5th-generation single-seat, multirole, stealth fighter developed for the PLAAF, comparable in performance and capability to the U.S. Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor and F-35 Lightning-II, and the Russian Sukhoi Su-57.
- Type: 5th-generation stealth multirole fighter
- Designer: AVIC Chengdu Aircraft Design Institute (611 Institute)
- Manufacturer: AVIC Chengdu Aircraft Industry Corporation (CAC)
- First flight: 11 January 2011
- Introduction: 2016
- Operators: PLAAF
- Crew: 1
- In-flight refuelling: Yes (retractable probe)
In December 2016, China became the second country in the world, after the United States, to have fielded a 5th-generation fighter aircraft in operational service. The result of a development programme that lasted for two decades, the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Corporation (CAC) J-20 is generally regarded as comparable in performance and capability to the Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor. At the same time, Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC) has also introduced the J-31 as a rival. Both aircraft designs feature stealth airframes, advanced radar / optical sensors, and integrated avionics.
China initiated preliminary research on the 5th-generation fighter aircraft under the code name XXJ (“Xin Xin Jian”, or New New-Generation Fighter) in the late 1990s, with two development projects underway in parallel. One development team was formed by the Shenyang Aircraft Design Institute (601 Institute) and Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC), and the second development team formed by the Chengdu Aircraft Design Institute (611 Institute) and Chengdu Aircraft Industry Corporation (CAC).
In 1997, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) first revealed that Chengdu was developing a twin-engined multirole fighter under the code name XXJ, or J-12 in its Chinese designation1.
Some sources also claimed the Chengdu design may have associations with the cancelled Russian MiG Project 1.44/MFI2.
In December 2010, imagery of a new fighter with strong stealth features undergoing low-speed taxi tests at CAC were posted on the Internet and social media. The aircraft was subsequently identified as the first prototype (‘2001’) of the J-20 technology demonstrator developed by 611 Institute and CAC. The aircraft made its maiden flight on 11 January 2011, followed by a second prototype (‘2002’) in May 2012.
In March 2014, the third prototype (‘2011’) featuring some modifications on aerodynamic design and an under-chin electro-optical targeting system (EOTS) turret was introduced. More prototypes were subsequently spotted undergoing intensive flight testing in the next few years.
The J-20 made its public debut during the 2016 Zhuhai Air Show, with two examples in PLAAF livery performing a short one-minute flight demonstration. Two examples of the production variant J-20 were handed to the PLAAF in December 2016 for operational test and evaluation, followed by the delivery of few more examples in 2017. Three J-20 fighters took part in the flypast on 30 July 2017 to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the PLA.
The J-20 is a single-seat, twin-engine fighter aircraft featuring a tailless delta wing layout, with a pair of foreplane canards, two V-shape all-moving vertical tails, two tapered under-fuselage stabilising fins, and two tail booms. A small leading-edge root extension (LERX) runs forward from the leading edge of the wing root to improve the airflow at high angles of attack and low airspeeds.
Strong radar cross section (RCS) reduction features can be seen throughout the aircraft’s design, including a blended fuselage covered in radiation-absorbing material (RAM) paint, and serrated edges on undercarriage/weapon bay doors. Weapon payloads are carried inside internal weapon bays. The aircraft uses diverterless supersonic inlet (DSI), which employs a one-piece bump to eliminate all moving parts on the inlet, thus reducing the airframe’s structural weight and radar signature. Finally, the engines feature a silver-colour nozzle possibly with a ceramic coating and saw tooth edges to reduce RCS and IR emission.
The aircraft is equipped with a retractable in-flight refuelling probe hidden underneath a cover.
The single-seat cockpit has a bubble-shaped, one-piece frameless canopy. The ‘glass’ cockpit is equipped with large liquid crystal displays (LCD) and a head up display (HUD). The aircraft can be operated through traditional hands on throttle and stick (HOTAS) system.
Fixed armament includes an internal cannon.
There are two main internal weapon bays with 4 payload hard points for MRAAM or bombs, and two side internal weapon bays each with 2 payload hard points for SRAAM. The J-20 has been seen carrying PL-10 IR-homing SRAAM and PL-15 active radar-homing MRAAM. It is also expected to be capable of carrying small-diameter precision-guidance munitions such as the CASC FT (Feiteng) and LS (Leishi) series, and the Luoyang LT (Leiting) series.
The J-20 is equipped with an active electronically-scanned array (AESA) fire-control radar developed by Nanjing Research Institute of Electronic Technology (NRIET, or 14 Institute) of the China Electronics Technology Corporation (CETC).
There is also an under-chin turret containing an electro-optical targeting system (EOTS), which would comprise an infrared search and track (IRST) sensor and a laser rangefinder. The system is used to detect enemy targets passively without requiring to turn on the fire-control radar, thus reducing the chance of the aircraft being detected.
There are also four diamond-shaped windows on the J-20’s fuselage, which are possibly for a system similar to the electro-optical distributed aperture system (EO-DAS) of the F-35. It would provide the aircraft with a 360° spherical situational awareness capability to detect any incoming enemy aircraft, missiles, and hostile ground fire. The aircraft’s countermeasures suite would consist of IFF and flare/chaff dispenser.
All sensors and electronic sub-systems are linked through an advanced serial data bus to the mission computer for form an integrated system management network. The aircraft can also exchange real-time battlefield information with other combat aircraft or AEW&C aircraft through advanced datalink, which is now found in most PLA combat aircraft.
As a result of its advanced systems architecture, the J-20 is believed to possess the similar situational awareness, command and control, and network-centric warfare capabilities to the F-35 Lightning-II.
The initial production variant of the J-20 is powered by two Russian Lyulka-Saturn AL-31F-M2 turbofan engines (rated at 86.3kN/19,400 lb dry and 142kN/32,000 lb with afterburning) with fixed nozzles. The aircraft lacks the thrust vectoring control (TVC) capability and is not believed to be capable of super cruise (despite some sources claiming otherwise).
The Chinese aviation industry is developing an indigenous high-thrust turbofan engine WS-10A Taihang, which will replace the Russian engine on the batch-production variant J-20.
The J-20 is capable of in-flight refuelling, with a retractable refuelling probe hidden underneath a cover.
- Unknown, 1997. China Focuses on XXJ. Flight International, 12 March 1997. p15.
- Sputnik International. 2016. Separated At Birth? China’s J-20 Stealth Jet Looks Just Like MiG Prototype. [ONLINE] Available at: https://sputniknews.com/military/201611021047001359-china-j20-russia-mig-144/. [Accessed 17 August 2017].