China claims its advanced J-16 strike fighter just went stealth with nothing more than a new paint job

Chinese MilitaryShenyang J-16
  • China claims that the advanced Shenyang J-16 fighter now possesses “near stealth” capabilities.
  • The paint “covering the J-16 is a kind of cloaking coating that gives the warplane a certain stealth capability, making it nearly invisible to the naked eye and electromagnetic devices,” Chinese media reported, citing a Chinese commander.
  • It appears that China has upgraded the aircraft with radar-absorbent paint, making detection harder.
  • The upgrade, however, would probably offer only limited stealth capabilities at best, given that the plane was not designed for stealth.

China claims that its advanced strike fighter now has “near stealth” capabilities.

The Shenyang J-16 twin-engine, twin-seat multi-role fighter has reportedly been upgraded with a radar-absorbent coating, likely some type of ferromagnetic paint.

“The silver-grey painting covering the J-16 is a kind of cloaking coating that gives the warplane a certain stealth capability, making it nearly invisible to the naked eye and electromagnetic devices,” the official Global Times reported, citing a recent interview with Chinese aviation brigade commander Jiang Jiaji conducted by state broadcaster CCTV.

The aircraft is a modified version of the J-11, which is a carbon copy of Russia’s Su-27. It was designed for manoeuvrability, not stealth. Chinese military expert Fu Qianshao told the Global Times that the new paint job reduces the plane’s radar cross-section, making detection less likely.

“The enemy will only recognise it at close range, giving it a huge advantage in combat,” Chinese media reported.

The J-16, a heavily-armed offensive companion for China’s J-20 stealth air superiority fighter, is said to be capable of carrying eight tons of weapons, including guided smart bombs, air-to-ground missiles, and even anti-ship missiles. China is also reportedly developing an electronic attack variant.

While Chinese military officers argue that the radar-absorbent paint makes the fighter “nearly invisible,” this is likely an exaggeration of the coating’s capabilities.

The US Air Force has been applying ferromagnetic paint to F-16s for decades, according to The National Interest. In 2012, the F-16s received new coats of paint similar to that of the stealthy F-35, the Aviationist reported at that time. Even with the upgrade, the F-16s have a radar cross-section of 1.2 square meters, much larger than the impressive 0.005 square meters of the F-22 and F-35.

No amount of radar-absorbent paint, TNI notes, can make up for the shape of the aircraft, which are not designed to significantly reflect radar waves. Despite improvements, the F-16 continues to be labelled a “fourth-generation aircraft,” with no mention of stealth capabilities. The same is likely true of China’s J-16, although the stealth paint may dampen part of the radar return making it relatively harder to pick up on radar.

The J-16 advances China’s ability to conduct offensive strikes. “In the past the PLA Air Force’s combat division has been characterised more as a defensive arm, with limited range and offensive capabilities, confined mainly to its immediate region and territory,” Collin Koh, a research fellow with the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, told the South China Morning Post.

The aircraft is expected to play a role in an armed conflict over Taiwan, a self-ruled island Beijing views as a renegade province.

Chinese military analysts explained to Chinese media that the J-16 could carry out a devastating assault against surface targets after the J-20 cleared away an enemy’s air defences. It is unclear whether China actually has the ability to conduct such operations, as both aircraft are relatively new.

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