Developments in China’s air-technology capabilities are creating a much more contested air environment. The Chengdu J-20 is the aircraft against which the US is now measuring up its own capabilities, explains IISS Senior Fellow for Military Aerospace Douglas Barrie.

Any lingering uncertainties as to how the United States Air Force views the potential challenge posed by Chinese military aerospace developments should be dispelled with the publication of its ‘Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan’.

Though not identified by name, at least in the unclassified version, China’s Chengdu J-20 heavy fighter, now in development, looms large on the second page of the report, which sets out those ‘threat capabilities’ that may place at risk the USAF’s future ability to ensure air superiority.

The document, released on 26 May, contends that the USAF’s ‘projected force structure in 2030 is not capable of fighting and winning against [the] array of potential adversary capabilities’. Two main capability trends were identified in the report: the first is that ‘advanced fighter aircraft, sensors and weapons’ will continue to be developed and to proliferate; the second covers a range of technologies including hypersonic weapons, low-observable cruise missiles, more capable conventionally armed ballistic missiles, and growing threats in the space and cyber domains.

The Chinese air force’s J-20 will likely enter into service by the end of this decade, and will be capable of carrying a variety of air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons. The image of the Chengdu fighter in the report showed the main internal weapons bay open with five dummy rounds of what may well be designated the PL-15. This is a development based on the active-radar guided PL-12 medium-range air-to-air missile. The aircraft will also carry the PL-10 imaging infrared guided short-range missile now beginning to enter service. Assuming the PL-10 meets its main performance goals, it will mark a step change in China’s inventory of advanced dogfight missiles. Russia has also offered an upgraded version of the Kh-58 (AS-11 Kilter) anti-radiation missile for the aircraft, the Kh-58UShK.

The USAF document identifies a number of developments that, if pursued, will allow it to sustain air superiority within the 2030 timeframe. These include what it calls the Penetrating Counterair (PCA) capability – this work could result in a next-generation air combat platform. The document recommends that an analysis of alternative ways of meeting the PCA needs to be started in 2017. ‘Rapid development and prototyping’ are also identified as possible routes to keeping ‘ahead of the threat’.


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Photo by Leonid Iaitskyi

IISS Shangri-La Dialogue 2017

The 16th Asia Security Summit took place in Singapore from 2–4 June 2017.


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Regional Security Assessment 2016

Key developments in Asia-Pacific security

This dossier assesses a range of Asia-Pacific regional strategic, geopolitical, economic, military and security topics.