China internet image supplied by Air Power Australia
China internet image supplied by Air Power Australia

The appearance of two all new attack and defend  aircraft at the beginning and end of the year just over have both raised issues of substance for the Joint Strike Fighter JSF or F-35 program, and reasons for the US and its allies to carefully review their plans to maintain air superiority.

The first bookend for a poor year for the JSF program was the first flight  last January of the Russian PAK-FA (below).

The first appearance of the PAK-FA on January 10 last year, Sukhoi image
The first appearance of the PAK-FA on January 10 last year, Sukhoi image

The last bookend was the appearance on Chinese internet sites of photos of its J-20 prototype making ground taxi runs.

These aircraft provide western defence organisations with some fierce wake-up material to deal with in 2011, even if they do not include an erroneously reported missile launch from a non-US submarine off the coast from Los Angeles on November 8 last year, which was highlighted in an earlier and now withdrawn  Plane Talking post.

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The J-20, formerly referred to in defence circles as the J-XX is a large aircraft. It is analysed in comparatively lay friendly terms in the Air Power Australia think bunker by Chris Mills, wing commander (retired) RAAF and in technical detail by Dr Carlo Kopp in a separate paper.

To quote from the Mills paper at Air Power Australia:

A fundamental tenet of combat is that you must be alive to enter the fight. The superior kinematics of the Su-35S, the PAK-FA and the J-20, the signature reduction of the latter two aircraft, and the (highly likely – we have not seen the final list) improved sensor suites of all three, severely reduce the F-35 and F/A-18E/F’s chance of even making it first to a weapon release point. Each of the threat aircraft will be operating at times more than two miles higher and 700+ knots faster, giving their ‘look-down, shoot-down’ missiles substantial kinematic ‘shoot-first’ advantages in the engagement.

There is some important context to consider. Almost a year ago Russia first flew its PAK-FA Joint Strike Fighter killer, which is the subject of plans for large scale production in India as well, and under consideration by Indonesia. The PAK-FA and J-20 are machines that have been dismissed as being of significant concerns by the proponents of the JSF as the instrument that will  maintain western air superiority, and from 2013 if one audits the public claims being made as recently as 2009.

In September last year the US Air Force Association produced a damning critique of America’s inability to penetrate China’s air space even before the nebulous details of what was called the J-XX resolved into the J-20. The Air Force Association’s concerns, detailed by by the recently retired commander of the USAF Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance agency, LtGen David Deptula, were unprecedented in terms of its profile and history.

They did not however gain strong traction in a Congress or America distracted by the economic and social crisis triggered by the financial crisis that followed the sub prime loans crisis.

Another internet capture of the Chengdu J-20 taxi run
Another internet capture of the Chengdu J-20 taxi run

There is nothing to be pleased about by these developments. They are but part of the massive transition of unchallenged world power away from the US,  caused by the long march to its place under the sun of new prosperity by China, and the refocusing of Russia’s ambitions under Putin. For  Australia, the reality of the PAK-FA and the J-20 are reminders of the folly of obsequious policy settings in our relationships with America.  They are also a reminder of the tragic maladministration of defence procurement and planning in this country, and the culture of a defence establishment that acts as the agent of the failed JSF program rather than a critical customer.

Also keep in mind claims by US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates that by the time China could field a technologically advanced attack and defend aircraft there would be 2000 JSF F-35s in the service with the US and its allies. China will have the J-20 in service as soon as 2015, when the west may well have between none or a few that will be less capable than the newer design.  And Gates is resigning shortly after Obama delivers his State of the Union address.

We have been skewered by our beliefs in our own invincibility.