The world may be in turmoil, but in the defense business there are signs of a return to normalcy. After dreary decades in which the U.S. military had to live without a presentable threat with which to justify its spending on high-technology weapons, the Chinese stepped up to the plate. With ominous talk gaining currency in Washington of actual cuts in the U.S. defense budget, our Asian friends have suddenly offered a titillating peek from an airfield in Chengdu at their newest warplane, described as a radar-evading "stealth" fighter like our own F-22.
The reaction from some quarters has been predictably enthusiastic. "From what we can see, I conclude that this aircraft does have great potential to be superior in some respects to the American F-22, and could be decisively superior to the F-35," claims Richard Fisher, a senior fellow on Asian military affairs at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, a Washington-based security think tank.
Other denizens of the military-industrial complex have pushed hyperbole further, with predictions that the plane — though it looks enormous in the photographs — may be pretty much invisible to radar.
"You can tell it has some serious stealth technology," proclaims one former Navy pilot now in the defense investment business quoted by Fox News. "My F-18 looks like an 18-wheeler on radar. That thing might not even show up."
Arriving in Beijing shortly after the news broke, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has added his own voice of concern. "We knew they were working on the stealth aircraft," he said. "What we've seen is that they may be are somewhat further ahead in the development of that aircraft than our intelligence had earlier predicted."
We should not have to wait too long before some obliging member of Congress calls for the reopening of the F-22 production line, cut off by Gates in 2009 after a mere 187 planes had been built.
To those with fond memories of the Cold War, when it seemed that the arms race was a two-nation affair, things are moving in a familiar pattern. Reading Aviation Week & Space Technology in those days left you with your heart in your mouth, as it regularly broadcast the news that Soviet techno-military ingenuity was on the point, again, of overwhelming our own puny and underfunded efforts. "The Soviet Union is producing and fielding inventory aircraft with major performance improvements at twice the U.S. aircraft production rate," ran one typical jeremiad in June 1982. "The NATO technological lead is decreasing."
It was never true. Soviet warplanes always suffered from a fundamental deficiency of "short legs" — insufficient range — due to heavier airframes (retarded (deficient metalworking technology) and shorter-lived engines (ditto), not to mention myriad other deficiencies. Whenever actual examples of some highly touted Soviet warplane arrived on public view in the West, the reality invariably fell far short of the advance billing. When the MiG-25 Foxbat, once promoted in Aviation Week and elsewhere as a wonder plane that could fly vast distances at 3 1/2 times the speed of sound, was inconveniently delivered by a defecting pilot to Japan in 1976, it turned out to have one-third the advertised range and engines that melted well short of the advertised speed.
One characteristic of Soviet military aviation culture that the Chinese may indeed be emulating was deference to American technological fashion. Thus, just as the U.S. Air Force was concluding that the "swing-wing" technology of the 1960s F-111 bomber had been a technological misstep, the Soviets produced their own even more unwieldy Su-24. Other bad ideas — especially in the field of electronics — were also regularly and dutifully duplicated on the other side of the Iron Curtain. (An official in the CIA's Office of Strategic Analysis swore to me in the 1980s that the entire contents of Aviation Week were transmitted in encrypted form from the Soviet Embassy in Washington to Moscow as soon as it appeared on Monday mornings.)
If the Chinese have indeed invested the necessarily vast sums that an F-22 lookalike program would require, those disposed to fear the Middle Kingdom need only rejoice. The F-22s now in service with the U.S. Air Force cost at least $355 million each (the total cost is probably higher); it is doubtful whether the F-22 can achieve "supercruise" — the ability to fly faster than the speed of sound without afterburners — for more than a few minutes. Most tellingly, its vaunted stealth performance has proved sadly disappointing. Although it is indeed less visible to tracking radars such as that carried on other fighters or air defense missiles, longer wavelength search radars can detect its presence at considerable distances. In 1999, the Serbs used radar defenses to down one F-117 Stealth fighter and severely damage another.
Unfortunately, while some may applaud a Chinese initiative to spend the money that Wal-Mart sends them on a weapon of dubious utility, we too may end up paying a price, as the "threat" of China's J-20 is invoked to justify further increases in our own bloated defense budget.
Andrew Cockburn is the author of, most recently, "Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall and Catastrophic Legacy."