Defense publications are reporting that Russia is considering selling its newest fighter, the SU-35, to China. The SU-35 has enhanced radar, improved avionics, better flight surfaces, a more powerful engine and larger fuel tanks. Aviation experts characterize the SU-35 as a Generation 4+ aircraft. This is just a short technological step behind the U.S. F-35, the future mainstay of the U.S. fighter fleet.
China’s Air Force is in the midst of a major modernization program that is focused in particular on improving its ability to defend against air and ballistic/cruise missile threats. China has acquired advanced air superiority and strike aircraft from Russia while simultaneously focusing on domestic production of ever-better aircraft. From Russia, the Chinese Air Force has purchased some 100 variants of the advanced SU-30 and 76 SU-27s, both fourth generation fighters. China has deployed more than 300 J-10, 11 and 17s, all fourth generation fighters. In addition, the Chinese Air Force has some 500 third generation J-7 and 8s in service. In addition to China’s nearly 1000 third and fourth generation fighters, the Air Force also deploys some 700 third and fourth generation strike aircraft. There are reports that China is helping to finance Russian work on a fifth-generation fighter, the T-50. Like the U.S. fifth generation F-22 and F-35, the T-50 is reported to incorporate stealth features.
The potential SU-35 sale is but one element in a broad and deep effort by the Chinese Air Force to modernize its air defense capabilities. The recently released Annual Report of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission provided an ominous picture of the growing Chinese air and missile defense threat. “Today many, but not all, of China’s fighters can fire beyond-visual-range missiles.” The report goes on to warn about the growth of China’s air defense capabilities. China now has “one of the world’s best ground-based air defense networks” and, “would pose a difficult challenge for even the most modern air forces in the region.” China has deployed around 100 surface-to-air (SAM) missile batteries with nearly 1,000 missile launchers, including between 16 and 32 batteries of Russian-built S-300s, the so-called triple-digit SAM that Russia recently refused to sell to Iran.
When Secretary of Defense Robert Gates decided in 2009 to cap the U.S. F-22 program at 187 aircraft it was with the expectation that China would be relatively slow to deploy advanced fourth-generation fighters and that Russia would not produce a fifth-generation aircraft for many years to come. The pace of the Chinese aircraft modernization program and the first flight of the T-50 earlier this year would appear to undermine Gates’ logic for halting the F-22 program. Within a decade, the small fleet of U.S. F-22s could face hundreds of advanced Chinese fourth and even fifth-generation fighters.
China’s aircraft modernization program should also cast a different light on the F-35 program. Recent calls by deficit reduction groups for reducing the size and scope of the F-35 program need to recognize the intolerable pressure this would place on the F-22 fleet. Had Secretary Gates decided to go with the Air Force’s proposal to acquire some 332 F-22s the situation today would be very different. Without an adequate F-22 fleet, the F-35 became the defense department’s most important modernization program.
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