Now You See ’Em

How China Will Track—and Kill—America’s Newest Stealth Jets

A gang of advanced missiles and a bleeding-edge radar unveiled at a Chinese air show could mean big trouble for the Pentagon’s best fighters.

ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images

Once, no magic act was complete without the magician’s revealingly dressed assistant. Her job was not merely to be sawn in half but to dominate the mostly male audience’s attention at moments when a focus on the whereabouts of the rabbit might blow the gaff.

That was a useful lesson to bear in mind at last month’s Zhuhai air show—China’s only domestic air and defense trade show, held once every other year.

If anything at Zhuhai was wearing fishnets and high heels, it was the Shenyang FC-31 stealth fighter, which resembles a twin-engine version of America’s newest stealth jet, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. But the real tricks lay in Beijing’s growing family of advanced missiles and radars.

The FC-31 prototype was hidden except when it was flying, and not much detail was available. But the display was notable for the eruptions of smoke from the engines, most likely Russian RD-93s.

That is important, because until China builds its own fighter engines it cannot build stealth fighters without approval from Vladimir Putin’s desk. That includes the Chengdu J-10B, China’s most modern, in-production fighter, or its bootleg versions of Russia’s Sukhoi Flanker fighter family.

China says it’s working on indigenous fighter and trainer engines, but the samples on show were exactly the same as those seen two years ago.

What was new and important on the Chinese military’s outdoor display line at Zhuhai was a mix of mature and new technology. And by “mature” I mean the 1950s-design Xian H-6M bomber, with something suspiciously like a World War II Norden bombsight visible through the windows of the bombardier station. But the bomber was surrounded by guided weapons, some seen for the first time in public. The same went for the somewhat more modern JH-7 light bomber.

Zhuhai was full of new missile hardware, from the 3 1/2-ton CX-1 ramjet-powered anti-ship and land-attack missile down to the QW-19 manportable air-defense system. (China’s military believes in these small air-defense missiles, both in their classic standalone form and integrated into small mobile systems.)

Not many of those missiles were individually surprising. The CX-1 is different in small details from the Russian-Indian BrahMos but very similar in specifications. Two-stage short-range surface-to-air missiles borrow the concept invented for Russia’s KBM Tunguska and Pantsyr systems, and so on.

What is impressive, however, is how many of the new Chinese missiles there are, and how they fit together.

One visible trend is the re-use of components to meet different mission needs. Since the CM-400AKG air-to-surface missile appeared at 2012’s edition of the Zhuhai show, it has gathered a lot of attention as a high-supersonic anti-ship weapon. This year, the exhibit strongly suggested that it shares its solid rocket motor and warhead with the surface-to-surface SY400 ballistic missile, and a passive radar seeker with the new B611MR semi-ballistic anti-radiation missile. The B611MR, in turn, has a common motor and controls to the 175-mile-range M20 GPS/inertially guided missile—China’s equivalent to Russia’s Iskander—and both are intended to use the same mobile launcher and command-and-control system as the CX-1. Lots of interchangeable parts: That is how China can roll out so many missile types so quickly.

A “system of systems” approach was evident in the biggest thinly coded message at Zhuhai. That was the People’s Liberation Army’s outdoor lineup of air-defense hardware, centered on the gigantic JH-27A VHF active electronically scanned array radar—the first of its type in service anywhere, if Chinese officials are telling the truth. Such radars are designed to track stealthy targets. The radar’s antenna, almost 100 feet tall, towered over the rest of the exhibits. Just to the left of it were smaller Aesas, one operating in UHF and the other in the centimetric S-band: that is, complementary sensors with progressively higher resolution, cued by the VHF radar to track stealthy targets, accurately enough to engage them with missiles.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

At a conference in London the following week, a senior retired U.S. Air Force commander pooh-poohed counterstealth efforts. I don’t know where such confidence originates, because nothing like the JH-27A and its companion radars exists in the West, and so we know little of how they work.

Further down the line were three vehicles—a radar/command vehicle, a short-to-medium-range LY-60D/HQ-6D surface-to-air missile, and a Norinco LD-2000 seven-barrel 30-mm gun. Like some gun systems used by the West, the LD-2000 is basically a truck-mobile version of a gun system carried by ships to shoot down incoming missiles. But the West uses those systems to defend forward operating bases in Iraq and Afghanistan from rockets and mortars, and China doesn’t need the LD-2000 for that.

Instead, the PLA has made the gun part of a point-defense system against both attacking aircraft and weapons, such as precision-guided munitions. The system is truck-mounted and road-mobile, as are the big and conspicuous radars that stood next to it on display. It is most likely intended to protect those high-value relocatable assets from even a well-executed destruction of enemy air-defense operation. Will it be 100 percent effective? No. Does it make China’s air defenses much harder to kill? Assuredly.

Stealth fighters get the attention even though they smoke like Humphrey Bogart, but there is a lot of PLA money going into missiles and reconnaissance systems that can hold naval and other forces—the assets that the Chinese see as their primary threats—at risk from far beyond the horizon, and radars that are designed to detect, track. and target stealth aircraft. That’s the rabbit, and we take our eyes off it at our peril.