J-20 could see neighbours review fighter programmes

Singapore
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On 11 January China's Chengdu J-20 had its maiden flight, sending a signal about the country's aerospace ambitions and possibly spurring fighter programmes among its neighbours.

The 15min flight took place at midday at the Chengu Aircraft Design Institutes' aerodrome. The pilot took off and circled the airfield several times before landing.

The tests show the purported fifth-generation aircraft is large, roughly the size of the General Dynamics F-111, and features a delta wing and forward canards. Otherwise, little is known about the aircraft, though analysts question whether it is truly stealthy.

 

Following the test, President Hu Jintao of China confirmed the existence of the aircraft. According to media reports he only learned about the test when visiting US defence secretary Robert Gates asked about them during a meeting. This has led to speculation that China's military may have conducted the tests without the knowledge of China's civilian leaders.

China's technological limitations mean the J-20 - or any other true indigenous fifth-generation fighter - is unlikely to be operational before 2020. The J-20's appearance could, however, give a nudge to aircraft procurement and upgrade programmes among China's neighbours.

"A lot of countries will see the emergence of the J-20 as a game changer," says Richard Bitzinger, senior fellow at Singapore's S Rajaratnam School of International Studies Military Transformations programme. While he feels the J-20 is not a true fifth-generation fighter, he notes that it has a number of fifth-generation features, namely a stealthy design and, apparently, the ability to carry weapons internally.

Taiwan may feel particularly vulnerable in light of the J-20 - in addition to China's continued induction of Chengdu J-10s and Shenyang J-11Bs - a Chinese copy of the Sukhoi Su-27. Although its air force was regarded as superior to that of China's 10 years ago, its fleet looks increasingly antiquated, equipped primarily with ageing Lockheed Martin F-16 A/Bs, Dassault Mirage 2000s, and Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation Ching Kuo Indigenous Defence Fighters.

Taiwan has requested 60 F-16 C/D Block 50s, but the USA has dithered owing to its important geo-political and economic ties with Beijing. An industry source says any F-16 C/D deal remains frozen.

Although Japan revealed a stealth mock-up at the Japan Aerospace show in 2008, it is doubtful the country has the financial wherewithal to develop a fifth-generation fighter on its own. The USA has also consistently rebuffed the nation's efforts to buy the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor.

Therefore the country could eventually look to purchase a fifth-generation capability in the Lockheed Martin F-35, of which it would need 40-50 to replace ageing McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantoms and Boeing F-15Js.