China’s progress toward military superpower status continues to accelerate. According to the latest one, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) now ranks as the third-largest air force in the world with 2,250 combat aircraft. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is the world’s largest, with 355 ships and submarines.
CHINA is making significant strides in its bid to equal — and eventually surpass — United States air superiority. The J-20 Mighty Dragon is a 5th generation stealth fighter, indigenously made in China. Not only is the airplane China’s first stealth aircraft, but it is also the first stealth airplane made in Asia.
The People’s Liberation Army said that the J-20 entered combat service on February 9 2018 and had been working alongside other fourth-generation aircraft, such as the J-16 and J-10 fighters and the H-6K strategic bomber. It has been deployed to the South China Sea and is armed with live weapons to patrol the disputed waters. It is also taking part in island encirclement drills around Taiwan. State-run media outlets have reported that no fewer than 150 J-20s have entered service with four regiments.
The modified version of their Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter, dubbed the J-20B, entered mass production in July 2020. This new variant ran on dated Russian-built engines, but utilized thrust vectoring control nozzles to grant the aircraft a significant boost in maneuverability.
At the Zhuhai airshow in 2021, some 15 J-20 Mighty Dragon stealth fighters flew in formation. Program officials issued bullish statements about its capability and progress and revealed that the J-20 is now flying with indigenous WS-10C engines.
The most recent major development concerning the J-20 has been the steady introduction of an indigenous powerplant to the series-built aircraft. While the prototypes and early production batches were powered by Russian-supplied AL-31 turbofans, more recent J-20A aircraft use the indigenous WS-10.
The J-20 has been described as a revolutionary, cognition-subverting next-generation fighter jet, characterized by long-range, high capabilities in penetration, awareness, firepower, and fast decision-making. Analysts believe that with J-20’s long-range interceptor capability, could be used to shoot down American tankers and other reconnaissance aircraft. The threat of J-20s with long-range PL-15 missiles would be a major headache for US planners attempting to protect critical tanker and ISR orbits within the useful range of the area of operations.
This puts it in second place. Before now, only the United States has had a fully operational ‘fifth generation’ fighter. And it’s easily the most capable aircraft deployed by any nation in its region — giving it a significant edge over the Japanese, Korean and Indian air forces. Analysts say the J-20 may have a limited impact on the situation in the South China Sea, the Asia Times notes, as the aircraft are not designed for maritime patrols but air superiority over land held by an enemy. In addition to “production bottlenecks” limiting the total production of J-20s, “the high temperatures, humidity and brine corrosion there will render the J-20’s stealth coating ineffective after prolonged exposure to such an environment,” the publication notes.
Today, Western sources estimate the number of J-20s built by the end of 2019 as around 50, a figure that likely also includes pre-production machines. Unconfirmed Chinese reports suggest that a production capacity of 48 aircraft annually, but there is no evidence that that figure has been attained. Beijing-based military expert Zhou Chenming said that China expected the US to deploy between 200 and 300 F-35s – its most advanced stealth fighter – in the Asia-Pacific by 2025, which meant “China needs a similar number of J-20s, or at least 200”.
According to Justin Bronk, an analyst with the London-based Royal United Service Institute, the J-20 is the largest [low-observable] fighter design currently in production or known testing, with an impressive internal fuel capacity and ability to carry up to four external fuel tanks on jettisonable under-wing pylons.
For the United States, it represents a serious threat in certain operational scenarios such as a confrontation over Taiwan or the contested Senkaku Islands. For less capable militaries in the region such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, the J-20 represents a game-changing capability shift on the horizon from their primary military threat — the Chinese air force.
As with all modern wars, airpower and air superiority play a key role and stealth fighters are critical instruments in establishing it. The rapid strides by China in developments of fifth generation stealth fighters and bombers are threatening to eliminate the air superiority that the West has held since World War II.
J-20 and J-31 to advance China’s A2/AD strategy and counterbalance US pivot to Asia Pacific
One of the key priorities and drivers behind China’s military modernization is deterring Taiwan’s independence and eventually compelling its unification with the mainland. Underscoring the importance of the strategic threat, China’s 2019 Defense White Paper stated that it would not only “oppose and contain Taiwan independence” but also declared that “the PLA will resolutely defeat anyone attempting to separate Taiwan from China and safeguard national unity at all costs.” A critical part of this strategy is to develop a force that can dissuade, deter, and even defeat any third-party intervention within China’s near-seas and in dealing with Taiwan.
