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Can The X-47B Technology Save U.S. Air Superiority?

By   /   February 5, 2013  /  

Will the future of America’s air defense depend on an all-drone fighter force based on the technological advances developed for the X-47B? It’s too early to tell. But with the emergence of China as a military superpower, how do we prepare to defend ourselves before it’s too late?

Military superiority can keep a nation out of conflicts with belligerent enemies with larger populations. For instance, Switzerland was neutral during WWII. But let’s not confuse neutrality with pacifism. Switzerland was not passive. The Swiss were armed and ready. They created fear of casualties in the minds of the Germans and were left alone.

What role does our air superiority play in creating fear in the minds of potential adversaries like China? China is expanding its reach. When does that expansion become an issue of U.S. national security?

China stole our advanced fighter technology and built its own J-20 fighter to compete with the F-22. Reports of a new edition suggest that China might even have improved upon the initial model. Meanwhile in the U.S., the Obama administration cut our F-22 program. And our F-35 program is way behind schedule. China built its J-31 to compete with our F-35.

Shenyang J-31-Specs
Crew: one (pilot)
Length: 16.9 m (55 ft 5 in)
Wingspan: 11.5 m (37 ft 9 in)
Height: 4.8 m (15 ft 9 in)
Wing area: 40 m2 (430 sq ft)
Gross weight: 17,500 kg (38,581 lb)
Powerplant: 2 × Klimov RD-93 afterburning Turbofans (Presumably domestic engines such as the Guizhou WS-13 would be used for production aircraft.)
Maximum speed: Mach 1.8
Combat range: 1,250 km (777 mi; 675 nmi) internal fuel (2000 km one refuel)
Ferry range: 4,000 km (2,485 mi; 2,160 nmi)

Chengdu J-20-Specs
Crew: one (pilot)
Length: 20.3 m (66 ft 7 in)
Wingspan: 12.88 m (42 ft 3 in)
Height: 4.45 m (14 ft 7 in)
Wing area: 73 m2 (790 sq ft)
Empty weight: 17,000 kg (37,479 lb)
Max takeoff weight: 36,287 kg (80,000 lb) upper estimate
Powerplant: 2 × WS-10G (prototype); WS-15 in production J-20 afterburning turbofans dry, 180 kN (40,000 lbf) with afterburner
Range: 5,500 km (3,418 mi; 2,970 nmi)
Combat range: 2,000 km (1,243 mi; 1,080 nmi)
Service ceiling: 20,000 m (65,617 ft)

This year, the X-47B will be doing a test takeoff and landing on an aircraft carrier. It is not as capable as an F-22 or an F-35—yet. But variations on the technology might be in the future. Until then, how do we maintain our air superiority? It seems to me that just when our twin-engine F-22 was ready to see the benefits of scale, it was scrapped.  

Then there’s the disgraceful progression of the single-engine F-35. The Marine version, the F-35B, was grounded this month after a propulsion line failure. China wants to sell the J-31 and the J-20 to countries such as Pakistan.

The last time an American soldier was killed by enemy aircraft was in Korea in 1953. Since then, America’s air superiority hasn’t really been tested, especially in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the threat of losing the edge in the sky is a serious risk due to missteps by our government and the rise of China.

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E.J. Smith

E.J. can be reached at ejsmith@youngresearch.com.

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