The Chinese military rolled out their newest stealth fighter, the J-31, with new pictures appearing on government media outlets to coincide with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s visit.
The Chinese media ploy caught the attention of Air Force Gen. Herbert Carlisle, commander of U.S. Pacific Air Forces. He said Wednesday at the Air Force Association annual conference that the U.S. is still way ahead of the Chinese in respect to stealth jet fighters, but the Chinese are catching up.
“The [People’s Republic of China] with respect to stealth capability, they are behind us, but they will develop and they will get better, and we certainly can’t rest on our position,” Carlisle said.
It’s striking how similar the J-31 to the U.S. F-22 and even the F-35, in some regards. However, as John Reed with Foreign Policy notes, “simply having a stealthy shape does not mean the Chinese planes are truly stealth planes. Modern stealth aircraft involves the sues of special radar absorbent coatings, along with heat and electronic signature masking technology.”
Carlisle pointed out that the U.S. still has a considerable lead in the development of stealth aircraft. The F-35 program has faced considerable roadblocks and the F-22 fleet was slashed from what Air Force leaders had wanted, but the U.S. still has fifth generation fighters in the fleet.
He warned the Air Force can’t afford to rest on their laurels.
“I think whatever advantages we have technologically will still be there, but they won’t last as long,” Carlisle said.
The focus on aviation stealth has taken a ten year sabbatical as the military has had little use for a stealth fighter jet when fighting enemies without much of an air force to speak of, let alone a significant air defense network. The F-22 has yet to fly a combat mission.
The pivot to the Pacific outlined in President Obama’s new defense strategy will force Pentagon leaders to re-evaluate their stealth capabilities. Commanders will not have the relative freedom to move assets in the air without fear of reprisal over countries like China or North Korea.
The PACAF commander urged the nation to maintain investments to develop stealth technology. Facing the threat of significant cuts to planned defense spending in future years, modernization accounts will get slashed and stealth development could be put on the back burner. Carlisle said this is unacceptable.
Defense industry leaders hope the Air Force’s renewed push for a next generation long range bomber will refocus research efforts on advancing stealth technology.
Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter also hinted at the possibility of further research on stealth drones. He said Wednesday the Pentagon is planning on making investments into drone technology that can operate in contested environments.