by Sameer Joshi

First revealed by the US Office of Naval Intelligence in 1997 as Project 718, the J-20 is envisaged as China’s next generation fighter aircraft with advanced stealth features. In early 2002, Shenyang (SAC), was chosen to develop the fighter, but owing to unknown reasons, the project was handed over to Chengdu at its Factory 132. While little is known of its development in the interim period, in November 2009, the PLAAF’s Deputy Chief had stated that China’s next generation fighter “would soon fly”, with projected initial operational capability by 2019. He revealed that the design would imbibe four ‘S capabilities : stealth, super cruise, super manoeuvrability and short take off. By 2010 two prototypes (No 2001 and 2002) were under development, with the first flight performed in January 2011 from CAC’s home base at Chengdu.

By 2012 four airframes had been built (2001, 2002, 2011 and 2012). Around that time, it received several unofficial appellations such as Black Eagle, Black Silk or the Wei Long (Mighty Dragon). 

The J-20 incorporates design aspects of the F-22 Raptor, with a sharp diamond shaped nose and single piece cockpit. Other fuselage aspects have been borrowed from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as well as the cancelled MiG 1.44 project. It is possible that the Chinese, in an industrial espionage coup, stole part of F-22 and F-35 designs from US contractors, reverse engineered the design and implemented domestic innovations. This was reinforced in 2016 when Su Bin, a Chinese national pleaded guilty with US authorities to conspiring with two unnamed military officers in China to acquire plans for F-22 and F-35 fighters and Boeing’s C-17 military transport aircraft by illegal means (controlled by the PLA’s Technical Reconnaissance Bureau as part of ‘Operation Byzantine Hades’).

By 2013, Chengdu had began weapons integration of the J-20 with the PL-10 and PL-15 AAMs. A large internal weapons bay accommodates the various armament, in addition to external hard points. Major improvements were done from the third prototype onwards featuring stealth coating, re-designed intakes, retractable refuelling and vertical stabilisers and a new canopy. It had an Electro-Optical targeting system mounted under the nose which sensor could be Beijing A-Star Science and Technology’s EOTS-89 Electro-Optical targeting system (EOTS). At the same time, the J-20 is equipped with six discrete, low profile window apertures around the aircraft, also suspected to house Electro-Optic sensors. The apertures are arranged in the aircraft in such manner whence they appear to provide 360-degree spherical coverage around the aircraft and the placement and configuration of the apertures are like the placement of the six apertures for the F-35’s AN/AAQ-37 Distributed Apertures System. Therefore, some Chinese military watchers have described J-20’s Electro Optic Passive Detection System as a ‘DAS’. However, much like the EOTS name, the AN/AAQ37 DAS is a very specific product with specific capabilities for the F-35, and it is unknown if the J-20’s EO PDS will boast similar capabilities.

There are indications that this Chinese jet carries an AESA radar, possibly the Type 1475 (KLJ-5), which is supposedly being tested on a China Test Flight Establishment (CETE) owned Tupolev Tu-204C airliner. Reports suggest that either the NPO Saturn 117S series engine (used on the Russian Su35) or its predecessor, the AL-31FN series3 variant, will power the J-20. However, as seen on the present prototypes, the AL31FN (series 3) cannot generate sufficient thrust for the J-20 to reach super cruise. Hence the Chinese were keen to get their hands on the Su-35 with its Saturn 117S (AL-41F1S) engines, until the indigenously developed WS-15 ‘Emei’ enters service (which is being flight tested on an Il-76 platform). There may also be issues with RCS reduction due to use of canards, which indicates that the Chinese may be facing stability issues on the J-20.

With at least 10 aircraft having been built by late 2016 and a variety of test profiles and certifications being undertaken (including high altitude operational testing in Tibet in September 2016), it appears that the J-20 is on its way for low rate initial production (LRIP), with all older prototypes being delivered to the Flight Test and Training Centre (FTTC) for development of tactics, weapon testing (PL10 and PL-15 firings) and testing of the full flight envelope. The J-20 was publicly shown for the first time at the Zhuhai Airshow in early November 2016. Two J-20s flew a rather sedate flypast in front of disappointed onlookers at the show, clearly indicating that the development challenges on the J-20 were far from over and beyond the regulation chest thumping, the programme was still work in progress, awaiting a ‘worthy’ engine for the platform.

In November 2016, the appearance of four J-20s with serial numbers from 78271 to 78274 was disclosed on the Internet, such serial numbers being PLA air force numbers. All these J-20s have low visibility coating. In addition, a satellite photo showed two J-20s at Dingxin Air Force Base in Jiuquan City, Gansu Province.The J-20s were obviously taking part in the annual large-scale ‘Red Sword’ combined drill in November. Dingxin may well be the first J-20 base of the PLAAF.

On 9 March 2017, Chinese state television reported that the J-20 ‘Mighty Dragon’, China’s first purportedly stealth combat aircraft, was operational, without giving further details. Still, what China defines as “operational” is a matter of conjecture, however Pentagon officials say the announcement means the J-20 has entered formal operational test and will be flown in conjunction with a variety of other Chinese military aircraft to familiarise the service with the jet’s capabilities and experiment with concepts of operation. Operationally, the J-20 in its present profile, will have limited stealth characteristics, with abilities tweaked towards a BVR combat scenario. Given the production rate of 12-15 aircraft annually, the PLAAF may not receive its first operational J-20A regiment before 2019. Still, and whenever this happens, without doubt, the J-20 will have significant impact in the balance of power in Asia and the Pacific region.

Sameer Joshi is a distinguished defence journalist. Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of IDN. IDN does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same