategy” has been reduced to futile counterinsurgencies, misguided nationbuilding efforts, and frequent drone-launched assassination strikes. The strategic use of air power took a back seat, and Americans certainly weren’t frightened by anyone else’s air force.
But the pivot towards Asia, coupled with the growing awareness that there’s more than one superpower out there, means the return of military aviation rivalry. The trouble started two years ago, when the Chengdu J-20 appeared, right in the middle of SecDef Bob Gates’ visit to China. This fighter, whose “stealthiness” is akin to Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness,” shows that the best way to design a stealth plane with large canards is to make them removable. That way, if anyone sees your plane, you can remove the canards and people won’t think your aircraft was obsolete and poorly designed. However, a flock of amateurs, non-aviation pundits and hobbyist bloggers took this misbegotten kludge way too seriously (“It will be really stealthy if it jettisons those canards as it flies,” “They built it really large to show how stealthy it is,” etc.). It was the first post-Cold War reappearance of aviation paranoia.
Yet earlier this month, the Shenyang J-31 made its first flight, not long after it was spotted being driven around by a truck. Even if it won’t be operational for another 5-10 years, this plane looks a lot more serious than the J-20. It resembles an F-35, inspiring dark (and quite possibly accurate) talk of F-35 cybertheft by China. It’s worth examining both the threat and its impact on the military aircraft market.
First, any discussion of a fighter’s fifth-generation status starts with (a) recognition that “fifth generation” refers largely to technology beneath the skin of an aircraft and (b) admission that we have very little idea about the technologies lurking inside the J-20 and J-31 airframes. Nobody is asserting that China has magically created an industrial base capable of developing world-class engines, AESA radars, fast datalinks, integrated electronic warfare suites or sensor fusion avionics. The only question concerns the quality of imported Russian components. Is Russia really prepared to sell China top-of-the-line stuff? Similarly, to be effective, fifth generation fighters need a robust constellation of offboard sensors, an advanced battle management and command and control network, and a large tanker force. Nobody is asserting that China has these, either.
It’s also worth noting that while low observability is useful, the market hasn’t deemed it essential. A quarter century after the “stealth revolution,” stealth fighters are operated by exactly one air arm in the world. Others have looked at it: the US Navy headed towards stealth with the A-12 and NATF programs, while the UK looked at buying F-117s, but both stuck with traditional fighters. Even Israel didn’t work overtime to have the Obey Amendment (which prohibited F-22 export discussions) rescinded. South Korea’s FX-3 contest, to be decided early next year, is a match between the stealthy F-35 and Boeing’s F-15, which isn’t stealthy but offers great bang for the buck. While we’re seeing commitments to the F-35, that might have less to do with stealth and more to do with the aircraft’s other features, and with the industrial roles that come with program involvement. The market seems undecided about whether stealth is worth the price.
Despite these qualifications, the J-31 (and to a lesser extent, even the J-20) do represent a challenge to US military power, and to the US’s allies. Until recently, China’s military was viewed as developing asymmetrical capabilities: cyberwarfare, space weaponry, fast cruise and ballistic missiles, etc. But they now appear to be spending money on traditional platforms too, including relatively modern combat aircraft and naval vessels. Coupled with a more muscular foreign policy, China’s growing traditional military portfolio means that potential for conflict in the region has ratcheted up a notch. US military planners’ talk about needing systems for Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) threats is understandable given emerging Chinese capabilities.
How will China’s new focus on fighter development affect the fighter market? It already has. Japan’s decision last year to buy 42 F-35s indicated that growing Chinese air power was impacting Japan’s defense planning. Taiwan has signed for a major F-16 fleet upgrade with AESA radars, which is all they could get for political reasons. Korea’s FX-3, again, is an important contest to watch. If they go F-35, that’s a clear sign that the market has gauged the new Chinese planes as game changers. If they stick with F-15s, it means they don’t see a generational shift in fighter design, and view air power as an ongoing question of range/performance/payload versus price.
It’s much harder to see any kind of impact by the Chinese planes in the US defense budget. An F-22 line re-start was promised for about five minutes by the Romney Campaign (Motto: “Billions more for defense! If the Tea Party will let us spend it. Which they won’t.”). Dov and Roger Zakheim, the defense brains behind Romney, later clarified this dubious assertion by saying Romney actually meant more funding for the F-35. This would be irrelevant. The F-35’s problems aren’t related to funding. Rather, its problems revolve around technology maturation. Cash doesn’t seem to help.
But for the F-35 in general, this is all good news. Despite a high price tag and its development issues, it’s the only stealth fighter on the market, and the market may well decide that makes it valuable. Yet the plane still has its detractors who think it would be useless in an Asian war. As an aside, the F-35’s critics are divided into two camps. One group thinks it’s a terrible plane because it’s a cousin of the F-22, which they view as a disaster. The other group thinks it’s a terrible plane because it’s nowhere near as good as the F-22, which they view (correctly) as the best fighter yet designed. These two groups completely agree about their hatred of the F-35, yet have never been forced to get together and reconcile the massive differences between their arguments.
Lastly, China and the US need to avoid the Thucydides Trap. This erudite-sounding term was coined by academics to illustrate the danger of overestimating an emerging threat, thereby creating a cycle of reaction and over-reaction. This dynamic has been around for millennia. Thucydides described the main cause of the Peloponnesian War: “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.”
China’s insecure and vainglorious pursuit of aeronautical and military prowess, countered by US politicians’ growing talk of the Asia pivot, “standing up to China,” and military “access” to the Pacific Rim, looks like a Thucydides Trap in the making. While one of the two new Chinese military aircraft should be taken seriously from a force planning perspective, careful diplomacy is essential too.
Teal updates this month include the C-5, 757, CRJ, KC-390, Eclipse, Caravan, and Kawasaki’s OH-1/UH-X. A new report covers Irkut’s MS-21 jetliner. Have a great month.
Yours, ‘Til We Meet Something Really Frightening, From Alpha Centauri,
© Richard Aboulafia 1997-2006, All rights reserved.