China initiated preliminary research on the 5th-generation fighter aircraft technology in the late 1990s. The two primary fighter aircraft manufacturers, Shenyang Aircraft Industries Corporation (SAIC) and Chengdu Aircraft Industries Corporation (CAIC), were competing for the contract of the PLA’s next-generation fighter programme known to Western intelligence as XXJ or J-XX.
In 1997, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) reported that an advanced F-22-class twin-engine stealth fighter codenamed XXJ was being developed by the Shenyang Aircraft Design Institute (601 Institute) and SAIC. In 2001, an Internet-source photo showed a F-22-like aircraft model was being tested in a wind tunnel at 601 Institute. At the same time, it was revealed that the Chengdu Aircraft Design Institute (611 Institute) and CAIC was also working an advanced fighter, possibly based on the knowledge and experience gained from the development of the J-10 fighter.
In December 2010, imagery of a new fighter with strong stealth features undergoing low-speed taxi test at the CAIC test site began to emerge on Chinese Internet and social media. The aircraft was subsequently identified as the first prototype (‘2001’) of the J-20, a 5th-generation fighter developed by the CAIC. The aircraft made its maiden flight successfully on 11 January 2011, followed by a second prototype (‘2002’) in May 2012. Both examples served as technology demonstrators to validate the aircraft’s aerodynamic design.
In March 2014, the third J-20 prototype (‘2011’) began its flight tests. This example featured some minor modifications on aerodynamic design as well as a new chin-mounted electro-optical targeting system (EOTS) turret. By late 2015, at least nine prototypes of the J-20 were believed to be undergoing flight testing. Low rate initial production of the J-20 reportedly began in 2016.
At least 8 prototypes and 4 low-rate initial production examples delivered to the PLAAF for operational trial and evaluation, before the full batch production can begin. The aircraft was unveiled to the public for the first time at the Zhuhai Air Show in November 2016.
J-20 Prototype ‘2001/2002’ Imagery
J-20 Prototype ‘2011/2012’ Imagery
J-20 Prototype ‘2015/2016’ Imagery
J-20 Early Production Variant Imagery
The J-20 is a single-seat, twin-engine stealthy fighter featuring a tailless delta wing layout, with a pair of foreplane canards, two V-shape all-moving tails, two tapered under-fuselage stabilising fins, and tail booms. The aircraft bears strong radar cross section (RCS) reduction features, including a blended fuselage with internal weapon bay, serrated edges on undercarriage/weapon bay doors, and diverterless supersonic inlet (DSI).
No detailed information on the aircraft’s performance or its sub-systems has been disclosed, but one can assume that the aircraft will possess most of capabilities of a typical 5th-generation fighter such as AESA radar, ‘glass’ cockpit, electro-optical targeting system, side-looking distributed aperture system, highly integrated avionics, high-capacity data link, etc.
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, which do not offer the super cruise and thrust vectoring control (TVC) capabilities. The engines of the J-20 feature a silver colour nozzle possibly with a ceramic coating and saw tooth edges to reduce RCS and IR emission. The aircraft also has a retractable in-flight refuelling probe hidden underneath a cover.
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 Feiteng (FT) series.
The J-20 is fitted with a Chinese indigenous active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar developed by the 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), and a four diamond-shaped windows on the fuselage possibly for an electro-optical distributed aperture system (EO-DAS). These sub-systems, together with an advanced data link, allow the J-20 to possess situational awareness, command and control, and network-centric warfare capabilities on a par with the latest Western combat aircraft such as the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightening-II.
The J-20 also features a standard electronic warfare and countermeasures (EW/ECM) suite consisting of flare/chaff dispenser.