By Corey Velgersdyk Senior Staff Writer February 21, 2011

The recent leaks of photographs and videos of China’s prototype J-20 fighter has stirred up a lot of discussion over what may be China’s first “fifth-generation” stealth fighter and its implications for the Chinese military and the rest of the world.

Part of the discussion is whether or not aspects of the J-20 are modeled after the F-117 Nighthawk that was downed in the Balkans, as some U.S. military officials have claimed. Chinese officials have refuted this. True or not, the J-20 does appear to have some stealthy features, including a nose and cockpit that bear a striking resemblance to the F-22 Raptor, the U.S. fifth-generation stealth fighter.

However, according to Richard Aboulafia of Teal Group, several aspects of the J-20 undermine its stealth capability. He explains in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that while the J-20 may be “stealthy-looking” it is unlikely it will actually possess true stealth capabilities. In particular, he cites the exposed engine nozzles, the forward canards, ventral fins, and the J-20’s sheer size (approximately 75 feet compared to the F-22 Raptor’s length of just over 62 feet), all of which suggest that the plane will give off a radar reflection.

U.S. military officials have repeatedly stated that they are not worried by the J-20; the plane is still six to eight years from being battle ready. Moreover, China is about twenty-five years behind the United States in development as the F-22 was designed in the mid-1980s.

While it is interesting to compare the J-20’s potential capabilities with U.S. fighters, such comparisons miss two important considerations regarding China’s military modernization: First, it indicates that China is serious about its efforts to pursue indigenously designed platforms. In the past, China has acquired most of its air fleet by purchasing planes from Russia. The J-20 and other projects mark a trend towards greater self-reliance.

Second, the J-20 in its current form may not actually possess stealth capabilities, but it does show that China has developed an interest in fielding technologically advanced fighters in the future. This, too, is a shift from its previous practice of using large numbers of less advanced fighters to overcome technological gaps with its adversaries. As fighters become more advanced they also become more expensive to produce and militaries ultimately purchase fewer of them. This is in line with the ‘smaller but more technologically capable’ military modernization occurring throughout the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

This modernization goes hand in hand with China’s shifting military doctrine. During the Cold War, the PLA was organized to face a potential war with the Soviet Union. The strategy called for large numbers of troops to grind down invading forces. The fear of invasion has evaporated and a concern with how the PLA can handle “limited wars under hi-tech conditions” is ascendant. To address this concern, China has pared down the PLA and focused on increasing the remaining units’ ability to handle a variety of missions with better technological capabilities. This transformation, as the current development of the J-20 reveals, is continuing today.

What remains in question is how the United States and the rest of the world will react to this transformation. Obviously this reaction will be determined to a great extent by how China’s concurrent rise is received. Increased capabilities seem threatening only if possessed by a state that is perceived to be aggressive. Episodes like the trawler dispute this fall or the USNS Impeccable incident in 2009 are heralded by some as omens of a more assertive China in the future, but the peaceful resolution of several border disputes and the importance of international trade for China just as persuasively make the case that China is willing to negotiate through diplomatic channels. In either case, it will still be decades before China can match the United States militarily. The wisest course seems to continue to engage China diplomatically and economically but remain prepared to handle China’s increasing capabilities.

This image is being used under Creative Commons licensing. The original source can be found here.