With a host of new stealth and other technology in production, the Chinese are making great strides in this field that could see them surge ahead of their Western rivals. David Watts reports.
China has made a surprising leap forward in the race to field operational squadrons of fifth-generation stealth aircraft with the revelation that the eighth prototype of its J20 aircraft made its maiden flight in November at Chengdu.
By comparison, the Russians have had five prototypes of their equivalent, the T50 PAK FA, flying since the first one in 2009 and have not managed to bring it to anything like operational status. The Russian aircraft is being developed in co-operation with the Indian aircraft industry.
As with their other first flights, the Chinese made no attempt to hide the event from foreigners and seem to prefer that such things be made known through social media. Asian Affairs learned of it through the Popular Science blog.
The aircraft shows changes compared to its predecessors in the cockpit area, where a new canopy offers greater visibility. Though no other external changes are visible, there are likely to be alterations to systems and powerplant which has been a major problem for the Chinese, who lack experience in the development of jet engines compared to the West and Russia.
The lack of key changes to the aircraft suggests that it is now close to the final configuration that will go into production for the air force. Aircraft ‘2017’ is now likely to be taken from Chengdu up to far northern China for detailed flight testing. Initial production of the aircraft is likely to begin next year, which would allow for entry into regular service in 2017, just some six years since the prototype’s first flight.
That means that China will be second only to the United States in the deployment of long-range, stealth strike aircraft with the capability to range across the whole of the Indian sub-continent.
The new revelations on the J20 follow the release of images of what is believed to be one of the world’s largest drones, the Divine Eagle, estimated to be 60 feet long, and capable of detecting stealthy aircraft and warships at long ranges.
The Divine Eagle has a twin-fuselage layout, both booms of which are tipped with satellite communications domes. It has two tall vertical tailplanes.
The Divine Eagle and the J20 will clearly make a formidable combination when they enter service and the rapid developments in Chinese military technology are clearly running ahead of expectations in Western defence ministries.
Apart from the already acknowledged Chinese hacking expertise, which appears to cover most countries and industries as well as the military, the nation is developing other offensive technologies which are normally below the radar.
Leading among these is railgun technology, which most people probably heard of last when Saddam Hussein was trying to develop one.
Railguns are seen by the US military as a potential game-changing technology. Instead of employing chemical explosives, a railgun uses electromagnetic force to propel projectiles to hypersonic speeds, potentially over several hundred miles.
A railgun’s barrel has two parallel conducting rails built into it. When a moving armature (usually the projectile) is inserted into the barrel, it connects the parallel rails to complete the current, thus generating an intense electromagnetic field. The projectile then accelerates out of the barrel at high speeds.
China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) has reported on its website various breakthroughs in electromagnetically launch areas such as power storage and tougher barrel materials. These launch systems could be installed on Chinese aircraft carriers in the next decade, greatly improving the performance of Chinese naval aircraft. A Phoenix TV broadcast also suggested the People’s Liberation Navy hopes to test its own railgun in the next few years.
Though the Chinese have long been suspected of being dependent on theft of intellectual property for the development of their weapons—such as the similarity between the American F35 jet and the Chinese J31—the depth of the research into railguns shows that this is not always the case and that Chinese industry may well be passing into a phase which is less dependent on Western technological leads.
Normally railgun technology is envisioned for long-range use but it appears that both the United States and the Chinese foresee its use for close-in weapon systems to defend Chinese warships and bases, not only against conventional weapons but also against hypersonic and ballistic missiles.
There are rumours that the next batch of destroyers for the Chinese navy will be armed with large railguns in place of the current 130mm cannon for long-range anti-surface and air defence.
Though any railgun-armed destroyer is not likely to be deployed before 2020, there is no doubt that the Chinese are determined to catch up with the Americans in this area so a railgun arms race is already under way. The US Navy is due to start ship-borne railgun trials next year aboard the USS Trenton.
Progress is also being made in China’s much-watched aircraft carrier programme. On October 24 a module was installed on the hull of what is expected to be the first domestically-built carrier, which is taking shape in Dalian shipyard, according to the blog. This is thought to be a hangar for the ship’s aircraft.
Aircraft carrier “17” is likely to be 65,000-70,000 tons and will have forward located ski-jumps to launch its 36-48 aircraft, which will likely be a combination of J15 Flying Sharks and Z8 helicopters. Its size is similar to ‘16’, the Soviet-built carrier Liaoning, which the Chinese Navy already has in service, and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth class carrier, now under construction.
It is expected that ‘17’ will be launched in the second half of next year and would be commissioned in 2019, thus doubling China’s carrier capability and doubling Beijing’s capability to project power beyond its ‘First island chain of defence’ all the way to Africa and Latin America. Further out in China’s naval plans is a nuclear-powered carrier.
Also under construction is the first of a new class of very large, fast cargo re-supply vessels.
How these plans will work out in the context of control of the Pacific will be interesting in the face of US dominance, but the future of that ocean is unlikely to be pacific.