Get started on your Homeland Security Degree at American Military University.
America’s vaunted F-22 Raptor stealth fighter has a major weakness, according to China’s top aircraft designer: It was designed to fight Russia in Europe, not China in the Pacific.
In fact, Yang Wei, chief designer of the J-20 Mighty Dragon – China’s first stealth fighter – says that if the F-22 were to fly against China, it would suffer the same problems that the F-4 Phantom suffered when flying over North Vietnam during the Vietnam War a half-century ago.
Writing in the Chinese aeronautics journal Acta Aeronautica et Astronautica Sinica, Yang suggested that the F-22 “could face the same challenges in the region as the F-4 fighter-bombers the Pentagon sent to the Vietnam war between 1965 and 1973,” according to the South China Morning Post.
“The complex environment and political constraints in Vietnam caused the F-4 to almost fail to show its high-speed performance and over-the-horizon combat capabilities,” Yang wrote.
Other Chinese military analysts echoed those sentiments. “The J-20’s biggest advantage was that it was developed later, meaning its designers could learn from the F-22 – including how to fix shortcomings, and what type of new technologies could be used to optimize the aircraft,” defense expert Song Zhongping told the Post.
“The F-22 was originally designed for combat with the former Soviet Union, or today’s Russia, in Europe, but now the Raptor’s main opponent is the [People’s Liberation Army] in the Asia-Pacific. China’s J-20 was inspired by the F-22’s deployment. The Chinese aircraft designers used the Raptor as a rival and the F-35 [stealth multi-role fighter] as a tactical opponent to help them to come up with a more practical and capable fighter jet.”
Chinese experts rightly note that the J-20, which first flew in 2011, has the advantage of coming later than the F-22, which first flew in 1997. It’s also true that some F-22 features seem more suitable for Europe than the Pacific. In particular, the F-22 only has a combat range of about 500 miles, which might be fine for the narrow confines of Eastern Europe, but less so for the vast expanses of the Pacific. The J-20’s 700-mile combat range gives the Mighty Dragon a longer reach over hotspots such as the South China Sea.
But comparing the F-22 Raptor to the F-4 Phantom is like comparing a Ferrari to a minivan. The F-4 was originally designed as a Navy interceptor in the late 1950s, to destroy Soviet bombers. The Phantom was a heavy beast that could move fast, but with agility that was described as proving that even a brick could fly if you strap two big engines on it.
In the arrogant belief that dogfighting was obsolete and aerial warfare would be waged by air-to-air guided missiles, the F-4 initially wasn’t even armed with a cannon. But the Phantom and its overconfident U.S. Air Force and Navy pilots soon received a rude awakening over North Vietnam, when they found themselves engaging in low-speed dogfights against nimble MiG-17, MiG-19, and MiG-21 fighters.
Long-range missile shots against targets on radar were precluded by U.S. rules of engagement, which mandated visual identification in skies where most aircraft were American. U.S. pilots were not well-trained in dogfighting until the early 1970s when the Navy began its TOPGUN program. And those early air-to-air missiles – especially the medium-range, radar-guided AIM-7 Sparrow – proved unreliable in combat.
While there are conflicting estimates of kill ratios, U.S. fighters battling a Third World air force may have achieved a kill ratio of as little as 2-to-1 against the MiGs. Considering the restrictions that U.S. pilots labored under, even that was an achievement.
But the air war over the South China Sea would be nothing like the skies over Hanoi. Unlike the F-4, the F-22 is super-maneuverable, including swiveling engine nozzles for thrust-vectoring. The Raptor’s stealth and sensors are designed to allow the fighter to pick off enemy aircraft at long range, using AIM-120 missiles that can hit targets 100 miles away. Airborne early warning aircraft and data networking will enable the F-22, and its cousin, the F-35, to detect and destroy targets without coming into visual range. The notion of the F-22 engaging in close-range knife fights against Chinese fighters is almost insane.
On the other hand, the J-20 is no lithe Cold War MiG. In fact, the J-20 and the F-22 weigh about 21 tons. Rather than an agile dogfighter, Western observers have questioned whether the J-20 is really a heavy interceptor, especially given the limitations of its current Russian-made engines. While the latest J-20s will have thrust vectoring, in some ways the J-20 seems closer to the F-4 Phantom and the F-22.
Finally, comparing the F-22 to the F-4 is as much praise as insult. For all its design flaws and ungainly appearance, the Phantom has proved its versatility and toughness as a fighter, bomber and recon plane in numerous conflicts across the Middle East and Asia for nearly a half-century. The F-22 and the J-20 should be so lucky.
Learn From The Leader
American Military University (AMU) is proud to be the #1 provider of higher education to the U.S. military, based on FY 2018 DoD tuition assistance data, as reported by Military Times, 2019. At AMU, you’ll find instructors who are former leaders in the military, national security, and the public sector who bring their field-tested skills and strategies into the online classroom. And we work to keep our curriculum and content relevant to help you stay ahead of industry trends. Join the 64,000 U.S. military men and women earning degrees at American Military University.