The J-20 Black Eagle – China’s 5th Generation Stealth Fighter

Please Don't Call it a Game Changer

Forums, Twitter, and blogs are have been buzzing over this “new” Chinese jet for days. The quality of the jet is uncertain but props to the Chinese for excellent execution of a stealth marketing campaign – complete with the sort of grainy spy shots usually reserved for car launches.

Raymond Pritchett believes that this news raises interesting (but likely to go unanswered) questions about our understanding of Chinese military development:

In less than one week we have:

  1. Confirmation new PLAN aircraft carrier is under construction
  2. PACOM confirming DF-21D is now at IOC.
  3. 4/5 Generation Stealth technology demonstrators on the runway

All of which is either well ahead of projected schedules or was never before thought to exist, at least publicly? Perhaps it is time the Secretary of Defense answers a few tough questions, like why the DoD appears to be caught with their pants around their ankles when it comes to major PLA developments.

There’s plenty of OSINT on the J-20. It has been the subject of speculation on forums and blogs for years so it’s unlikely that anyone was caught off-guard by this one. Well, let’s hope not anyway. What do we know beyond OSINT? I’d like to know but that’s the unanswerable question. Still, the concern is valid and shared by many.

More important, perhaps, is the question of Chinese espionage. Debate over whether penetration of U.S. Defense contractors assisted China with the development of the J-20 seem almost unnecessary. Chinese determination, Russian engineering assistance and lazy American security practices are a pretty potent combination. China will continue to close gaps and will do so with increasing efficiency as long as this dynamic exists.

What about the military significance of this jet? As a near term military threat to the United States it doesn’t mean much. Deploying these as a viable platform on a large scale just isn’t in the cards and won’t be for quite some time. Building the airframe, even a fairly complex one, is only the first and easiest step. Additional hardware capabilities have to be developed, systems integration is highly complex, massive logistical issues have to be sorted out for production to occur on a large scale, and then there’s actual deployment. Let’s not forget that you need highly skilled personnel to support and man these things in battle.

There is no doubt that China is capable of closing the gap, even innovating, but by the time they get these issues sorted out (another 20-30 years or so at best) I expect the game will have changed considerably. That sort of dominance probably isn’t even the primary motivation at the moment as RIA Novosti military commentator Ilya Kramnik points out:

Given its traditional policy of aircraft manufacturing, China will most likely create a functional analogue of foreign-made 5G planes that will cost 50% to 80% less than Russian and U.S. models. China will most likely sell the plane in Central Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and Southeast Asia, as well as to the richest African countries.

The export models of the J-20 and the planes of that series made for the Chinese Air Force will have foreign, including Russian, equipment and weapons. Moreover, in the next 20 to 30 years China will have to continue to import modern aircraft technology. Despite the strides made by China’s aircraft designers in the last 20 years, China has only slightly narrowed the technological gap dividing it from the global leaders.

So the J-20 has nice lines, will integrate a lot of outdated hardware, and will be obtainable by any petty dictator with a few extra dollars in the bank. It’s looking more like a Volkswagen Jetta than a game changer.

Blogs of WarJohn Little has been breaking national security news and leveraging thousands of conflict, intelligence, security, technology & political sources to provide level-headed analysis in a complex news environment since 2002.