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.