News reports have appeared in the Indian media about the presence of the Chinese J-20 stealth fighter at Daocheng Yading in Tibet, the highest civilian airport in the world.
One article features a photograph of a J-20 on a rain-swept tarmac, with the aircraft draped in a camouflage net – in a desert camouflage pattern!
Surprisingly, there are no chocks on the wheels (to stop the aircraft from rolling) and the photograph shows a small hill in the background. No identifiable features of the airport are visible.
The photographs, as per the article, appeared in China on the micro-blogging site Weibo, and on two websites just “days before PM Narendra Modi travels to China for G-20” and “days after China warned India against deploying BrahMos missile along the Himalayas”.
A news brief was also carried as a lead item by its national television arm, and the two conveyed an alarmist view of an event that otherwise is a normal milestone in the development cycle of a new aeroplane.
Unfortunately, this view has been generated by many other media articles too, one of which stated that China has moved a stealth fighter into Tibet!
It is time for professional assessment of the ‘sighting’ of the J-20 in Tibet is undertaken.
That the J-20 programme has entered the Low Rate of Initial Production has been widely reported in the press, both Chinese and Western.
After the first prototype flew on January 11, 2011, seven more prototypes have been built for various phases of testing.
The test flying has proceeded at a very fast pace such that the first Squadron would reportedly be established in 2017, with aircraft getting Initial Operational Clearance.
Many photographs of the aircraft have also appeared, but surprisingly there have been no images of two J-20s flying together or any armament being fired (only images of open weapons bays are available).
The deductions with this type of background information are: The prototype testing of the J-20 is still a work in progress.
Even though the first squadron may be raised by 2017, the operational capability would not be that of a fully operational squadron as some clearances would come only after all aspects of the flight envelope are explored.
The squadron would, in parallel, work up the standard operating procedures and train pilots in basic handling and procedures of the J-20.
The aircraft is powered by Russian engines which do not give it super cruise capability (speed more than the speed of sound with no afterburner).
Thus, the J-20 is not a true fifth generation fighter at present. The supercruise capability may come once the indigenous WS-15 engine gets cleared – this is still some distance away as the Chinese are facing problems of reliability in indigenous power plants.
It is a well-known fact that the paintwork and skin finish play an important role in making an aircraft stealthy; hence, the very casual way in which the camouflage net has been draped on the aircraft in the photo, with loose flapping strings, shows that stealth is not being given its due, despite the hype that surrounds it.
So, is the aircraft really stealthy? If it were, then the net would not have been draped the way it is.
That the aircraft landed and took off from an airfield at 14,000 ft is indeed creditable (considering that the photo is genuine). But, this is just half the story. What would be operationally relevant is the information about the payload it carried and the ambient temperatures it operated in.
So, what was the J-20 doing in the high altitude airfield? The answer is, just what the Indian Tejas was doing at the high altitude airfield at Leh some months back – these aircraft have operated from these high altitude airfields as part of their hot and high prototype testing, which is mandatory as part of flight clearance.
What the photo does confirm is that the capability to operate from Tibet may be part of the task for the J-20.
Many more visits to Tibet would be required to test out the aircraft in cold weather conditions, especially an engine start after an overnight ‘cold soak’ in the open.
This test is critical, besides much more to check out its systems, especially the avionics and radar, in the extreme cold conditions that prevail in Tibet.
To link the J- 20 in Tibet to either the visit of PM Modi to China or the decision to place BrahMos missiles on India’s borders is incorrect.
It is not ‘signalling’ being done for geopolitical reasons, but just part of the flight testing that any aviation system goes through.
However, the message that does come through to India is that in some years to come, the Indian Air Force must prepare for the presence of a fifth generation fighter that can operate from high altitude airfields in Tibet.
It will be going to get interesting from here – the last word on stealth in Tibet has not been said yet.