China has also become the second nation to have two stealth fighter designs: The Chengdu Aircraft Industrial Corporation (CAC) ‘J-20’ and Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC) ‘J-31’. The J-20 and the FC-31 are fifth-generation stealth aircraft with high maneuverability, low-observability, internal weapons bays, and capable of operating in a network-centric environment.
China’s FC-31 is a twin-engine stealth fighter demonstrator, which includes two iteratively different flying airframes that have been under active flight test since late 2012 and late 2016, respectively.
Meanwhile the smaller FC-31 Gyrfalcon, China’s other fighter with stealth characteristics, now seems destined for deployment on the country’s aircraft carriers. It has undergone development for 10 years, but export aspirations have gone unfulfilled.
The FC-31 is said to be a single-seat, twin-engine, medium-sized multi-role fighter jet featuring stealth, situational awareness, high maneuverability, highly integrated logistics. It is believed that the aircraft will be reasonably priced to attract foreign customers.
The J-20 is slightly faster, with a maximum speed of Mach 2.5 compared to Mach 2 for the J-31. Both sport a combat radius of approximately 2000 km (1242 miles). J-20 is also bigger and heavier than the American F-22 Raptor and the Russian PAK FA T-50.
The multi-role J-20 offers the People’s Liberation Army Air Force the ability to penetrate defended airspace to deliver its large payload of weapons. Due to its larger size it will carry significantly more internal fuel, so it will have a longer range and be less dependent on vulnerable aerial refueling tankers in the vast Asia-Pacific. J-20 is meant to have much greater range and endurance than F-22.
J-20s have some drawbacks including its heavyweight and less agility, which is why it doesn’t stand a chance in front of the F-22, having extreme performance and agility. However, F-22 only has a combat range of about 500 miles, which might be fine for the restricted confines of Eastern Europe, but less so for the enormous stretches of the Pacific. The J-20’s 700-mile combat range gives the Chinese stealth jet a longer reach over flash-points such as the South China Sea. Its long combat radius will provide China a long-range strike system capable of reaching targets within Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, Vietnam and Guam.
In a conflict, the J-20 would likely be deployed in air-to-air combat with the mission of limiting the enemy’s radar coverage and strike range. A stealthy, supercruising, interceptor would provide the PLA-AF with the capability to penetrate an opposing Integrating Air defence network (IADS) to destroy U.S. power projection capabilities in the Western Pacific like E-3 AWACS, JSTARS, RC-135V/W Rivet Joint, other ISR systems, and importantly, Air Force and Navy tankers. “This would significantly complicate if not close down air operations from Andersen AFB and fixed basing in the Ryukyu chain, Japanese main islands, and Korean peninsula, during the opening phase of any contingency,” said Dr. Carlo Kopp.
It also has larger internal weapons bays than either the F-22 or F-35, so it will be able to carry larger, longer-range missiles or a greater load of standard air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions than either of the US designs. It’s could even carry long-range cruise missiles to attack scattered U.S. bases and aircraft carriers in the region. Naval task forces structured around CVBGs and operating within the 1,000 NMI plus radius of the J-XX/J-20 would be at significant risk of rapidly losing their E-2C/D AEW&C and EA-18G Growler Electronic Attack coverage during the opening phase of any contingency.
“Any notion that an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter or F/A-18E/F Super Hornet will be capable of competing against this Chengdu design in air combat, let alone penetrate airspace defended by this fighter, would be simply absurd,” Dr. Carlo Kopp said. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet are both aerodynamically and kinematically quite inferior to the as presented J-XX/J-20 design, and even the shape based VLO capability in the J-XX/J-20, as presented, will effectively neutralise any sensor advantage either type might possess against earlier Russian and Chinese fighter designs
Implications of PLAAF acquiring a stealth bomber fleet, could prove to be effective capability to counterbalance US’s attempt to pivot its military and diplomatic efforts towards the Asian Pacific region. The Pentagon’s latest annual report to the US Congress on China’s military and security progress indicates that China is closing the military technology gap in several areas. The PLAAF “is rapidly closing the gap with western air forces across a broad spectrum of capabilities,” the report assesses. These include command-and-control, electronic warfare and datalinks. J-20 and J-31 stealth fighters are expected to advance the overall Chinese anti-access/area denial strategy (A2/AD).
