Another scary thought about what China’s J-20 means

First, some good news: The Global Times quoted a senior Chinese air force officer last week saying the Chengdu J-20 is still a research project and it’s “difficult to say” when the theorized stealth interceptor would be ready for combat.

Not-so-good news: The RAND think-tank yesterday published an analysis concluding the J-20 exposes the fundamental problem that civilian control of the Chinese military is “under-institutionalized”.

The RAND monograph is based on a widely-reported “senior [US] defense official’s” observation that China’s paramount civilian leader Hu Jintao was clueless about the J-20 in a meeting with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on 11 January, which happened — by coincidence or design — to be only a few hours after the J-20 achieved first flight.

Was Hu just playing dumb (it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve heard about a civilian official pretending ignorance of a quasi-secret military program), or did he really not know about a key and heavily — albeit unofficially — publicized milestone for one of the most sophisticated demonstrations of China’s military and industrial power?  

Says RAND’s Andrew Scobell: “Analysis of Chinese handling of the J-20 test flight raises serious doubts about Beijing’s capacity to manage successfully its ascendance as a great power and raises a serious question as to whether a civil-military ‘gap’ exists in China’s peaceful rise.”


Subscribe to our e-mail newsletter to receive updates.


6 Responses to Another scary thought about what China’s J-20 means

  1. Neil Baumgardner 11 March, 2011 at 2:35 pm #

    I’m surprised RAND fell for this one. Rather overblown. Hu’s successor was in the J-20′s cockpit one day before Hu met with Gates – hardly seems like a big civil/military disconnect.

    “According to some Chinese military websites and photos, future Chinese President Xi Jinping and fellow Politburo Standing Committee member Wu Bangguo were in Chengdu on 10 January, and Xi even entered the J-20’s cockpit. It was cloudy, however, so the test flight was canceled. Like all other Politburo Standing Committee members, therefore, President Hu Jintao should have known that the J-20 was ready for a test flight. He probably did not know the exact time of test flight because that depended on such unpredictable factors as weather conditions.”

    I dont see any reference of to this in the RAND report – they dont seem to have done their research.

  2. zeno 11 March, 2011 at 2:36 pm #

    come on, chinese top politician clueless about a military program f that size/importance? are you for real? I’d hardly believe even in front of a scientific evidence.

  3. RickJoe 11 March, 2011 at 10:23 pm #

    Please, the Global Times paper is just meant to downplay the J-20, give potential adversaries to field less of their own stealth fighters. General He Weirong clearly said in 2009 the J-XX (now J-20) would enter service in 2017-2019. With previous programs like the J-10 as a guide, that means IOC between 2015-2016.
    Remember, right after that interview with CCTV he released a statement saying the “4S”, “4th generation fighters” was “just an upgraded J-10″. Obviously we can see the J-20 isn’t just an upgraded J-10, so the question is why did he back track? The answer is to underplay their own capabilities… And this article’s taken the thinly disguised bait.

  4. Amicus Curiae 11 March, 2011 at 10:27 pm #

    There is a very low probability of predicting the first flight date of a new aircraft type with precision closer than a week even from a month away. There are so many variables, including nervous engineers, malfunctioning equipment of all types and the biggie: weather, It is normal and prudent to be non-committal. “We will fly when all conditions are right” blah…blah. Of course the President knew the first flight of that important product was close. His last briefing probably had ample pad in the schedule and he was not expecting it so soon, but he knew it was imminent. Leaks of the event’s possibility were the talk of the blogs. Pictures of the aircraft were all over the web. It is possible that some PLA types were aware of the US SECDEF’s schedule and were delighted to make some mischief by flying during his visit. I still think it unlikely the stars would align to cooperate with this devious plan. Looking at it from the other side, the flight test side, if a window of opportunity presented itself to achieve this milestone, they should take it. Visiting foreign dignitaries are not on the checklist. If this was planned by either the PLA or the government by themselves or coordinated, I am much impressed with their latest achievement. I hope it was a coincidence, because if it wasn’t, they are a much more capable organization than the stereotype Chinese “copycats”.

  5. RickJoe 11 March, 2011 at 10:29 pm #

    As for the Hu Jintao thing, he was obviously aware of its existence but wouldn’t have been told of the “exact” time of first flight… Jeez.
    Anyone who belives that supposedly that means there’s a civil-military gap… two words — wishful thinking.
    The first flight was constantly delayed due to bad weather anyway, and the “ceremony” would’ve been overseen by CAC, which was out of political and probably military control, so it’s really not that concerning if Hu Jintao didn’t wasn’t aware of the first flight when he had the US SecDef with him…

    I think Rand needs to hire some new analysts, the PRC handling of the J-20 first flight couldn’t have gone better — they managed to show off national pride while the media preached that it’s “years away from operation” to calm Western air forces, and followed Western media reports on the plane to feign their own ignorance.

  6. Joseph Dewar 27 March, 2011 at 3:11 am #

    This is all ado about nothing. The one and only time Russian hardware was any threat whatsoever to western air power was Russian pilots flying Mig 15s over Korea in the Chinese air force in the early 50s. They go in big to be safe, to be sure but seriously, they couldn’t pay those guys to fly anything against the west, quicker to just shoot themselves, whatever the plane.

Leave a Reply