Friday, January 07, 2011

Chinese Stealth Fighter

The wires are abuzz this week with new pictures of what is supposed to be China's answer to the F-22 Raptor. After taking a critical look at the pictures, I am somewhat less than worried, although I understand how a casual viewer might be alarmed.

For purposes of comparison, here's a picture of the F-22 Raptor. The first example, a YF-22, first flew in September of 1990; and the first F-22 squadron came on-line for duty in December of 2005.

At first glance, this looks scarily similar:

There are, however, a few key differences, as well as a few important details to point out.

(1) The first is, of course, the time delay between the first flight of a new prototype and the IOC date of the first operational squadron. For the F-22 Raptor, that was just over fifteen years, from 9/1990 to 12/2005. Now, I have no reason to believe that the Chinese engineers are total idiots, but at the same time neither do I have reason to believe that they're supermen. I don't see them paring too many years off that figure. So, if we're to believe that the first flight was fairly recent, IOC can be no sooner than 2020-2025. By which time, we'll have ... well, I'll save that point for later.

(2) The second is that, while the fuselage sure looks like it's got a nice low-observable shape, the devil's in the details. For one, the shape is only half the story, there. Do they also use the right radar-absorbing materials in the skin? And, taking a closer look at the front view, we see a huge potential problem:

I count four under-wing hardpoints. External carriage of weapons and/or fuel tanks pretty much destroys any stealthing advantage your fuselage shape gives you. Unless this aircraft has provisions for internal weapon carriage, they lose the stealth part of the battle pretty horribly. (Caveat: those may not be hardpoints, but may instead by housings for control actuators. Even so, those 90-degree corners make nice little echo boxes that render the sloping fuselage moot.)

(3) The third point is readily apparent from a rear-view shot:

Oh, dear. Fixed axisymmetric nozzles. No thrust vectoring for you! Thrust vectoring is damned useful to have. Not having it, and then getting into a turn-and-burn fight with an airplane that does, is going to suck.

(4) The fourth problem is something I once heard described as the Montana Syndrome, after the Montana-class battleship. The Montana-class battleship was supposed to be the U.S. Navy's answer to the Japanese super-heavies Yamato and Musashi. It wasn't. Yamato and Musashi both got their tickets punched by the Grumman Avenger and the Curtiss Helldiver, and the Japanese sailors never once saw the American carriers that did them in. The few hulls of the Montana class that had been laid down were never completed. The battleship was an idea whose time had come and gone. I'm fairly convinced that the manned tactical fighter is headed down the same road. So far as I'm concerned, the Chinese are welcome to spend as much money as they like on last year's model. By the time this sees service in squadron quantity, air combat will have changed almost beyond recognition, and the skies may well be dominated by laser weapons and unmanned combat aircraft.

In short: panic is unwarranted. Calls for extending the production run of the F-22, likewise. This fighter doesn't look as good as what we're already fielding in the first place, and it's the wrong answer to an almost outdated question, anyway. We've already got a solid lead in UCAV technology. Extending that lead is fairly easy, provided we don't let ourselves get goaded into reprising last century's best technology.


John Myste said...

I was thinking all those same things and you said it first. Now I have nothing to post at all!

Jack Jodell said...

Thanks, Tim, for illustrating this as you did. Let us hope we have nothing to fear---we've got enough on our plates right now.