Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Chinese Fighters

ComNavOps is not an expert on Chinese fighter aircraft by any means (is anyone, really?).  Still, it’s hard not to be impressed and concerned by both the range of aircraft being developed and the rate of progress.  The J-20 and J-31, for example, appear to be on par or better than the F-22 and F-35, respectively, at least on paper.  Honestly, if I had to choose between the J-31 or the F-35 at this point, I’d opt for the J-31.  It’s likely to reach operational service sooner!

Of course, we can’t discuss this any further without recognizing that the Chinese aircraft capabilities are all manufacturer’s claims.  None have been demonstrated or proven publicly.  The capabilities may or may not be achievable.  Just because an aircraft looks stealthy and lethal doesn’t mean it is.  The LCS was going to win wars single-handed – on paper.  The JSF was going to be the world’s greatest aircraft in service a decade ago and yet we still haven’t achieved Initial Operation Capability after two decades of development.

Nonetheless, the Chinese appear to have recognized that the area of interest to them, the first island chain, requires operating over a thousand mile distance and they’re developing very long range aircraft and missiles to do so.  The US, on the other hand, is saddled with a short range F-35 as the cornerstone of its future air power and has been very slow to recognize the tyranny of distance and limited basing.

As we discuss BAMS and carriers and A2/AD and LCS and whatever else, it’s obvious that we’re still mired in a very nonchalant mindset.  Vague statements like, “We’ll just provide protection for our high value assets.” Illustrate the lack of critical thinking being exercised in our combat discussions.  Conversely, the Chinese are clearly gearing up for a high end war and have recognized that that combat will occur over vast ocean distances.  The winner of that war will be the one who has developed the ability to conduct long range combat.

This nonchalant mindset is not just limited to civilian commentators, such as us.  It infects our professional military as evidenced by the continued pursuit of an F-35 that is already outclassed, a new LCS that has inherent structural flaws that no amount of additional weapons can compensate for, shrinking fleets, shrinking air wings, etc.  It’s also evidenced by the weapon systems that we aren’t pursuing such as a conventional Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile, a truly long range air superiority fighter, a supersonic long range cruise missile, a powerful cruiser replacement, a useful modern frigate, a connector to get Marines ashore, and dozens of other high end systems needed for the A2/AD fight. 

China is serious about war.  We are not.

There’s another interesting aspect at play here with regards to Chinese fighter development and that’s developmental-OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act).  You may recall that OODA is the theory developed by USAF Col. John Boyd that states that the winner of an air-to-air engagement is the one who can get “inside” the other’s decision making process, the OODA loop (I’ll leave it to you to investigate the OODA loop for yourself). 

The OODA concept has since been applied to tactics and strategy, in general.  Consider, now, though, that China is “inside” our OODA aircraft development loop.  They’re producing more advanced aircraft in a faster cycle than we are (again, with the caveat that we’re talking about paper claims).  Being inside our developmental loop is potentially quite troubling.  The implication is that we can’t maintain a technological edge because they can produce the same technology in a shorter time frame.

Do yourself a favor and do some research into the Chinese fighter program.  I guarantee it will alter your view of the value and worth of our own efforts – and not for the better.

On a related note, the ground combat side of things is just as troubling and maybe more so.  China is gearing up for high end, armored combat while we are gearing down for police actions, crisis response, humanitarian assistance, light infantry, and mobility.  If those two ground forces meet, I’d want to in the high end, heavy armor force.  Unfortunately, my passport says I’m on the other side.

We can’t intelligently discuss our own weapons and systems without understanding our enemy’s.  I encourage everyone to take some time and do a bit of research.  You’ll find it a bit scary but necessary.


  1. The real question is how good are their simulators?

    I've seen nothing to suggest they've cracked growing jet turbine blades yet, which means they'll always be hangar queens

    1. If their engines are anything like the Russians build they won't be hanger queens...they'll just eat a lot of engines at low hours and will have a hell of a supply chain to keep them running.

  2. Great point on the nonchalant. I call it "the hand wave!" I saw it as a junior officer attending flag officer war games in the late 80's and we started "hand waving" away things like: moving from blue water to actual amphibious landings and avoiding the issues of mines and shallow water ASW; especially the time limitations. We are very, very good at hand waving...

  3. Lets see now, most agree that China's development of modern fighter tech is based largely on information stolen from the f-35 program. Then China goes and build a f-35 clone in its J-31, and suddenly they have built an fighter which is superior to the F-35. It is a theme you hear a lot.

    Again most agree that Chinese engine tech is behind even the Russians.

    Sorry but I just do not get it. If they are totally dependent on stealing tech from us, how does their copy end up being so much better than the original?

    Ok it flies, but seriously so what? The first F-35 that flew 8 years ago is widely regarded, even by the programs top supporters as a seriously flawed airplane, but it still flew. Based on the timing of when the security breach is supposed to have occurred that is the version which would have had its design stolen, not the current version after a complete redesign, either they are either much more advanced then we give them credit or this plane is nowhere near the threat it is made out to be.


