The significance of the ‘Mighty Dragon’

The Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter aircraft, known as the ‘Mighty Dragon’, flew publicly for no more than a couple of minutes – without pulling any manuevers — at the 12th Zhuhai Air Show in Guangdong province in southern China on November 1st. But it was enough to send worry coursing through the military corridors in the Asia-Pacific region.

The reasons are not hard to see. This aircraft is being developed by China as a stealth aircraft for long range strike, a counterpart of the American F-22 Raptor. With an unfueled range of as much as 1,500 nautical miles, the J-20, depending from where it is launched, can reach deep inside India in the west to farthest points in what Beijing refers to as the “second Island chain” stretching from Japan to Papua-New Guinea and northeastern Australia in the Pacific. Moreover, with a large weapons-carrying capacity, masses of this aircraft that China, with hard currency reserves totaling some $4 trillion, can now easily afford and produce, will be able easily to overwhelm almost any local opposition. While most of its specific features and capabilities are unknown and can only be speculated about, the J-20 is reportedly superior to the only competition in its class, the F-22, in terms of operational radius and the size of its onboard arsenal.

However, the aircraft on show at Zhuhai seems to be a prototype, not the final product. While the Chinese PLA Air Force have announced 2018 as the year for inducting the J-20 into service, it will more likely be another decade before it is technologically mature. Over ten years elapsed between the industrially advanced US Company Lockheed Martin, for instance, first displaying the F-22 and its joining the US Air Force. What can be deduced from its size are the facts that the J-20 can carry more fuel (and, therefore, has longer range) and more wordnance than the Raptor.

But Western analysts were quick to damn the J-20 as a bad copy of the F-22 and the advanced multi-role combat aircraft F-35, amalgamating design features from both these aircraft into it. Many years back, the US government had charged China with hacking the designs of the F-22 and the F-35 from the Lockheed Martin computers. The Russians meanwhile claim the J-20 resembles the MiG 1.44 design the Chinese bought from the Mikoyan Guryevich Design Bureau.

But what is important is not that the Chinese have built a fifth generation strike aircraft by stealing secrets from the US but the fact that they designed, developed, and are now manufacturing an entirely indigenous aircraft with great fighting potential. That China has been engaging in intensive technology espionage is nothing new; nor is it a surprise that they have obtained mastery in reverse engineering complex fighter aircraft, which started with it turning out inferior but cheap copies of ex-Soviet fighter planes late 1950s onwards. In fact China’s combat aviation industry has grown so versatile and competent, one of the most renowned aerospace analysts, Dr. Carlo Kopp of Australia, writes that “In terms of China’s ability to manufacture and deploy significant numbers of the J-XX [J-20] it is worth observing that in terms of raw “bang for buck” China’s defence industry is outperforming the United States’ industry by a robust margin.” And of the J-20, he asserts, that it “represents a techno-strategic coup by China, and if deployed in large numbers in a mature configuration, a genuine strategic coup against the United States and its Pacific Rim allies.” The plane’s development, he goes on to say, is “an excellent case study of a well thought out response to [the American air force] deployment” which will require “a disproportionate response in material investment to effectively counter.”

What is particularly galling from the Indian point of view is that India, despite a much earlier and better start, rather than being well ahead of China in the aerospace sector and in producing advanced combat aircraft, has become the world’s largest importer. It may be recalled that the entirely Indian designed and built Marut HF-24 that flew in 1961 was the first the supersonic jet aircraft to be built outside the US and Europe in the world. It was designed by a Indo-German team headed by the foremost fighter aircraft designer of his time, Dr Kurt Tank, who had built Hitler’s air force, and included a number of talented Indians aircraft designers.

Had the Indian government used the HF-24 project as a seedbed for talent and specialized skills to establish a full-fledged aviation industry in the country, India would by now have been among the leading countries in this sphere and the source of advanced military technologies generally. But then the humiliating 1962 War with China followed and a panicky Indian government began haphazardly to grow the Indian military. Thus, the MiG-21 from the Soviet Union was speedily inducted into IAF followed in the 1970s by the British Jaguar strike aircraft even though the Marut was a better in that role of low level attack. The successor aircraft to the HF-24 called HF-73 would have been even better, except the craze for foreign combat aircraft and for importing them had by now been institutionalized. And the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) that began by producing the wholly indigenous Marut has been reduced over the years to manufacturing various MiG planes and the Jaguar aircraft under license and has become skilled at little else except screw-driver technology.

