New Chinese Fighter Jet May Erase U.S. Air Invincibility

Andy Wong / Getty Images

The era of dog fights was supposed to be over. In future wars, American pilots no longer would have to make like Tom Cruise in Top Gun, maneuvering for that kill shot against enemy aircraft. Instead, the nearly radar-invisible Boeing F-22 Raptor, first produced in 2005, would allow American pilots to shoot down an enemy jet from 50 miles away, before the opposing pilot could see even a speck on his screen. But that dream of the easy score was dashed this month, after China introduced its own stealth fighter jet, the J-20.

The test flight of the new aircraft came just as Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing to discuss resuming military ties. No one had told Gates the test was planned and he was surprised by what appeared to be a thinly-veiled message about the future balance of power. Hu said that the timing was a coincidence, and that he himself didn't know the test flight was scheduled. He will get a chance to elaborate when he meets with President Obama in Washington this week. But Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic International Studies told NEWSWEEK: "I don't buy it. It's not plausible to me that a new weapons system could be test-flown without Hu's knowledge. The Chinese are sending a signal that they…are still concerned about U.S. power in the region."

Although no J-20 will be flying into battle for at least a decade, the jet's potential could help change the military dynamic in East Asia, a region already undergoing huge shifts, says Wei Liang, a research fellow at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, in California. As photos of China's new aircraft circulated on the internet, analysts noted its resemblance to America's F-22. The flat surfaces, without weapons jutting out, would help it slip past American or Taiwanese radar undetected, says Nate Hughes, director of military analysis at STRATFOR, a security research firm.

The test flight puts China in a very elite club. America is the only nation to produce an operational stealth fighter jet, and Russia is the only other country to even test one. China's entry into that group amounts to a game changer. "We have become accustomed to a world where our air power is dominant," says Roger Cliff, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation, a global analysis company. "But that dominance is now in question."

America is not preparing to go to war with China. And China's leaders have emphasized that they seek a "peaceful ascent," as the nation develops economically. Still, the perceptions of relative military strength, and even just the hypothetical possibility of a war, have the potential to shape policies on issues such as Taiwan and North Korea. The new plane means that if there were a war, the Chinese could put up a real fight against American stealth fighter jets. If both sides had radar-proof aircraft, American pilots could have to resort to old-fashioned dog fights, which would mean some of their planes almost certainly would be shot down. "The Chinese are now saying to the U.S. 'we are not getting pushed around anymore. You are going to have to deal with us on the basis of comparable peers,' " says Cliff.

The huge advantage that radar-invisibility brings is crucial to American pilots in East Asia, because in any future battle with China they are very likely to be severely outnumbered. True, the United States has air bases in Japan and South Korea, along with as many as three aircraft carriers in the region at any one time. But all told, America could bring only 200 fighter planes to the battle, says Cliff. (More jets could be brought in from Hawaii, but that would take several weeks.) That compares unfavorably with the 2,000 fighter planes that China would be able to send into the skies in a matter of hours.

Given the overwhelming disparity in numbers, American air strategy in the region relies on one F-22 pilot being able to take down multiple Chinese jets without getting hit. "What we need is to be able to put 25 jets in the air and take down 75 of theirs, without many losses," says Cliff. "But it's just not going to be that one-sided anymore."

The timing of the aircraft's release seemed an unsubtle wave at the Taiwan issue. Gates's visit came a year after the Chinese ended military ties with the U.S., to protest the Pentagon's sale of $6.4 billion in arms to Taipei. Though tensions haven't flared over the island nation--which China insists is part of its territory --in recent months, air power is a key to Taiwan's ability to deter any potential Chinese invasion. "If hypothetically China wants to punish Taiwan, it is going to use ballistic missiles and then follow up with a second strike from the air to make sure Taiwan's air force stays grounded," says Michael McDevitt, a retired Navy rear admiral who oversaw an aircraft-carrier battle group and who is vice president of the CNA Center for Naval Analyses, in Virginia. Fortunately, neither China nor the United States is beating the drum for a fight over Taiwan. But China is now moving into the major leagues of air power. And that could reshape China-U.S. relations in the coming decade.