    1. Mark, as stated in the post, we have no idea what the actual level of performance of the Chinese aircraft is. The problem is that their developmental cycle is significantly faster than ours. If the product of that development is worthless (just a look-alike that can't do anything) then it's not an issue. On the other hand, even if they're producing a "mere" equivalent aircraft but doing so in shorter cycles than us, we have a problem.

      Consider their aircraft carrier program. They readied their Soviet carrier far more quickly than anyone believed and, apparently, are already under construction on their own indigenous carrier(s). That's remarkable.

      Perhaps their aircraft don't have magic 360 degree sensor fusion, networked total awareness but, then again, neither do ours and they've gotten to the same point a LOT quicker than we have.

      Real capabilities? Who knows but the developmental cycle times are certainly impressive which does bode well as time goes on and they gain more and more actual competance.

    2. It is hard to judge development cycles when in the case of the J-31 nobody appeared to know much about it until the first prototype appeared. While I do not claim to be an expert in this area either, it does appear reasonable that both the J-20 and the J-31 are only early prototypes with years of work ahead of them.

      If we have no way of knowing when these programs started, how can we say their development cycle is shorter than ours?

      The big advantage I see China has is they actually have a plan. They know what they want and are methodically executing it. They know what they want and are prepared to fund it.

      That and cheap labor costs.


  4. A big problem I see with trying to ascertain how good their A/C are is the conflict of interest in our own S&T organizations.

    If S&T says they are not that good or aren't maintainable, etc. then the Air Force & Navy loose out on the next big expensive procurement failure and big retirement jobs.

    If S&T says they could be great, the the 6ixth gen fighter program will be started, when we haven't even filede or paid for the 5th generation fighters yet.

    I remember being an F-4 IMA tech when the Foxbat was examined in Japan. All you heard was it could go Mach 2 and beat anything we had. Turned out if it went that fast it would be outta gas and the engines had to be pulled. Remember the Backfire bugaboo , how that was going to destroy the Carrier Fleet? They are about as effective as our own B-1s (why haven't we gotten rid of them yet?).

    So it is important to analyze them but first fix the conflict of interest and measure S&T organizations based on what they said compared to what we find out they can do. Else just stand up the 6th Gen PEO now and start writing those checks and isuuing those Gov Treasuries!

    1. Anon, S&T? I'm missing that one. What's it stand for?

      Regardless, I get your point and it's a very good one. We consistently overestimated Soviet capabilities, whether intentionally or not. The military will, understandably, say we have to assume the worst and prepare accordingly. However, that leads to massive expenditures on programs that may not be needed. The reverse approach, though, runs the risk of finding nasty surprises when combat starts if the enemy capabilities turn out to be underestimated. It's a tough line to straddle when there is very little actual performance data to evaluate.

      That leads to ComNavOps personal rule of thumb regarding technology evaluation: initially, most programs can achieve half of what's claimed at twice the cost. With time and continued investment, most programs can achieve 2/3 - 3/4 the performance at several times the cost.

      Good comment.

    2. S&T = Science and Technology. The folks that research what the bad guys can do.

      My only comment to your rule of thumb is. We might get beat if we keep inflating the bad guys. We WILL go broke trying to chase inflated threats for the sole purpose of the MICC (Military, Industrial, Congressional Complex).

      DoD PEACETIME spending is twice that of WWII in adjusted dollars. AND it is more than all of the combined threats EACH YEAR. That is NOT sustainable.

    3. I agree completely. We need realistic enemy asset assessments. Of course, those are hard to come by!

      Further, and rarely discussed, we need realistic threat responses. Just because an enemy develops an airplane doesn't mean we need to respond by developing an invisible, anti-gravity, warp driven, telepathy operated aircraft as a counter. We simply need a par or somewhat better aircraft backed by superb training, tactics, and maintenance and affordable enough to purchase in quantity. We have a tendency to attempt to overwhelmingly favor technology at the expense of training, tactics, maintenance, and numbers.

  5. "China is serious about war. We are not."

    And this is the key point.

    Add mine warfare, particularly offensive mine warfare, to the list.

    What remains unknown is the willingness of the PRC and Taiwan to fight.

    Historical record (Korea) suggests that the Chinese will prove to be tenacious fighters.

    No one in the PLA or PLAN seems to be worried about bowel movements of pregnant service members.


    1. "China is serious about war. We are not."

      And yet we have actually fought many wars since the last time the Chinese fought one (1979).

      So, arguably, we have far more real-world, recent experience fighting them.

    2. Let's not confuse wars of choice with high intensity war against a peer competitor.

      A gunfight is a gunfight for those involved, but Fallujah and Mosul were not even remotely on par with major conventional wars of past eras.US troops have not faced significant enemy air, artillery, or seaborne threats for generations.

      The USAF and USN have not engaged a competent enemy air force since Vietnam, and even then the record was mixed and N. Vietnam was not even an industrialized country. China or North Korea will come to the contest with absolute ferocity that will make ISIL/ISIS look like boy scouts.