HAL and other Defence Public Sector Units have stagnated at this low level of industrial competence, never ingesting such technology as was “transferred”, leave alone innovating technology. Some small things were reverse engineered, not whole aircraft or other weapons systems and weapons platforms, and the armed services sank further and further into the wasteful habit of importing all their requirements. Other than making an arms dependency of India, the import culture in defence hardware has spawned a system of deep corruption, with military officers, civil servants and politicians all being paid off handsomely by foreign equipment suppliers. This is the condition India finds itself in – the country spends more and more on defence imports and gets less and less in return.

China in the meantime is on the cusp of becoming a genuine global power, able to create and produce the most advanced military technologies and, increasingly, disadvantage India by onpassing Chinese-made aircraft, tanks, artillery, ships and submarines to Pakistan.

This is strange because, when pushed to the wall and imports were unavailable, India has designed and produced the most advanced armaments ranging from the Arihant-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile firing submarines, nuclear weapons, to the Agni series of extremely lethal and sophisticated missiles.

May be, if the Modi government cuts off the import option to the Indian military and begins to show confidence and to have faith in Indian talent and capabilities, and moves to integrate the public sector and private sector resources, the country could begin to realize self-sufficiency in weaponry. This will be the beginning of India becoming a great power.
The above piece was published (in translation) in the Hindi language Daily, ‘Dainik Bhaskar’ on November 4, 2016.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in arms exports, Asian geopolitics, Australia, China, China military, civil-military relations, corruption, Culture, Defence Industry, domestic politics, DRDO, Europe, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Navy, Military Acquisitions, Missiles, Pakistan, Pakistan military, society, South Asia, Technology transfer, Weapons. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to The significance of the ‘Mighty Dragon’

  1. raja says:

    Beg,borrow ,steal. To my mind alarms are flashing.At any time they will attack us.If they did’nt do now it will be difficult for them later.So we need some stopgap measures urgently.
    buy 2-3 kilos urgently from russia.
    increase su30mki production, aakash, dhanush,excalibur and ammunitions.
    buy immediately second hand mirages or any aircraft for that matter atleast 5-6 squadrons.We should not be a laughing stock in the eyes of the world.

  2. andy says:

    What the Agni 5 and the Arihant show is that the capability exists in India to make cutting arms tech,what’s lacking is the will to produce indigenous armament.With the armed forces rejecting more than 70% of the Indian made arms in favour of imported ones,citing so many reasons, it’s only natural to question wether vested interests are involved.

    The main reason is the overambitious qualitative requirements laid down,some of which are so overreaching that they exist only in the dreams of the people laying them out e.g..the mirth inducing FICV, that had all the foreign suppliers laughing.

    When the ASQR for the Tejas were laid out, the technology asked for was available only on the F16, M2K and MIG29,plus so many changes were made midway through the process that the Tejas is still not fully operational.The same story is being repeated on the INS Vikrant with midway changes being made to the design resulting in time and cost overruns.

    Someone needs to drill some sense into the concerned people,otherwise India is never going to have an armament industry worth it’s name.

    • Regarding qualitative requirements look no further than Arjun. The world was asked from it where as the T90s came even without an AC for the desert heat.

      I find it amazing that IAF thought of Air to Air refueling for the Tejas as an afterthought which is being integrated now for 1A. If it was needed it should have been initial requirement. This is so basic.

      What ever happened to the requirement for the infantry rifle, inter changeable barrel etc. Even a layman will not digest all this.

      User requirement change is the biggest risk for any project. It’s called scope creep. But change is a necessary evil.

      The way to solve this as any project management principle is to freeze the requirement for a particular phase/run of project. Regulatly review what is causing delay andeither solve problems or drop difficult requirements for time being ie remove from current scope.

      In the next phase or run the backlog plus new requirement are added. The user has to be fully committed and is part of the project as a stakeholder not a spoil sport to come and give accept reject sermons(Arjun is case in point). Latest news on Arjun MK2 was DRDO assumed with capability increase Army will be ok with some weight increase only came to know later that user wants same weight. What a major communication breakdown.

      If all this bad project management is deliberate as in say common wealth games then then I suppose some people need to seriously answer. But who was punished for CWG fiasco and who all are reaping the benefits of failure.

