The Mighty Dragon: A Symbol of China's Maturing Air Force
China's new stealth fighter, the J-20A Mighty Dragon, showcases the Chinese air force's remarkable progress over the past two decades.
Nevertheless, significant deficits in equipment and training will continue to hamper further advances.
China will focus its efforts on resolving bottlenecks, including lags in engine development and insufficient combined-arms drills, as it seeks to build up its air force in the coming years.
Two sleek Chinese stealth fighters streaked across the skies over Zhuhai on Nov. 1, marking the official debut of Beijing's brand new J-20 Mighty Dragon jet. One of the only fifth-generation stealth fighters ever built, the aircraft's unveiling is a symbol of the impressive progress China's air force has made over the past two decades. The stealth fighter's design, however, also contains several important weaknesses, a reminder of the limitations in military aviation China is still struggling to overcome…
Better, but Imperfect
Just 20 years ago, the bulk of the Chinese air force consisted of vintage aircraft from the 1950s and 1960s. Now, China is on track to become the second country in the world to field a fifth-generation stealth fighter, a rather remarkable feat. As it is currently designed, the J-20 is a large fighter jet that boasts a considerable payload and fuel capacity, making it well-suited for operations requiring travel over long distances. Moreover, the aircraft is equipped with cutting-edge stealth technology, KLJ-5 Active Electronically Scanned Array radar, and infrared search and tracking systems.
…But the Mighty Dragon is not without its flaws. Chief among them is the fact that it is underpowered: Chinese engineers expect the jet to someday run on the powerful WS-15 engine, but since it is still in development, initial batches of J-20 aircraft will likely be forced to make do with a modified version of the weaker Russian AL-31F engine. Because these engines cannot adequately support a heavy fighter like the J-20, they will reduce its ability to maneuver in combat. Furthermore, the Mighty Dragon is not as clandestine as other fifth-generation stealth fighters, such as the American F-22. (The latter is what is known as an all-aspect stealth fighter, boasting low detectability from all angles, while the J-20 has low detectability only from the front.)
A Work in Progress
The Mighty Dragon's strengths and weaknesses are emblematic of the Chinese air force's modernization at large. On one hand, Beijing has much to be proud of when it comes to its air capabilities. China is putting ever more capable fighter jets into production, including significantly upgraded versions of older models such as the J-10B, J-16 and J-11D. Meanwhile, it is also overhauling its bomber force, and new aircraft such as the H-6K are already being mass-produced. China is in the process of expanding its air-launched missile stockpile as well, and U.S. Gen. Herbert Carlisle has cited Beijing's development of variants such as the PL-15 beyond-visual-range missile as a compelling motive for Washington to improve its own air-to-air missiles. Finally, China is increasing its strategic and tactical transport capabilities.
Nevertheless, the Chinese air force still has a long way to go in a number of areas. Delays in engine development are slowing the evolution of transport and bomber aircraft as well as fighter jets. China is also well behind other major powers, such as the United States and Russia, in building a comprehensive aerial refueling force. (Currently, it has too few aerial refueling tankers to service its large fleet.) Moreover, Beijing continues to rely on imports of foreign warplanes as it hashes out the final details of its own domestically made machines. In fact, it bought 24 Su-35 fighter aircraft from Russia just last year.
…Elevating the skills of air and ground crews will take time and effort, and China still has many deep-seated structural issues to resolve. Historically, flight squadrons and ground-based anti-aircraft units in China have trained separately. It has been only within the past few years that the air force has started to incorporate large, multiservice air exercises into its curriculum…
A Test of China's True Intentions in Space
Beijing is in the process of modernizing and enhancing its space launch capabilities. During the week of June 27, China carried out the inaugural launch of its Long March 7 system, part of a new generation of rocket systems that include the Long March 5 and Long March 6. The Long March 7, using the most powerful rocket ever built in China, will be the workhorse of the nation's future space missions, eventually carrying taikonauts and supplies into orbit for its planned space station. Though the launch was a notable achievement, the secondary payload it carried — the Aolong-1 or "Roaming Dragon," a small satellite designed to collect space debris with a robotic arm — has stirred up familiar speculation about the true nature of China's space program.
Like the United States and Russia, China recognizes the importance of space to modern military warfare. In the nearly 10 years since it conducted its first successful anti-satellite weapons (ASAT) test, Beijing's interest in cultivating an array of ASAT capabilities has been well known. Now, some observers speculate that the Roaming Dragon may be another step in that direction.
As an ASAT, the Roaming Dragon's design marks a significant departure for Beijing. China's previous ASAT tests involved kinetic kill vehicles, which destroyed satellites on impact and spread potentially destructive debris into orbit. By contrast, the Roaming Dragon's robotic arm would avoid creating debris by grabbing an adversary's satellite….
…China's Roaming Dragon highlights the dual nature of most space technologies. A space debris collector is programmed to capture any object of a certain size. In addition to the debris it is designed to pick up, the satellite would also gather other objects of comparable size. So, though perhaps not as efficient as a dedicated ASAT system, the Roaming Dragon could fill a covert anti-satellite function, while ostensibly operating as a benign debris collector. At the same time, however, China may be more interested in the Roaming Dragon as a means to grab uncooperative, unresponsive or dead satellites.
Scrutiny in Space
Whatever the satellite's intended purpose, China is far from the only country testing systems with such applications. Japan launched the Space Tethered Autonomous Robotic Satellite-2 (STARS-2) in February 2014 to test a space tether of sorts planned for a future system that will use a giant net to collect space debris. NASA, meanwhile, is backing early research and development for space debris removal concepts, and it has been suggested that the U.S. X-37B space plane, whose activities are classified, may also collect space debris or satellites. These space programs are also implementing strategies for tracking and monitoring space debris.
…Regardless of Beijing's intentions for the Roaming Dragon, China's space policy, like that of the United States, is multifaceted, encompassing anti-missile systems and exploratory space missions alike. Consequently, China's space program — like all space programs — will always feature a tinge of ambiguity...