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-gray 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 maneuverability, 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 recognize 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 labeled 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 defenses. It is unclear whether China actually has the ability to conduct such operations, as both aircraft are relatively new.
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