      • andy says:

        Tejas seems headed for MBT Arjuns fate.One has a sinking feeling that a nominal number of Tejas would be inducted and the rest of the fighter fleet made up by F16/FA18 or Gripen.Hope I am wrong about this ,but the portends are ominous.

      • andy says:

        Although the next DAC meeting is expected to clear the acquisition of 83 LCA mark 1A for a reported 48000 crore rupees.So all is not lost just yet on the Tejas front.

      • I have a feeling this 83 Tejas Mk1A is the last of Tejas orders for IAF who have already ruled out MK2 as per speculative news. All left to Tejas Navy. But numbers bought by Navy will always be limited. Tejas has already gone Arjun way. One is ‘too heavy’ other is ‘too light’ hence MMRCA.

        IAF and IA are as much responsible as DRDO.

  3. Mr Karnad,

    I wonder if the solution to break this wasteful arms import problem lies in changing the nuclear doctrine to first strike and putting major chunk of capital spending on 4 heads. Nuclear, COIN(which also means infantry, special forces,intelligence tech), Defence and border Infrastructure, Navy. Say 60% of capital expenditure for these 4 broad heads.
    10% for only local R&D(private or public) and rest for whatever else.

    In a nuclear stalemate when full scale war is distant what good are all these expensive imported equipment.

    • Interesting thought, primeargument@. But you assume the NFU is a binding operational constraint. It may not be.

      • Mr Karnad,

        I am sure the declaration of intent has some significance for deterrence, this is why Japan was worried about USG talk of change in doctrine to no first use. But I wont argue with an expert.

        As a layman I see the most and immediate engagement in COIN and I see infra woes and see the bullying from China and see Navy has some leverage while the subcontinent (land) appears to be in a situation of Mexican standoff. So why spend so much in importing expensive Armour and Aircraft, when operation Parakram and Mumbai attacks and even latest surgical strikes have shown the limits of how far we will go in conventional realm.

        Better to spend this money in local R&D. We have social problems to solve, young population to educate and health care to provide to a huge population. Jaduguda mines produce uranium for the weapons but the local population suffers health issues birth deformities related to uranium mining. While money is wasted in buying goodwill in world capitals by importing arms from them. Use the money to do some good for the population.

        Latest spend is weapons buy from Japan and a nuclear deal on the cards for PM visit to be successful.

  4. andy says:

    India remains the world’s largest weapons importer over a five-year period according to latest report of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) on global arms purchases released in Feb 2016.

    India accounted for 14 per cent of total imports between 2011 and 2015. China ranks second with 4.7 per cent, Australia (3.6 per cent), Pakistan (3.3 per cent), Vietnam (2.9 per cent) and South Korea (2.6 per cent) the report titled “Trends in international arms transfers-2015” said.

    Well,at last a number one ranking for India in something besides cricket, that too for 5 years at a stretch,this will take some beating.

    Total estimated amount spent on arms imports by India from 2005 to 2015 was a humongous $120 billion( could have built 20,000 kms of national highways with this).If only 10% of this translated into kickbacks,it would amount to $12 billion (around Rs.80,000 crores)Any wonder that no one wants to stop importing foreign armament.

  5. raja says:

    The chinese are strengthening their undersea and air arms.Once the malacca dilemma is overcome through more subs (nuclear) in the indian ocean and achieving air dominance over the northern part of india they will be back to their old ways of claiming territories.They will systematically arm pakistan simultaneously increasing their trade and containing india in one stroke.If regime changes in srilanka again pressure will mount on India.The emboldened pakistan will never change its ways. prima facie i feel lot of gaps are forming in fighting our enemies.

    water power: Most of the latest unterseaboat data leaked by the press outside india.
    building flattops (which requires more planes again! For airforce itself serious shortage and planes are getting ever costlier particularly if india buys!) and very large ships. no submarines.Asymmetric advantages? Price wise surface ships and subs may not be much different. No maritime sub hunting new planes (we need to double or triple our maritime plane fleet). Huge money spent on modernising to be retired subs.lacking sonar (towed array).no new torpedo. whether varunastra can be fired from subs?(after modifications)
    ======================= kindly compare this with pakistan:
    Even with a diesel sub (PNS ghazi) they came upto vizag. See the determination.
    After four wars and world humiliation still fighting through proxies and claiming kashmir.They never lower guard regarding defence.Their navy will add another 5 subs shortly with AIP.They too will roam freely upto the far east.They constructed Gwadar deep water port knowing the vulnerability of karachi port.From being the only power to launch sea based cruise missiles through kilos, we will also launch status. pakis will acquire it shortly and threaten nuclear annihilation through those missiles from the yuan subs.

