Analysis of the Chinese J-20 stealth fighter

As an advanced multirole stealth fighter, the J-20 stealth fighter can fulfill both air-to-air and air-to-ground combat roles for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and the aviation branch of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (referred to as either Naval Aviation or the PLAN-AF). According to PLAAF Senior Colonel Shen Jinke, the J-20 will enhance the overall combat capability of China’s air force.

Highlights of sn analysis from China Power Team. “Does China’s J-20 rival other stealth fighters?” China Power. February 15, 2017. Updated December 12, 2017. Accessed December 14, 2017. https://chinapower.csis.org/china-chengdu-j-20/

The United States is the only country with a fully operational fifth-generation fighter. Several other countries including Russia, India, and Japan are currently in the process of developing their own advanced stealth fighters that fit this classification.

The J-20 is one of two stealth fighters being simultaneously developed in China. The other aircraft is the Shenyang FC-31, a smaller multirole stealth fighter that is being developed by the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation and could potentially be commercially exported to other countries. The two Chinese stealth fighters may have been designed to complement each other in a similar manner to the planned deployment of the F-22 and F-35 by the United States. At present, China and the U.S. are the only two countries that have concurrent stealth fighter programs.

On September 28, 2017, it was announced that the J-20 has been officially commissioned into service, but the aircraft is unlikely to be fully operational until 2018 or 2019.

Closer in size to the US F-22

Early reports over-estimated the J-20’s length at approximately 23 meters (m), but satellite imagery has reliably shown the J-20 to be between 20.3 and 20.5 meters long – making it comparable in size to both its American and Russian counterparts.

It has been reported that the J-20 is expected to feature a Maximum Takeoff Weight (MTOW) of 34,000 – 37,000 kilograms. By comparison, the F-22 has an MTOW of 38,000 kilograms, and the T-50 has an MTOW between 35,000 – 37,000 kilograms. Some analysts have suggested, however, that it is unlikely for the J-20 to have a lower MTOW than the F-22.

Weapons

The J-20 contains two lateral bays for small air-to-air missiles and a larger bay under the fuselage for a variety of missiles and surface attack weapons. This is similar to the weapons bay configuration of the F-22.

Advanced electronics

The J-20 carries a variety of advanced electronic systems.
– active electronically scanned array
– a chin mounted infrared/electro-optic search and track sensor
– a passive electro-optical detection system that will provide 360° spherical coverage around the aircraft.

These systems are expected to be comparable to those found inside the F-35.

The J-20 is likely to field an advanced communications suite that will enable it to datalink with friendly platforms in service and platforms under development, such as the Divine Eagle airborne early warning drone.

Engines

China plans to upgrade the J-20 in the coming years with the Chinese-made WS-15 engine, which would provide the J-20 with sustained supersonic travel (supercruise). This new engine may rival the cutting-edge Pratt & Whitney F119 engine currently used by the F-22. Compared to the older engines, the WS-15 would enable the J-20 to travel further while consuming less fuel and fly faster for longer periods of time. It is unknown when the WS-15 will be put online; in the interim, it has been reported that China has outfitted the newer models of the J-20 with the WS-10 engine. The domestically built WS-10 is less powerful than the WS-15, but advanced versions of the WS-10 are capable of achieving low supercruise. Other countries with advanced militaries, such as the U.S., Russia, and many European countries, all have fighter aircraft with supercruise capability.

J-20 Stealth a work in progress

Analysis shows the J-20 has achieved some Low Observable design goals for enhanced stealth. Such a design allows the J-20 to bypass radar and electronic countermeasures with low to zero visibility. However, some aspects of the aircraft, such as the round nozzle of earlier models (the WS-15 may have a stealthier design) may work against its stealth capabilities.

Advanced versions of the WS-10 engine are reported to feature sawtooth serrations around its edges that are designed to redirect radar away from the nozzles. In contrast, the F-22’s Pratt & Whitney F119 engines have square nozzles, which greatly improves stealth.

Mass Production and cost

The J-20 has now entered low-rate initial production (LRIP), the small-quantity testing phase prior to mass production. Estimates of J-20 cost ranging from $30 million to up to $120 million. The F-22 had a per-unit cost of $143 million while the T-50 is estimated to cost less than $100 million. China capable of mass-producing the J-20. Higher-end estimates indicate that several hundred J-20s will be produced to replace older fighters.

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