Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun
Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

When the British government ordered the arrest of Bryn Jones, 73, a former combustion technologist, it took place under the Official Secrets Act of the UK.

Jones was arrested at his home in Derbyshire, his home searched and computers and other items removed. A few hours after the arrest Jones, the former Chief Combustion Engineer for Rolls Royce, was released.

It is very unusual in spy cases to have anyone released after an arrest.  Mostly they are held incommunicado, and very often if they are brought to trial, the trial is held in secret.

But Jones was a British subject and a well regarded expert.  What could British intelligence have been looking for?

Jones worked at Rolls Royce from 1968 to 2003, but since retiring from the company operated his own business, a consultancy called Kausis, and recently had been teaching advanced combustion theory in China at the Aeronautical University of Xi’an, known as XAAU. XAAU offers 57 college and bachelor majors, including aircraft manufacturing, aviation engine engineering, electronic maintenance and other aerospace, machinery manufacturing, telecommunication and finance majors.

The Xian H-20

Xi’an is the home of the Xi’an Aircraft Industrial Corporation, which builds commercial and military aircraft, in the latter case primarily bombers. A major project is the Xian H-20, a subsonic stealth long-range bomber with a wing design similar to the B-2 stealth bomber of the United States. The H-20 is designed to carry both conventional and nuclear weapons. Xi’an Aircraft is partnered with the Chinese military’s 603rd Aircraft Design Institute.

It is very likely that British Intelligence were tracking Jones’ activities or possibly saw something that caused them concern. We don’t know.

One can only speculate on what Beijing would want to learn from Jones outside of academic information on combustion technology. Speculation around the very public arrest focuses entirely on Britain’s new F-35B aircraft, the first four of which recently arrived in the UK.

We don’t know that Jones knows anything about these aircraft or their design or if Jones was involved in Rolls Royce’s part of the engine design for the F-35B engine.

The F-35B is a variant of the F-35 stealth fighter now equipping the US Air Force and sold to friendly countries. Japan has purchased the F-35A, which so far are based at Misawa Air Base in northern Japan that Japan’s Self Defense Force shares with the US Air Force 35th Fighter Wing.

The F-35A is a conventional take-off and landing platform, but has a unique stealth outer design to evade radar. The F-35B is a STOVL model of the F-35 family of aircraft, meaning it can do short take-offs and vertical landings. The F-35B can also take off vertically.

There is a third model of the F-35, the F-35C, which is built for use on American aircraft carriers and these are catapult-launched and captured on landing with a tail hook and arresting cable. On America’s newest aircraft carrier new electric magnetic catapults, called EMALS, have malfunctioned, which raised questions about the reliability of the new system for the latest new carrier, the Gerald Ford, a ship that cost more than $37 billion.

Japan’s maritime strategy

Japan is also thinking about buying the F-35B after a study showed the F-35B could operate from some of its warships, in effect giving Japan a fighter plane deployment capability of considerable importance. The two targeted ships are the Izumo and Kaga helicopter destroyers. These displace – empty – some 20,000 tons and have a length of 248 meters.

Japan would buy 40 F-35B aircraft to support these two ships, the Izumo commissioned in 2013 and the Kaga in 2015. Placing the highly capable F-35B on these vessels would mark a significant enlargement of Japan’s maritime strategy, and an important change in expanding its ability to protect a much wider perimeter than it can currently, and also give Japan an ability to lend support in case of a Chinese invasion to its neighbors, especially Taiwan.

Meanwhile, the US Marines operate F-35Bs out of Iwakuni airbase in Yamaguchi Prefecture. Last March the Marines officially announced that “Fighter Attack Squadron 121, assigned under the Okinawa-based 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, will remain embarked aboard [USS] Wasp for a regional patrol meant to strengthen regional alliances, provide rapid-response capability, and advance the Up-Gunned ESG [expeditionary strike group] concept.”

This was the first overseas employment of the F-35B on the USS Wasp.  The Wasp is an amphibious assault ship with an upgraded flight deck that can carry six F-35B aircraft.

As the F-35B assets grow in the region, China will see a direct challenge to its efforts to expand its air and naval power. The F-35B is a vertical take off aircraft whose remarkable engine assembly can lift the 20-ton F-35B from a ship’s deck. The technology was developed by Rolls Royce based on a patented shaft-driven LiftFan® propulsion system and an engine that can swivel 90 degrees when in short take-off/vertical landing mode.

Highly capable stealth aircraft

One of the main reasons the F-35 has a “fat middle” is to accommodate the lift fan and engine rotation in the B model. Because the F-35 was built from a common framework, the A model and the C carrier models, that have tail hooks and are catapult launched, have the same fuselage. At present the B Model comprises only 14% of the overall F-35 fleet manufactured by Lockheed.

That number may grow considerably in future if the B Model proves successful, because it enables non-carrier operators or small carrier operators to deploy highly capable stealth aircraft. Britain has two new carriers waiting for these aircraft. Italy has the Cavour, which also needs aircraft.

Today there is no other manufacturer with a stealthy STOVL that can expand the capability of small carriers and ships in the WASP class.

There are, of course, trade-offs in a STOVL aircraft of such unusual design. There is less room for weapons because stealth aircraft store weapons internally to protect against radar detection, and less room for fuel, meaning the range and endurance is less. But the F-35 is air refuelable and the US Marines have been practicing refueling using the MB-22 Osprey as the fuel tanker. This is what may have led to a training accident during a nighttime refueling operation last December.

China would surely be interested in this design for its emerging new stealth aircraft and for its aircraft carriers, one that is already in operation and another that is in sea trials. China is now building the Type 075 amphibious assault ship, a 40,000-ton vessel with a length of 820 feet, or 250 meters.

This compares closely the the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship which also weighs in at 40,000 tons and has a length of 844 feet, or 257 meters. There are eight Wasp-class ships in service. How many Type 075s China plans to build depends, perhaps, on what equipment will go on them.

Today they are primarily designed to haul helicopters and troops, which is what the Wasp-class is designed to do. But if China get hold of the F-35B’s engine technology and apply it to its own stealth aircraft program, then the Type 075 would be a significant force multiplier for China equipped with stealth aircraft and a bigger factor in China’s regional power projection strategy.

Whether Jones had any relationship to the LiftFan® propulsion system is not known and, in any case, Jones has denied he passed any secrets to China. But it would seem that British intelligence is certainly aware that information about the F-35B, and especially industrial information, has been targeted by China. The question is whether China is already collecting this information and how they are doing it.

The big question is whether the critical F-35B technology has been lost, or whether Western intelligence services are ahead of the game – finally.

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