China Has Big Plans for Its Deadly New Stealth Fighter

But is the J-20 a threat to American air superiority?

Two People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) J-20 stealth fighter jets fly over spectators during an aerial performance at the China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai, China, on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2016. The biannual air show runs from November 1 to 6. Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg
Two People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) J-20 stealth fighter jets fly over spectators during an aerial performance at the China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai, China, on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2016. The biannual air show runs from November 1 to 6. Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

On Nov. 1, above review stands filled with dignitaries and aviation enthusiasts, two arrow-shaped aircraft roared low over Airshow China, the biennial exhibition in the southern city of Zhuhai. As reverberations from their thundering engines set off car alarms below, China’s first stealth fighter made its public debut: The Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter had arrived.

Over the decades, as China’s economy has grown into the world’s second-largest, the country’s military requirements have changed. The peasant armies are gone, replaced by stealth fighters, armed drones, and submarines. The People’s Liberation Army has seen overall numbers slashed even as its budget grows and its technology advances. At the same time, Beijing’s reassertion of its expansionist territorial claims in the East and South China Seas has made rivals out Tokyo and Washington. From China’s perspective, this means it needs a modern military with the ability to project power outside of its own borders, operating at the same technological level as those of the United States, Western European countries, and Japan. And the J-20 is the poster child of China’s efforts at expanding and modernizing its defense establishment.

China’s efforts to primarily import military technology had a fledgling start in the 1980s, when imports from the West began to trickle into the gap left by the Sino-Soviet split in 1968, but were cut short by an arms embargo in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. This forced China to rely again upon Russian arms technology, industrial espionage directed at Western arms manufacturers, and domestic research and development. Fortunately for Beijing, a growing economy has meant China has been able to afford a 10 percent average annual increase in defense spending over the past quarter century, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute data shows. Much of this has gone into R&D.

The J-20 stealth fighter is a symbol not only of China’s growing power-projection capability — causing growing unease among its neighbors — but also of a domestic arms industry that is increasingly competitive with its Western peers. Chinese pundits are already talking up the plane. Du Wenlong, a military analyst with the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences, told the Paper, a state-funded digital publication based in Shanghai, that “in the J-20, we don’t just see ‘made in China’ but also ‘created by China.’ Its aerodynamic configuration is totally different from Russian jets or the jets we are familiar with. It’s absolutely Chinese … the Chinese aerospace system and the Chinese combat ammunition system all symbolize the nature of the PLA Air Force.”

The history of the J-20 goes back to the mid-to-late 1990s, when the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence noted the existence of a Chinese project to create a stealthy, twin-engine fighter nicknamed “XXJ.” In November 2009, Gen. He Weirong, the commander of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, announced on state television that the J-20 was expected to debut between 2017 and 2019. The first leaked photos of the Chengdu Aerospace Corporation’s new jet appeared in December 2010, and the initial prototype made its first flight the following month. The conspicuous test run coincided with U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s official visit to Beijing, with the New York Times calling the event an “unusually bold show of force by China.” Photos of the second prototype emerged in 2012.

The J-20 is a very ambitious aircraft. It features two engines and a stealthy exterior designed to beat enemy radar. The single-seat airplane has two air intakes on both sides of the cockpit, a pair of small, wing-like canards, and twin vertical stabilizers. A pair of dagger-like ventral strakes partially conceal the turbofan engine exhausts from side view.

The plan was to create a “fifth-generation fighter,” incorporating advanced avionics, a high performance engine and airframe, advanced battlefield communications, and most importantly, a stealthy airframe. The comparable plane at the time of its introduction was the American F-22 Raptor.

The 2011 reveal created more questions than it answered. How stealthy was the plane exactly? What was its mission? What engines powered it? How did China, which had previously only produced one original fourth-generation fighter — the Chengdu J-10 — field a fifth-generation design so quickly? How much of the progress was due to Chinese innovation and the sheer amount of resources poured into the program? How much was due to Chinese industrial espionage, including the 2007 theft of Joint Strike Fighter secrets? Did the Chinese made deliberate compromises in the design, viewing the perfect to be the enemy of the good?

