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J-20 vs. F-35, One Analyst’s Perspective

by John Reed on December 31, 2010

With all the hoopla about China’s new fifth-gen fighter this week, we asked Teal Group aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia for his take on how serious a threat the J-20/J-XX  is to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in air-to-air combat and as a competitor on the global fast jet market.

Rumor has it the J-20 is designed to take on the air superiority-focused F-22 Raptor. But remember, now that the F-22 is ending production and is banned for export sales, the F-35 will be the fifth-gen mainstay of the United States and numerous allies.

Here’s what Richard has to say on the matter:

I would gauge a modern combat aircraft’s capabilities by looking at the following features:

1.      Access to offboard space, ground, and air-based sensors, particularly a capable AEW/AWACS system with a well-trained crew and robust data links.

2.      Effective sensor fusion to allow the pilot to make use of all this information, as well as information from onboard sensors.

3.      An integrated EW system.

4.      An AESA radar with a high level of reliability.

5.      Training and doctrine necessary to make effective use of all this data and equipment.  Plenty of flight hours for pilot flight training, too.

6.      Powerful engines (ideally capable of supercruise), with a high mean time between overhaul and failures.

7.      An airframe with low-observable characteristics.

8.      A robust air-to-air refueling capability (equipment, readiness, training).

9.      Sophisticated and reliable precision guided weaponry.

10.  A robust software and hardware upgrade roadmap, to keep this plane effective in 5, 10, and 30 years.

11.  Maintenance procedures in place to keep the plane operating with a high mission-capable rate.  And of course equipment that has been designed with easy access for maintenance and easy access for electronic diagnostic tools, and ideally a sophisticated health-usage monitoring system (HUMS).

This list is not in any particular order of magnitude.  And I’m sure I’ve missed quite a few other key items.

The J-20 offers one item from this list (#7).  I’m not convinced that the PLAAF has any other items from this list, although China seems to be making some progress with #9.

It’s kind of fun to watch the world fixate on this one item (#7).  Then again, I still enjoy air shows, too.  Pugachev’s Cobra maneuver, for example.  Drives the crowd wild.  Relevance to modern combat?  Zero.

As for the F-35, it certainly has its problems, especially regarding the price tag.  But most, if not all, of the customers and partners are sophisticated enough to have a list that’s a lot more comprehensive than the one above.  And I’m sure the appearance of item #7  as a prototype in PLAAF markings affects exactly none of their thinking.

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