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Will Drones Overtake Top Guns In Tomorrow's Wars? The View From Above, In China

Analysis: As China, in a show of force, "leaks" pictures of its new J-22 fighter jet, one wonders if the future of tomorrow's skies will be ruled by stealth jets or rather by unmanned combat drones.

Unmanned X-47B drone (DARPA)
Unmanned X-47B drone (DARPA)
Wang Xiaoxia

BEIJING -- American and European military observers like to complain that the Chinese military is not transparent enough. But it's really just that the Chinese way is more subtle and tactful.

In mid-March, the Chinese Air Force carried a test flight for its new fifth-generation J-20 "Mighty Dragon" fighter-jet, without a prior press release. After the test, photos were immediately posted in the military columns of various web media. It looked like a leak from the Chinese Air Force. Except, if it were a real leak, the person responsible for it would by now have received an "invitation to tea" from the state security apparatus.

The carefully staged dissemination of the test flight, just like the announcement of an aircraft carrier program last year, carries a strong political message.

Why?The J-20's maiden flight coincided with the visit to China of U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, as well as being just before President Hu Jintao's visit to America.

So what's the meaning of the new test? In my opinion, this is the Chinese People's Liberation Army's (PLA) way of refuting a rumor. Earlier last month, top Russian daily Kommersant reported that China was planning to buy 48 of Russia's "four and a half generation" Su-35 fighter. The reason being that "China's defense industry has encountered some setbacks in developing its fourth and fifth generation combat aircraft…"

China's Ministry of Defense immediately denied the report saying "this does not correspond to China's situation". A few days later, the maiden test flight took place.

According to a Canadian Internet news site, the J-20 uses an engine similar to the American twin high thrust turbofan, which negates the rumor of a Russian-made engine. It also shows that China has solved its holdup in developing a fifth generation fighter. It reflects the great progress China has achieved in this field.

China's military had certainly predicted that the test flight would garner a lot of attention in many countries.

J-20 vs F-35: the heat is on

Whatever might be the specific performance of the J-20, its fight test was meant to show the world that China had solved its major technical hiccups, and that it won't be long before the fighter jet was up in the air.

This should seriously influence the fate of America's F-35, which has faced a tortuous development process and constant rising costs. The J-20 test flight will definitely have an impact on the sales and deployment of its American counterpart.

Because of the delay in the F-35's development, the American military has decided to postpone buying the plane. Consequently, this has also affected the determination of various American allies such as Italy, Australia, Brittain and in particular, Japan to purchase the aircraft. Japan's defense minister, Naoki Tanaka, has said that if the United States can't solve delay problems and limit the jet's price increase, it will probably cancel its contract and chose another model.

If Japan cancels its purchase of the F-35, production of the fighter jet will become more difficult and its price even higher. Japan might try to buy the F-22 fighter, something the United States has rejected up to now.

Now that China and Russia have both tested their fifth generation combat jets successfully, the state of equilibrium in the world" skies will go from balanced to unbalanced. This is something America isn't looking forward to.

The U.S Air Force is aiming for a total of 200 F-22 stealth fighters, but the jet's technology is very complex and advanced. Flight accidents are frequent and the plane is very expensive. America is hoping to persuade its allies to buy a simplified version of the fighter. This would help American strategic interests in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, while reducing the economic pressure on America.

Combat drones flavor of the month

The United States has also developed drones, unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV). These pilotless bombers not only possess comparative advantages, they also dominate the airspace in combat battles.

Not only do the UCAV's manufacturers support the notion that drones are superior to manned fighter jets, supporters of the F-22 and F-35 seem to agree as well. Recently, the United States announced that as early as next year, the X-47B combat drone should be able to perform unmanned landings on navy carriers. Having achieved this target, the American Navy has already cut its F-35 purchase plan.

Although the J-20 and F-22 will still have confrontations and simulated fights over the China seas to demonstrate each country's strength, tomorrow's skies will undergo a profound transformation.

There may be those who still question the various deficiencies and shortcomings of the current UCAV. They are like those who questioned the harquebus firearm in the 16th Century because it had less speed and range than the longbow.

The training of navy carrier-based pilots is very expensive and difficult, and takes a long time. The relatively easier training and the robust characteristics of the combat drone have convinced the U.S. military. The American Air Force encouraged the development of this kind of aircraft for the last 10 years.

Besides, even though China is now building its own aircraft carrier, is it able to set up a proper carrier-based pilot training system? Even Russia, which equipped itself with ship-borne aircraft in the 1980s has yet to set up a comprehensive training program.

Although the J-20 is relatively cheap according to western military analysts, it still costs $110 million. In comparison, the cost of an X-47B is less than half. This enables it to be mass-produced and in turn it makes large-scale arming and reserve build-up possible.

In the future, the J -20's enemy will not be the F-22, but a cluster of combat drones.

New times call for new planes

An unmanned combat drone will be able to deal with the cruelty of war, whereas one can ask themselves if in an increasingly interdependent global economy, a human being can still allow war to occur? The answer is probably no, but who can guarantee this?

The significance of military force and equipment lies after all in the prevention of conflict.

The U.S. military forces will definitely try to develop a more flexible, more powerful and more accurate striking capability in order to deal with the uncertain threats of the future. The rapid deployment of drones on a global scale will make it an inevitable choice under such a strategy. The aircraft-carrier-based X-47B will enable the American Navy to triple its battle range from its current distance of around 800 km to over 2,500 Km.

As for what the Chinese PLA's strategy is, it's still a mystery.

The Chinese Navy and Air Force will inevitably have to deal with and confront U.S. combat drone clusters on the coastal borders or in standoffs on the high seas. China's military leaders will need to consider how to face this reality.

The Chinese are probably still immersed in the joy of having achieved great progress in the J-20 development. This is like the Japanese reveling in the launching of the "Yamato," the world's biggest battleship in the 1930s. Meanwhile, a change in the configuration of tomorrow's wars is secretly taking shape.

Read the original article in Chinese

Photo - DARPA

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