    Where are we in these system of equations?
    From being surrounded by water on the three sides, a security gift by nature it has turned out that the biggest threat will come only through sea! in the future.(lol)

    Airpower: From creaky mig21 bison rivet replacement much water has flown under the bridge. LCA not visible no news regarding production. May visit and the emerging eurofighter option.MMRCA comedy show part 2 .Different planes and again training, maintenance and other issues.Lots of new agreements for hardware. S400,BUK and more to come. But when actual hardware will be available for use in india? Every open article projects future power some 5 years from now. What we will do now? silence.Massive expenditure requirements for imported hardware. I think our airforce will have all types of aircraft available in the world with all permutations and combinations!(lol).We will be conducting blue flag exercise in the future with our inventory for world forces! (lol)

    ========================================kindly compare with pakistan and china
    The imaginative pakistan will soon field stealth and other copies generously given by its all weather iron friend china. All the mutated hardware from china will land in pakis lap.No need of F16’s for pakistan.It will use the su35 or j10 or FC10/20 or j20/31.China will surely subsidise them for containing india. From being the operator of Mig25R, the only plane which the pakis can’t catch but bark at, we are now close to losing our superiority with pakis.what a condition wer are in. surely we need to act not think anymore.Also the pakis earn some dollars through their super mushahak trainer sale. None of our equipment crosses the shore, to earn some dollars!
    They have multilayered air defence set ups. Surely they follow their old wise saying: The greatest fighters first put themselves in a position impregnable for their enemies and then they fight to victory.Pakistan’s jf17 may be a 3.5 gen fighter yet it nurtures it and it is a solid plane for their requirements.

    No long range dedicated bomber. Cost factor vis-a-vis cruise missiles and bombers.We frequently flaunt our C130J and C17globemaster.The chinese are making their own amphibious planes, bombers and transporters! and may be selling them in the future also.I think the days are not far ahead when pakistan and china will land their amphibious planes in the indian ocean.Always bargaining to the lowest level in the hope that the seller will give it for free out of frustration!(lol).Even at lowest price also it is still difficult for us budget wise! currently the oil price is helping us.But in future will it remain the same? our IT services will earn continuously like the past into the future? really important questions.Kindly note the stock market wealth erosion of 4 lk crore in the last week on the expected results of the US presidential elections.And we have to remember ours!
    Falling squadrons and helplessness. Any stopgap measures?.All longterm measures.(lol)
    Airpower : Air(power)!

    Land power: Always the chinese come and stop our legitimate work.Not one of the time we have gone there and stopped theirs! Why? Pakistanis: should have been pulverised longback.They should have been instilled with fear long back.We failed. Hence they come again to cut our jawans.What a cruelty? Till they surrender symbolically all the posts should be pounded with whatever we have.They should fear to come and occupy the posts.That should be the response.Manpower to be increased in the north east along the eastern border.Good quality firearms,SAM systems, winter clothing, good food, medical facilities and moral support should be continuously available.Road building should be fast and raillinks to be expedited.1000 brahmos missiles should be aimed at pakistan. Indigenous weapons need to be produced in large numbers and tested on pakistan.This is the best time. Old rockets and other arms need to be disposed off on pakistani posts.
    With pakistan the following military saying should be implemented:
    Start hitting and keep on hitting!

    Integrated commands to be set up on the lines of WWII blitzkrieg.This will improve the morale of the forces a lot.Very radical changes are required in view of the evolving geopolitical situation around us. If we are not adapting to the changes it will be too late. Because actions taken in the right time have compounding effect which is of enormous value.Our indigenous systems Arjun, Bhim are nowhere to see.Again MBT T90MS appears in large numbers!.I think in future the world will think India produced the T90MS!.All war boils down to economics! finally.
    The chinese are a really dangerous lot.With muscle , money power and a seat at the high table they have one more quality: cunningness. We should be utmost prepared regarding them.
    All elements within the system committing treason to the motherland should be airdropped into pakistan!