Some of these questions were answered three years later by the appearance of the first development aircraft, which flew on March 1, 2014. The new, improved design featured radar-absorbent paint, a redesigned canopy, redesigned external features such as air intakes and wheel doors, and — most importantly — a new nose to accommodate an active electronically scanned radar (AESA). A gold standard among modern fighters, AESA radars create discrete “beams” of radio waves that allow detection without revealing the aircraft carrying it — a key requirement for stealth aircraft.

Even more features were added. An infrared search and track sensor, another Western innovation allowing the plane to use infrared cameras to detect, identify, track and ultimately shoot at enemy aircraft, was installed in a fairing underneath the nose. The aircraft also appears to have windows on all sides of the fuselage, suggesting it may have a distributed aperture system, a network of cameras that allow the pilot to see in all directions through his helmet without turning his head.

The cockpit of the J-20 now sports three large flat panel displays that replace traditional instruments and dials. It also has a holographic heads-up display, standard on warplanes since the 1980s, to feed the pilot essential information.

The aircraft’s shape and stealthy profile have evolved over the course of development. While it’s difficult to measure an airplane’s stealth without actively testing it, the J-20 appears to have a very stealthy profile from the front angle, though the canards — or winglets — placed behind the cockpit make it less stealthy from the sides. The rear of the plane, with fully exposed engine exhausts (the F-22 Raptor hides its engine exhausts) is vulnerable to detection by enemy radar.

Meanwhile, sourcing the fighter jet’s engines has proven a problem for China. The J-20 needs two powerful, high-performance engines to “supercruise” — aviation jargon for cruising above the speed of sound with a full load of weapons and fuel. China’s aviation industry has lagged far behind those of the West and Russia in the development of high-performance jet engines. Early J-20 models are flying with imported Russian AL-31FN engines, as its predecessor plane, the J-10, did, but production aircraft are expected to fly with domestically built Xian WS-15 engines offering 50 percent more thrust.

But what exactly is this plane for? A twin-engine aircraft with three internal weapons bays is capable of a range of missions. One potential use for the J-20 is as a long-range strike aircraft, capable of penetrating enemy air defense networks to launch missiles against high-value ground targets such as airfields, command and control bases, and other military installations. Another is as an air superiority fighter like the F-22, designed to duke it out with enemy planes far from the Chinese mainland — such as disputed territories in the South and East China Seas.

Aviation analysts Mike Yeo and Chris Pocock believe that based on the emphasis on frontal-aspect low visibility the J-20 is meant to be a long-range interceptor. In that case, the J-20 would detect and shoot at enemy planes head-on from beyond visual range. Such a role would make the J-20’s less-effective stealth from the sides and rear less of an issue than if it was intended to be a penetrating strike jet that would travel deep into enemy territory and need to be stealthy from all angles.

Andreas Rupprecht, author of the authoritative Modern Chinese Warplanes, told Foreign Policy that satellite photography reveals the J-20 is not as large as originally thought, suggesting it has less internal volume to carry large air-to-ground munitions. He also pointed to the writings of influential Chinese aircraft designers that stressed “supercruise, high maneuverability, [and] unconventional maneuvers” as requirements for the plane that would eventually become the J-20 — all attributes of fighters and not attack jets.

Yin Zhuo, a Chinese military academic, concurs, stating in the Paper, “The stealth fighter is bound to be China’s major fighter airplane in future, as well as the principal fighter through which China will gain air supremacy.”

It has already gained China some international respect. The rapid development of the J-20 — from mock-up to low-rate production in less than a decade — has stunned aviation enthusiasts. Rupprecht points out that Gen. He was correct in predicting the J-20 would be operational between 2017 and 2019, a prediction that had been initially met with considerable skepticism outside China. Whatever the delays, difficulties, or costs — all of which are totally unknown thanks to the opacity of China’s military establishment — the plane has come in on time. Rupprecht believes the J-20 is indeed on schedule, with a first flight testing and training squadron standing up in 2017 and a combat-ready unit to follow two years thereafter.

The J-20 is a giant leap for the Chinese aviation industry — and the country’s military strength. We still don’t know the plane’s capabilities and what difficulties it will face in the future. But we do know one thing: The West now has to take the aircraft, and China’s military-industrial complex, seriously.

Photo credit: Bloomberg/Contributor

 Twitter: @KyleMizokami