Chinese stealth fighters have overcome its inferior engine technology, becomes formidable
The country’s engine technology lags that of United Technologies unit Pratt & Whitney, General Electric and Rolls-Royce, said Douglas Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
The country’s best warplane engine is the WS-10A Taihang, made by Shenyang Aeroengine Research Institute, a subsidiary of China’s biggest state-owned aerospace and defence company, Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), the sources said. China is trying to procure Russia’s most advanced aero engine, Saturn 117S for the J-20 and J-31 has super cruise capability and is installed in the SU-35 PAKFA/FGFA. However, Russians are, evidently, hesitant to offer the 117S knowing the Chinese propensity to reverse engineer and copy them.
“Chinese engine-makers face a multitude of problems,” said Michael Raska, assistant professor in the Military Transformations Programme at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. China’s J-20 and J-31 stealth fighters cannot super-cruise, or fly at supersonic speeds like their closest rivals, Lockheed Martin’s F-22 and F-35 stealth planes, without using after-burners, which removes warplanes stealthiness. Their engines also don’t produce enough thrust, or power, and need frequent repairs.
In Jan 2021, the South China Morning Post reported that future models of China’s fifth-generation J-20 stealth fighter will no longer ship with Russia’s AL-31F engines. The decision apparently stems from Russia’s insistence on tying future AL-31F engine sales to further Su-35 import deals. “It’s impossible for China to rely on the Russian engine because Russia asked China to purchase more Su-35 fighter jets in exchange for the AL-31F engine deals,” an insider source told the Morning Post. With Beijing and Moscow at an impasse over further AL-31F sales, the PLAAF is turning to the WS-10C, an advanced version of the older Shenyang WS-10 turbofan engine. The insider source confirmed to the Morning Post that future J-20 models will ship with the WS-10C, which they maintain to be similar in performance to the AL-31F.
“The J-20 will give the People’s Liberation Army Air Force a technological advantage over every other Asian air force. While the J-20 may not be able to supercruise [fly at supersonic speeds without using fuel-thirsty afterburners] with its current Russian AL-31 turbofan engines, its high level of strength, long range and electronic warfare capabilities will make it a very formidable foe for other fighters,” magazine popular science said.
As for a two-seat version of the J-20, this would further set the aircraft apart from its closest counterparts, the American F-22 and F-35, and from the Russian Su-57 Felon, the latter of which is not yet in frontline service. Provided its equipped with dual controls, a two-seat J-20 would clearly provide a useful training platform for pilots converting to the type with either an operational regiment or perhaps even a tactical training unit. It would also make sense from a doctrinal point of view since most of China’s modern fighters are also available as combat-capable two-seaters, while others have been specifically developed as two-seat strike fighters.
Moreover, for the types of combat missions that the J-20 is likely to undertake, a second crew member might be especially valuable. Western analysts have long expected the J-20 to offer considerable range, allowing it to perform penetrating counter-air missions far out into contested airspace, including over the South China Sea. Two pilots would help reduce crew fatigue and better battle-manage during complex missions lasting for long periods. China’s ambition to further stretch the range of the J-20, even if just for ferry flights to far-flung locations, was apparent when an example was seen carrying four massive auxiliary fuel tanks in 2017.
Continuous optimization of J-20
Equally importantly, the J-20 has been incrementally improved while production continued. The J-20 has a long and wide fuselage, immediately behind the cockpit is low observable intakes. All-moving canard surfaces with pronounced dihedral are placed behind the intakes, followed by leading edge extensions merging into delta wing with forward-swept trailing edges. The aft section features twin, outward canted all-moving fins, short but deep ventral strakes, and conventional round engine exhausts.
The J-20 is powered by two jet engines, like the F-22 but not the F-35. This gives it both extra power as well as the ability to survive an engine failure. Unlike the F-22, these are set well back in the airframe. This leaves ample space within the aircraft’s body for three large internal weapon bays — vital for stealth aircraft to remain invisible while carrying weapons.
The weapons are carried internally, with large central bay expected to contain four beyond visual range air-to-air missiles (BVRAAMs) or heavier ant-ship or air-to-surface missiles and bombs. There is also provision for two short-range AAMs in two separate weapons bays on each side of the fuselage. The F-35, and to a lesser extent the F-22, have only small interior bays — meaning they must either go into combat with only a limited number of missiles, or give up much of their stealth advantage when carrying extra or larger weapons under their wings.
It has an infrared search and track sensor and possibly also an electro-optical distributed aperture system (EODAS), the latter a Chinese-designed system similar to that on the Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter.
