Key Point: It's an effective surface-attack platform

by David Axe

China's J-20 stealth fighter was a disappointment at the 2018 edition of the country's annual air show in Zhuhai in southern China.

Three of the twin-engine warplanes put on what one reporter called a "conservative" aerial display lacking quick turns and other high-energy manoeuvres.

Likewise, it was apparent that the J-20s at Zhuhai didn't feature the latest, Chinese-made WS-15 engine, and instead were still flying with older, Russian-made AL-31 engines.

But the fighter's unimpressive performance at the airshow probably is not indicative of its usefulness in combat, nor the transformation of Chinese air power that it's helping to propel.

The J-20 first appeared in public in blurry photos that circulated on-line in late 2011, surprising foreign observers and even some military officials who assumed Beijing would need more time to complete a true stealth fighter.

A low-observable warplane design requires precise shaping and hard-to-manufacture radar-absorbing materials. Mastering those qualities is expensive and time-consuming. Before the J-20 finally entered front-line service in September 2017, only the United States was capable of designing, building and operating stealth fighters.

But with strong government support and benefiting from intensive industrial espionage targeting U.S. and European aerospace firms, China's aviation industry has developed quickly in recent decades. "We have become capable of designing and making what we want to have," Yang Wei, AVIC's deputy director of science and technology, told the government-owned China Daily newspaper in March 2018.

The J-20 in many ways is the main focus of Beijing's military aviation modernisation efforts. A prototype flew for the first time in January 2012. Subsequent prototypes benefited from a steep learning curve, boasting tighter manufacturing tolerances, more sophisticated coatings and better sensors.