Once upon a time, as the FY 1964 defense appropriations bill was making its way through congress, there came a somber moment when it looked as if the U.S. Navy might actually receive a lesser increase in its appropriation than its hated Air Force rival. Then, just when all seemed dark, a Soviet November class nuclear attack submarine surfaced a few miles off San Francisco Bay. Instantly, the situation on the battlefield was reversed, as press and congress urged emergency budgetary measures to ward off the looming threat of the Red Navy.
Queried at a Pentagon press conference as to the convenient coincidence of the sub’s appearance, the chief navy flack simply smiled and said “I don’t know; we just got lucky I guess.”
For much of the 1990s, luck deserted our military industrial complex. Its formerly reliable Soviet partners ceased to play their part, leaving the Pentagon to scour the world for a “peer or near peer competitor.” There were hopes, always futile, for a reconstituted USSR, or perhaps an emergent China (always popular on the right in those days) which was followed by the putative menace of regional competitors, (Iran, Iraq, North Korea) combining against America.
Help finally came from the CIA’s former Jihadi ally Osama bin Ladin, whose 9/11 attack sufficiently traumatized society to allow the Pentagon to spend any money it wanted on anything it wanted, relevant to the task at hand or not. Even so, old hands yearned for the days when a military spend-up could be justified by whatever the other guy was up to, especially with ominous talk circulating in Washington about restraining (not cutting of course) the defense budget.
Now, just like that long-ago Soviet sub captain, the Chinese have stepped up to the plate.
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.
Anyone speculating that the Chinese turn out a better product should know that their efforts to rip off the Russians by copying Russian engines have produced only engines that make the Russians look good, forcing them to rely on the original product, deficient as that may be.
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, once touted as a distinguishing feature — for more than a few minutes. Most tellingly, its vaunted stealth performance has proved sadly disappointing. Although it is indeed less visible (though never actually invisible) 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 obscenely bloated defense budget.
Andrew Cockburn published The Threat in 1983, the only accurate assessment of Soviet military potential in the 20 years before the fall of the Soviet Union. He can be reached at [email protected]