What Role for China’s Second Stealth Fighter?

Another Chinese fighter jet sparks rumors and concerns about the nation’s military planning.

In June, a video appeared on YouTube that showed Chinese military equipment being transported down a major highway. Upon close examination, it became obvious to many in the blogosphere that the tarpaulin covered vehicle was a jet fighter, one that matched descriptions and previously seen renders of the fifth-generation J-21 “Snowy Owl” stealth fighter.

The Air Force of the People’s Republic of China is known to be encouraging the development of fifth-generation stealth capable aircraft, having last January publicly engaged in initial flight testing for the Chengdu J-20 “Black Eagle,” a twin engine plane with conformal weapons storage and a stealthy shape reminiscent of the American F-22 Raptor.

Indeed, despite the general knowledge that two companies have been competing to design China’s first stealth fighter, repeat sighting of the J-20 and reports that a second prototype has entered full testing led many commentators to conclude, until now, that the Chinese army’s choice was made.

The apparent appearance of the Snowy Owl on YouTube, however, prompts important questions about the Chinese air force’s growth plans. After all, the development of multiple fifth-generation combat platforms could signal any one of a number of strategies for the future that, until recently, seemed unlikely.

Analysis of the role that this second plane could play in growing China’s capabilities and in preparing the country to compete militarily with other sophisticated air forces has come quickly and numerously from all corners of the defense community. According to rumors that have been abounding since June, one possibility is that China’s fifth-generation fighter competition may yet be ongoing, with both the Chengdu Aircraft Group’s Black Eagle and the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation’s Snowy Owl competing as viable candidates for the future role of the Chinese air force’s primary land based air superiority fighter.

Another major talking point among commentators has centered on rumors that China will follow the American model and build both planes, with one of the two aircraft cut down to achieve a lower price point. This strategy would likely bring China several developmental advantages, including being able to more affordably deploy large numbers of cut down but capable stealth fighters.

Furthermore, it is expected that a cheaper and more readily available stealth platform would also open new trade doors and allow Beijing to strengthen, through export relationships, security ties with those few countries that closely align themselves with it.

Other possible strategic vectors for future development should be considered by American and other international policymakers, as the J-21 could hint at drastically different medium- to long-term capabilities on the part of the Chinese air force. In particular, China could commit to constructing variants of both stealth fighter models based on an evaluated need for either platform’s unique secondary capabilities. In other words, the original competition focus on stealth as the defining characteristic of China’s future fifth-generation plane does not preclude both the J-20 and J-21 being produced to fill different tactical niches.

Last year, one media report suggested that the J-21 Snowy Owl might have a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) capability. Having an advanced stealth fighter with this characteristic could rapidly alter the pace at which China develops its amphibious air combat capabilities. Such planes could be launched in small numbers from subcarrier sized vessels like landing helicopter dock amphibious assault ships.

Yet others have suggested that the J-21 could even be mooted for a full carrier-based role, replacing the J-15 fourth-generation fighter that China is building for its initial carrier training operations. Both this and a VTOL variant of the fifth-generation fighter would be of extreme value. After all, even if the planes are less capable than their American counterparts, they are still likely to have effective low observable cross sections, will probably be relatively cheap to produce and would allow China to expand its portfolio of capabilities much more rapidly than many international analysts expected.

A final option is that one of the two platforms could be scaled up, providing the Chinese air force with an advanced, long range stealthy fighter-bomber. This possibility, similar in nature to the rumored use of the YF-23 as one template for the Pentagon’s next generation bomber program, makes some substantive sense, with commentators already having noted that the J-20’s large design may inherently lend itself to less of an air superiority role and, given its implied sizeable fuel and weapons storage capacity, to more of a ranged bomber role.

Regardless of what role this second stealth fighter will ultimately play in China’s strategic plans for the future, the number of rumors and startled reassessments seen in the international defense community in the past month have made one fact abundantly clear — China’s military development is not proceeding along a predetermined path. Whether the Snowy Owl proves to be a real production option for China or not, the United States and partner countries clearly need to plan their own force structure developments, from Air Sea focused deployment schemes to regional strategic partnerships, in such a way that balances the Chinese military’s ability to operate assertively inside the Pacific island chains.