The J-20 appears to be designed for long-range interception with an emphasis on frontal-aspect low-observability. The forward-mounted canards, poorly shielded engines, underside vertical stabilizers and inferior radar absorbent coatings will limit its stealthiness compared to US Air Force’s own stealth fighters, the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, writes Justin Bronk in CNN. “There is little doubt this configuration is intended to provide good sustained supersonic cruise performance with a suitable engine type, and good manoeuvre performance in transonic and supersonic regimes,” said Dr Carlo Kopp.
Thrust Vector Control
Thrust vector control, sometimes abbreviated to TVC, is a means of controlling a jet or rocket engine’s outward thrust. Thrust vectoring nozzles are used to literally move the outflow of exhaust in different directions to give an aircraft the ability to conduct acrobatics that a straight-forward nozzled jet simply couldn’t do.
When paired with an aircraft like Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor, thrust vectoring control allows an aircraft to make sharper changes in direction, or even to continue traveling in one direction while pointing the nose, and weapons systems of the aircraft, down toward an enemy. Put simply, thrust vectoring nozzles let you point the engine one way, while the aircraft itself is pointed in another (to a certain extent). In a jet like the F-22 (and soon in China’s J-20 stealth fighter), this technology gives fighter pilots a distinct advantage over non-thrust vectoring jets in a dogfight. You can see the thrust vector control surfaces on the F-22’s engine, which can direct the outflow of exhaust up to 20 degrees up or down, in this video clip:
J-20’s continuous performance optimization through advanced radars, sensors, stealth features, cutting-edge weapon system and jammers.
October 2012, prototype featured a different radome, which was speculated to house AESA radar. 2014 prototype showed a new intake and stealth coating, as well as redesigned vertical stabilizers, and an Electro-Optical Targeting System.
On 13 Sep, 2015, a new prototype marked ‘2016’ begun testing. This prototype has noticeable improvements, such as apparently changed DSI bumps on the intakes, which save weight, complexity and radar signature. Altering the shape of the DSI suggests that this prototype may have more powerful engines than its predecessors, likely to be an advanced 14 ton thrust derivative of the Russian AL-31 or Chinese WS-10 turbofan engines.
Eventually, by 2020 the J-20 is planned to use the 18-19 ton WS-15 engine, enabling the jet to super-cruise without using afterburners. Supercruise is an advanced technology which vastly improves the fuel economy of jet engines — allowing aircraft to coast at supersonic speeds for long distances without having to dump raw fuel on an afterburner.
The flight booms around the engines have been enlarged, possibly to accommodate rearwards facing radars or electronic jamming equipment. It also has a stealthier bumper. The stealthy fuselage extends almost all the way to the engine’s exhaust nozzles. The trapezoidal booms on sides of the nozzles are also reshaped, possibly to install rearwards facing radar or ECM equipment.
Compared to previous J-20s, “2016”‘s fuselage extends almost all the way to the engine’s exhaust nozzles. The greater surface area under fuselage would lead to enhanced stealth against enemy radar. The trapezoidal booms on sides of the nozzles also reshaped, possibly to install rearwards facing radar or ECM equipment.
In a paper released October 2020 , the Royal United Services Institute, or RUSI, think tank claimed that “subsequent developments are likely to increase its LO [low-observable] characteristics and sensor capabilities.”
J-20 and J-31 being fitted with passive sensors
Wang Yanyong, technical director for Beijing A-Star Science and Technology, has confirmed that its two systems – the EOTS-89 electro-optical targeting system (EOTS) and the EORD-31 infrared search and track (IRST) – are in development for China’s J-20 and J-31 fighters. Marketing brochures on A-Star’s booth suggest that the J-20 could use the passive sensors to detect and aim missiles against the Northrop Grumman B-2 bomber and Lockheed Martin F-22 fighter, even while its radar is being being jammed by a Boeing EA-18G Growler. “It lists detection ranges for the B-2 at 150km and for the F-22 at up to 110km,” as reported by Stephen Trimble.
US claims Chinese stealth planes developed with hacked technology
Many U.S. officials and pilots suspect that the Chinese have been using hacked U.S. technology to aid their indigenous development programs. Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, said the Chengdu J-20 twin-engine stealth fighter bears similarity to the F-22 Raptor made by Lockheed Martin Corp., while the Shenyang J-31 twin-engine multi-role fighter resembles the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter design also made by Lockheed. Chinese very likely stole a large amount of classified F-35 data as indicated by reports of a major cyber breach of Lockheed’s programs by Chinese hackers in April 2009