      Worse, we have wholesale abandoned training units even in battalion sized and larger manuevers. The fleet has focused on "constable actions" since the fall of the Soviet Union.

      Worse, we should be very concerned about the offensive fighting spirit in a force dominated by "up or out," "zero defect," and "PC" thinking. Casualties are inevitable in war, our military is generally risk adverse and squeamish about casualties: can you imagine Nelson, or Napoleon being successful with a similar outlook?


    3. B.Smitty, I know you don't equate serious preparations for war with the frequency with which we jump into ill-conceived nation-building conflicts. Also, I hope you don't equate experience with limited nation-building, police actions to high end, all-out combat experience. For example, our Army units don't even practice large unit operations anymore. The Navy hasn't exercised a multi-carrier strike group operation in decades, as far as I know. The Marines are shedding tanks and artillery. And the list goes on. The Chinese are doing the exact opposite. They're gearing up for serious, high end combat. They may lack some real world experience but it's crystal clear that they are far more serious about war in their acquistions and training than we are.

      In fact, one could make a valid argument that our recent limited experiences is actually creating an armed force that has developed bad habits as far as high end combat. Hmm, that sounds like a post waiting to happen.

    4. I wasn't implying any such equivalencies.

      Just noting that the last "real" war the Chinese fought was Korea, 60 years ago.

      Since then we have fought many significant conflicts (thankfully none vs a peer).

      I agree that our recent experience has given us bad habits. The obsession with all things MRAP (including JLTV), is one problem. The lack of high-end combat training is another.

      However, do we really know that much about Chinese training and preparations? Honestly, I don't.

    5. B.Smitty, all we (the public) know about Chinese preparations is the few articles we see about acquisition and training. From that it's clear that the Chinese are developing a modern and (on paper!) capable force that emphasizes high end combat. The training that I read about is, again, focused on high end combat scenarios rather than peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance.

      How successful their acquisition and training is, I don't know but it's clear that they are very serious about high end combat. We are not.

      On a related note, consider the current Bold Alligator exercise, the premier amphibious training event. What are we practicing? A bunch of low end, small events. Heck it's based on a humanitarian assistance mission! It's not an exercise to practice getting divisions ashore and demolishing an enemy - it's a scripted series of crisis response, mobility exercises, from what I've read. We're wasting a premier event on peacetime tasks. That's not what the Chinese are practicing!

  6. I mirror your concerns. But it’s easy to have a very very fast development cycle when;
    a) Someone else has done all the R and half the D in your R&D.
    b) You have a massive budget not just in terms of money, but in terms of people and raw resource. In a sense China is operating a far bigger real term budget than the US when we look at man time and material costs. As virtually state owned enterprises; profits, investor returns, marketing etc etc etc simply isn’t being burnt, and you’re seeing a lot more for your Yuan.
    c) When you safety criteria, legal system and standards institutions value success higher then red tape it’s going to make things a bit easier in achieving a technical goal.

    All these do make a dam good looking F35 knock off. But don’t necessarily make an F35 that is as safe and reliable. More rigorous development cycles do tend to lead to better products.

    And stealing your R&D doesn’t make for innovation. Even more that Russia they are ALWAYS going to be playing catch up, and will have to compensate with numbers. Of course the issue is THEY CAN.

    I don’t want to play down Chinese Innovation, they are the world masters of cyber espionage and we have been royally screwed.

    I think we are going to have to plug our leaks and play nicely whilst we innovate further. I also think we really really really need to get our house in order regarding procurement.


    1. Ben, it doesn't really matter how they're getting their R&D, does it? They're producing the same aircraft (on paper, at least) in a fraction of the time we are. Remember, the point is that we've opted for the technological quality path over the quantity path. If we can't maintain that technological edge and we've conceded the numbers edge then we're in trouble. That's my point.

      By the way, I don't downplay their innovation at all. Heck, we're training their scientists at our universities!

  7. one thing for sure, the J20 and J31 dont waste time on VTOL stuff.. they sure built these prototypes fast, indicative of chinese's focus on these 5th gen stuff.. would be pleasantly suprised to see these prototypes entered full service in 2016..

    One thing people forget , you dont need to built a perfect fighter plane in limited quantity , when you can built a good fighter plane in more numerous auantity... didnt the russian's T34-85 easily destroyed german's Tiger II King Tiger tanks with clever tactics and positioning ? sure the germans destroyed lots of Russian tanks but in the end quantity matters.. Another example would be the total destruction of US 2nd Infantry Division by Chinese PVA in korea..

  8. "we aren’t pursuing such as a conventional Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile,"

    Once upon a time there was a great combo of US Missiles that gave the russians headaches.
    Pearshing II and GLCMs.. Would be nice to have'em now .. Turns out you can't damn treaty limitations.

    As for the chineese, the engine issues have been mentioned a 1000 times, so i wont repeat it.
    Just say that they're buying the Su-35 not so much to copy the jet itself but the engines


Comments will be moderated for posts older than 7 days in order to reduce spam.