Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Another non-stealthy rollout

By now, you may have seen pictures of what appears to be China's latest foray into the world of stealthy combat aircraft, the J-31. It is, like its predecessor, a neat looking plane.

But once again, I have to say "appears," because although it looks like a stealth and quacks like a stealth, those qualities do not make it a stealth. Materials, internal structure, avionics and even paint are a huge part of making an aircraft low-observable.

And even BEING low-observable does not mean an aircraft is 100 percent invulnerable (as the U.S. learned in Yugoslavia). The radar cross-sections of the B-2 and F-22, the leaders in this field, are not published, but are widely assumed to be minuscule. But even these will show up as flickers on the screens of low-frequency radars, and X-band fire-control radars can conceivably pick up some hint of them too... but only at close range. Like, "bombs already are falling" close.

And that's the key: It's not about being invisible, it's about being invisible at a range where you can shoot and the other guy can't. Which the U.S. stealth offerings seem to be able to do marvelously.

And that brings us back to the J-31. It definitely looks a lot like a twin-engined version of the F-35, as noted aviation observer Bill Sweetman points out. It also isn't exactly being kept under tight wraps:

 Literally in broad daylight.

Insinuations of design-copying aside, what does any of this tell us? Is this a program to be feared? Are the J-31 and J-20 challenging American air dominance?

Not likely. And that's mostly because, as I said, it's what is under the hood that counts. Basic design elements (like canards and "turkey feather" tailpipes) are clearly unstealthy. The engines are Russian-made. And outside of a stealthy shape, there is no indication the Chinese have perfected key items like low-probability-of-intercept radar, which means an aircraft can actively search for targets without giving its position away.

Even with an accelerated flight-testing program, both of these aircraft are 20 years behind the technology that produced the F-22. The F-35 (which Sweetman hates) is, despite having a less-impressive flight envelope than the F-22, a step forward in avionics and networking--more "under the hood" stuff. What's more, the Navy is five or so years away from fielding stealthy, unmanned combat aircraft and the military is taking proposals for the next generation of fighters. By the time the J-20 and J-31 are being mass produced, if that ever happens, they will already be out of date, and fleets of F-35s should (fingers crossed) already be in the hands of allies around the world, including Japan and Korea.

The J-31 and J-20 will always look awesome. But in the real world, looks aren't what count the most.

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