  6. &^%$#@! says:

    India too was offered not just the designs and tools for the MiG 1.42/1.44 but also unprecedented access to key design and manufacturing personnel. Sometimes, the attitude of India/Indians (NRI’s/RNI’s/… whatever included) reminds me of the donkey in this ad.

  7. andy says:

    IAF should stop cribbing about LCA Tejas.It may not be the best, but its certainly a good enough ac.The IAF’s criticism of the Tejas on grounds of not meeting requirements is a red herring, invalid, and irrelevant.

    The IAF has forgotten that it has never operated with top-of-the line fighters. In 1949 the Vampire entered the IAF service, at the same time as the NextGen F-86 started with the USAF. The Hunter was inducted around 1956, the NextGen F-100 was already in US service.

    The MiG-21 arrived in 1965, but the US F-104, a much more advanced aircraft, was in service in 1960. The Su-7 entered IAF service in 1968, but the very much more advanced F-105 entered service in 1958. The MiG-23 arrived in service in 1980, the far superior F-16 entered service two years before. The Mirage 2000 entered our service ten years after the F-16 operationalised. The MiG-29 came into our service in 1985, the F-15 was already in service.

    We got the Su-30 in 1997, but the F-18 was a match for it. We will get our stealth fighters later in the decade, yet the USAF’s F-22 entered service in 2005. Even with Rafale, had it come through, we’d be 20 years behind the F-35.

    We have always been behind the curve on the most of the capable aircrafts, and obviously so: we have never had the money, quite aside from political factors. We made do with what we could afford. There was no question of the best.

    Yet the IAF wants to reject Tejas because it is not the best. Does the IAF realise that when the Rafale is would still not be the best but an entire generation behind the F-35 or PAK FA?

    We immediately need 20 fighter squadrons to fill our 45 combat squadron requirement. Including attrition and war wastage reserves, that means 500 aircraft.If say we induct Rafale to make these numbers, the cost would be around $130 billions, give or take a few billions (@$9 billion for 36 Rafale)no small change.

    what IAF requirements does Tejas not fulfil? The engine and electronics are world class,so are the avionics and FBW. The airframe is as good as what anyone not in a position to buy expensive Western fighters can get. Agreed, the Tejas is not a Typhoon or a Rafale. But it is not supposed to be!

    Tejas is a replacement for the hordes of MiG-21s we had/have. Agreed, the Swedish J-39 is a beautiful plane and as a fighter likely has better performance.But 500 J-39s will cost $100 plus billion lifecycle. Do we advertise for benefactors to buy it for us? Because we surely cannot afford it on our own!

    We could, if the ministry of finance and the government would wake up and allot a proper percentage of the GDP to defence. Can anyone count on this happening? It would be foolish to assume so.

    An analogy: I need – really need – a new PC to replace the El Cheapo $300 model with 4GB RAM that I have had for years. My productivity takes a serious hit every single day. I need an Apple MacBook Air costing $2500. But can I afford that? No way. So I bash on with my $300 PC, and use a $164 Google Chromebook for my laptop. There’s no need for further discussion because there is no way I can do better. My whining on about my “requirements” is of zero interest to anyone. Ditto, IAF and Tejas.

    Admiral Gorshkov, the father of the modern Soviet Navy used to say: ” Better is the enemy of good enough”. This seemingly simple statement is, in reality, deeply profound. The IAF needs to deeply reflect on this.

  8. Venkat says:

    The present government is increasing the local content and same time meeting the defence needs to,the best. They speak less, decide more. If you see last 2 years more than 60% of purchases are local.
    In airforce the Rafale is just 36 (whole internet agreed 126 would bankrupt us),
    ordered 20+20+83 LCA, now it is upto HAL to deliver.
    Ordered 15 LCH, again HAL to deliver.
    Cut down Pilatus order, HAL needs to deliver HTT.
    Additional 6 regiments of Pinaka ordered.
    Most of 155 mm artillery being planned seems to home grown except Tracked and light .
    Ships local except 4 russian since indian yards are a not able to deliver.
    Kochi shipyard is doing a good job building local air craft carrier.
    Local Heavy torpedos launched for ships, now being extended for submaries.
    P-75I will also be locally built submarines.
    Excaliber being planned “temporarily” till final decision (maybe another 2 years)
    Yes the wish list is long due neglect over a decade. But not much we can do about history.

  9. Adrian says:

    Great reeading your blog

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