The most important development from China’s recent airshow was the item that was missing. Their new advanced fighter jet, the J-20, flew for just a few minutes during the airshow without its intended engine. This is because “the performance of the engine is still very unstable, and engineers have failed to find the key reason for the problems, even though its vector power is good enough now,” reported Minnie Chan of the South China Morning Post, citing a “military insider.” While this is an improvement over the previous engines that exploded in test development, this is China’s premier stage to display new and fancy technology, and the engine has failed to meet reliability targets in long-standing trial runs over the course of hundreds of hours.
The current engine is the Russian built A-31. This is better than the previous engine that used the W-10 engine from their J-10 fighter, but still produces significant problems. The lack of seamless fit in the body of the plane increases its signature and decreases its stealth capability. The J-20 also has to turn on its after-burners to reach and cruise at supersonic speed. This erodes its stealth capabilities even more. After-burning to reach its top speed consumes fuel at greater rates, which limits its operational range. The other option is to fire its missiles at sub-sonic speed. But this would decrease the speed of the plane and the striking range of the missiles.
The decreased operational and striking range has strategic implications. China’s major strategy revolves around launching so many missiles that it makes it too dangerous or costly for American forces to operate near China. The J-20 would be a long-range stealth fighter that could launch many of these new and faster missiles, such as the PLX, at critical targets like bases, carriers, and refueling planes. In theory this would overwhelm American defenses, shorten their range, or make them fly much closer to their bases and carriers. As a result China would be given a free hand to seize disputed islands in the South China Sea.
But the lack of a proper engine for the fighter undermines much of that. The importation of the engine from Russia relies on friendly relations with them and represents a vulnerable link in their supply chain. The lack of proper range and stealth signal means they are more capable of being identified and targeted by American warplanes. The J-20 was specifically rushed into production to counter the F-35, but still has critical flaws that make it inferior. Plus, as American readers and analysts know, the F-35 still has numerous bugs and design flaws that must be worked through. So the engine problem with the J-20 suggests it will have similar growing pains and remain behind the F-35 for the foreseeable future. In the event of conflict the American forces, who have upgraded a host of missile defenses ranging from Aegis Destroyers to repurposed artillery, still seem to have the upper hand in range and deadliness of their interceptor technology. And of course, this is before we assess the level of training of Chinese pilots which have been called “dumb.”
The recent airshow dazzled audiences and analysts. But, reading between the lines, there are still significant doubts about China’s military capabilities and strategy, particularly their flawed J-20 fighter that forms a key part of their strategy.