J-20 : Chain Reaction ?

By Robbin Laird
01/12/2011


The J-20 : Putting us in the rear-view mirror ?
Credit picture : www.csmonitor.com


The introduction of a new test aircraft by the PRC has caught the attention of many in Asia and the United States; as it clearly should.  The new aircraft displaying stealth features, demonstrates if such a demonstration was need that the PRC is shaping new military capabilities for the period ahead.  New unmanned aircraft, new missiles, a whole new approach to building civil and military aerospace capabilities, augmenting its Navy, expanding its commercial and global reach, building presence through counter-piracy, etc.

Although some may have been surprised; some were not.

One difficulty with U.S reactions has been to see this largely as a challenge to the United States.  It is not.  The Asian powers understand that this is part of the declared Chinese strategy to expand their presence and power throughout the Pacific and to shape an active export policy globally.  The U.S. could stand in the way if it shapes effective capabilities in the decade ahead to play the crucial lynchpin role for allied forces in Asia to curtail Chinese ambitions.  The Chinese clearly seek to shape the Pacific agenda, up to an including the Arctic.

Another difficulty is that the platform-centric approach dominates in viewing the development.  If this is about an F-22 like aircraft, it is about F-22 like aircraft.  It should be about the Chinese building significant capability across the board while the U.S. is engaged in Afghanistan :  it is about continuing to build last generation aircraft and missiles, while delaying investments in today’s and tomorrow’s challenges which simply are not aligned with the Afghanitis strategy.

It is about continuing to build last generation aircraft and missiles, while delaying investments in today’s and tomorrow’s challenges which simply are not aligned with the Afghanitis strategy. (…) The Afghan engagement is eating up our military resources, which are no longer available to fund air and naval power transition.

Also, Chinese developments are not looked at by themselves, but are used by too many as a foil for their agendas. The anti-F22 community sees this new aircraft as simply a test aircraft, far from being an effective deployed asset.  The transparency community sees this as a deviation from the true path the Chinese should follow, namely to be good bankers without military geopolitical aspirations. What this should be seen as is a manifestation of the tip of the spear of a comprehensive effort to shape a new capability in the Pacific to enhance Chinese influence and power, and to shape perceptions in Asia of a very different century, than the last half of the XXth century.

What this should do is to challenge the strategic complacency of those in the United States who assume continued air and naval dominance in the Pacific.  As General Deptula put it:

Simply put, there is a group-think that has captured the security elite that since we’ve been dominant in conventional warfare over the past quarter-century, we’ll remain so in the future.  It’s a convenient presumption given the current economic environment, but a very dangerous one. It may play to conventional wisdom to state that the biggest threat to defense is the deficit, and while partially accurate, the immutable nature of conflict—and deterrence—is more basic—strength wins over weakness.  As one looks to the future—given the current investment path the United States is on—the United States and our allies are becoming weaker. The difficult position to take — given the current economic conditions and nation-building engagements we have elected to pursue — is to articulate the kind of investments we need to make in defense to secure a position of strength in the next quarter-century.

The Afghan engagement is eating up our military resources, which are no longer available to fund air and naval power transition.  And even more significant is the instinct to invest in the past rather than future.  The notion of funding 4th generation aircraft with the new generation already here in the F-22 and close at hand in the F-35 is truly amazing.  Funding a next generation jammer when the F-35 carries in its combat systems significantly greater capability is equally amazing.

The Chinese are clearly posing a threat to our way of doing air operations.  We need to shift to a new concept of air operations leveraging the new aircraft and capabilities, and to build forward from this point.

As we argued earlier:

The shift from “legacy” air operations to distributed air operations is a significant operational and cultural shift.  Characterizing the shift from 4th to 5th generation aircraft really does not capture the nature of the shift. The legacy aircraft operate in a strike formation, which is linear and runs from Wild Weasels back to the AWACS.  The F-22 and F-35 are part of distributed operational systems in which the decision makers are distributed and honeycomb structure is created around which ISR, C2, strike and decision-making can be distributed.
A new style of collaborative operations is shaped but takes away the ability of an adversary to simply eliminate assets like the AWACs and blind the fleet. Distributed operations is the cultural shift associated with the 5th generation aircraft, and investments in new weapons, remotely piloted aircraft and the crafting of simultaneous rather than sequential operations. Unfortunately, the debate about 5th generation aircraft continues as if these are simply aircraft, not nodes driving significant cultural changes in operational capabilities.

The other aspects of the J-20 worthy of note is its impact on Chinese aspirations and capabilities to export arms.  The capabilities which the Chinese are emphasizing – notably air and missile systems – are eminently exportable. By having a first class missile business a decade out, the Chinese can change regional power balances by export policy only incidentally supported by the power projection capability necessary to dominate in far away regions. The J-20 clearly helps in this effort.  It is the Le Mans event, which helps the manufacturer to sell his show room product.  There is a significant global market for combat aircraft over the next 30 years globally.  The Chinese have every intention of being the lead exporter in the second world; having the J-20 is a key driver for success in global export efforts.

The Chinese have every intention of being the lead exporter in the second world; having the J-20 is a key driver for success in global export efforts.

Another element of the global competition is the desire to respond to the Russian-Indian 5th generation aircraft.  The strategic competition with India is significant for China, and they have little desire to see the Indians position themselves ahead of China in air and naval systems.

The J-20 is built on the top of the global shift in manufacturing capability towards China, a significant investment by China in global commodities and the enhanced presence of China on the world stage are all significant developments. When married to a growing investment in the development and fielding of military capabilities, something globally significant is afoot –  of the sort which suggests changing epochs.

The Chinese can invest in technologies for global export, for enhanced “asymmetric” capabilities, and anti-access denial and it is enough to degrade declining numbers of U.S. forces. Indeed, unless the U.S. shapes innovative joint con-ops and invests in new technologies leveraging some of the core new capabilities, such as the fifth generation fighters, the ability to deter will go up for the Chinese simply by enhancing degradation of U.S. capabilities. Again, the lynchpin function for the United States is central to its Asian role.


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"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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