It may sound hard to believe, and it might not intuitively make sense, but China is indeed fielding a fleet of 5th generation and 4++ generation fighter jets whose primary purpose will not be to do battle with American fighter jets.
Why? It’s quite simple. China likely knows that they cannot build a jet that will outperform the top US air superiority fighter, the F-22. So instead of going toe-to-toe with it in combat, they are instead choosing to target the aerial tankers, AWACS, drone, and other support aircraft that help make the F-22 so deadly.
To defend Taiwan or Japan, the US can rely on Japanese air bases, but Japan is a long way from the South China Sea. The KC-135 and KC-10 tankers (and the eventual KC-46 replacement) are essential to keeping the other assets in the air, in particular the E-3 Sentry AWACS.
Almost all US military aircraft, especially support aircraft not directly involved in combat, rely on tankers to stay in the sky. All US military airborne assets are far more effective with Airborne Warning And Control (AWACS) available, and they all rely on fighters to stay safe from air-to-air threats. Currently, the best air-to-air fighter in the US arsenal is far and away the F-22.
The F-22 is not only stealthy, it can out-maneuver anything currently in the sky today. In building this capability, the aircraft lacks range (limited to a combat radius of 529 miles), and is reliant on tankers to make it viable over extended distances. This is especially pertinent in the South China Sea, Taiwan Strait, and East China Sea, where most potential US-China conflict would take place. Currently, the best US airbases are located in Japan, with the closest location to China being Kadena Air Base in Okinawa.
It is important to note China’s extensive military buildup in the South China Sea, which is aimed at denying US military assets access to the area. Even with closer potential US basing options, ideally in the Philippines, tankers will still be essential. Take a look at a Google map of the area to better understand why tankers are so important:
The vast expanses of ocean are what make the J-20 so relevant. The J-20 is believed to have been developed at least in part from stealth designs China stole from the F-22 and F-35. However, the J-20 more closely resembles the YF-23, the Northrop design that lost the ATF contest to the F-22. Arguably an even better platform than the F-22, the F-23 had worse maneuverability and reduced payload, but traded those for increased range and an arguably stealthier design. The F-23 design that the J-20 more closely mimics is a much better fit for China’s strategy, as Tyler Rogoway has been saying since 2011:
So what China did was they built an aircraft that could swarm or evade a thin line of thirsty F-22, destroy any non stealth platforms such as the F-15C and the F/A-18E/Fs if it had to, in effect breaking through to US support assets, mainly the vulnerable tankers and AWACS. It is much easier to shoot down the F-22s tankers and AWACS than the F-22s themselves. If you break America’s netcentric information flow you confuse and blind the fighter force to a degree. If you take out our tankers, you in effect shoot down the whole thirsty fighter force on station at the time. In other words the J-20’s genius is not in its stealth or maneuverability, its in its range and persistence, able to loiter for long periods of time and poke holes in the US’s tanker dependent defense.
Note my emphasis in the quotation above. Not only are fighter jets like the F-22 difficult to detect, all fighter jets have enough speed and maneuverability to make long-range missiles extremely ineffective against them. By comparison, tankers and AWACS platforms that are developed from Boeing commercial airliners are sitting ducks – slow-moving, slow turning, and easily detected.
And, it appears the Chinese have designed a long-range missile with that in mind.
Again, Tyler Rogoway covers why this new missile is relevant, even if it is not designed to be used with the J-20:
The missile itself is of a unique and substantial design. Some estimates put it at over 18 feet long. The AIM-120 AMRAAM in comparison is just 12 feet long. So we are talking about one large missile here, and its thin profile is indicative of high kinematic performance. The fact that no fins can be seen aside from small ones at it’s rear also point to the possibility that the missile uses thrust vectoring and leverages very high speed over maneuverability to kill its target. Yet the reality is that the targets it is most likely primarily intended for don’t have the ability to make hard maneuvers at all.
Mid-course updates would be all but necessary for a missile with this type of range as the target could move in any direction dramatically between the time the missile is initially launched and when it arrives in the area where the target was at the time of launch. The J-20, which would be able to survive closer to threats than any 4th generation fighter could, would be very useful in the providing such “third party” targeting information to a missile like this, even in very quick bursts to minimize the J-20’s chances of being detected.
So the Chinese are not only using the J-20 as a fighter/interceptor designed to beat defenses and target support assets, they are using it as a spotter for other aircraft to take long distance shots at support assets as well.
Which all fits perfectly into the Chinese A2/AD (area access / area denial) strategy they are implementing to counter all US assets. Notice how there’s been no mention of carrier-based air assets up until now? Carriers are predominantly loaded out with F/A-18s, and though the F-35C will start appearing on carrier decks soon, it is far inferior to the F-22, and probably shouldn’t have been built in the first place. More importantly, it is reasonable to assume that China will be able to deny carriers access to its sphere of influence.
China has developed the DF-21D and DF-26 ballistic missiles not only as nuclear capable, but in the anti-ship role as well, and it should be rather obvious what the missiles would be targeting. Though US military officials doubt the efficacy of the platforms, their mere existence should push US carrier strike groups far outside their range. A new Gerald R. Ford-class carrier is expected to cost $10.44 billion dollars, and the first one has been hamstrung by delays and cost overruns, and is currently running at $13 billion. This does not even factor in the price tag of all the aerial assets on the carrier’s deck, crew, equipment, or whatever else it may be carrying. The J-20 is obviously the perfect low-observable, long range aircraft to deliver essential mid-course updates to any ballistic missiles fired from the Chinese mainland at US carriers.
The DoD would be extremely foolhardy to risk putting carrier strike groups in harm’s way; even if they are confident they can adequately defend them, the risk is almost certainly too great. A US carrier even being damaged by a swarm of these missiles and limping back to port would have a crushing impact, not just in the potential loss of life and military assets, but in the morale of soldiers and the public. If this occurred, it would be very difficult to justify putting naval assets at risk in any ongoing conflict with China.
China is developing an effective network to engage the US military in its own backyard, and on its own terms. Its air combat strategy is designed to strike highly vulnerable yet vital support assets such as tanker and AWACS aircraft, and heavily relies on designs copied and/or stolen from high-tech US aircraft. It will use newly developed missiles to push carriers and their strike groups far away from Chinese shores, rendering them far less effective. And the military bases China is building in the South China Sea will make basing aerial assets and denying access to the area much more convenient.
The US may try to combat them anyway, but it will be difficult to do, given China’s specific targeting of US assets. Ultimately our nation might be forced to accept that China’s military power has grown substantially, and they are now able to effectively engage our nation’s military might in any conflict arising in their backyard.
Finally, China is developing its own low-cost fighter to counter the F-35 – the J-31. Notably, it was developed with two engines, no lift fan bulge, and a cockpit which delivers far better vision than the F-35. China is preparing to not only incorporate this low-cost stealth jet into its own air force, it is going to compete with the F-35 on the global export market. If the jet is effective enough, a price tag which is expected to be far below the F-35’s ridiculous cost would be enticing to foreign buyers. More importantly, it would further increase China’s capabilities, and in an area that the US has completely bungled.
Whether they can effectively do battle with the US military remains to be seen. Regardless, China is preparing to do so, and it is preparing to do so on its own terms, in its own backyard, and with far less resources than the DoD.