China’s new J-20 “Mighty Dragon” stealth fighter officially unveiled and ready to enter active service

Nov 01 2016 - 39 Comments
By Andreas Rupprecht

The PLAAF (People’s Liberation Army Air Force) has eventually unveiled its long-awaited J-20 stealth fighter to the public during the Zhuhai Air Show’s opening ceremony. Is it possible to compare it with the F-22?

Two LRIP (Low-rate Initial Production) J-20A stealth jets did a brief 60-second fly-past at the Zhuhai Air Show 2016 in Guangdong province on the Show’s first day on Nov. 1, 2016, marking the first public appearance of the “Mighty Dragon” fighter that performed its maiden flight back in 2011.

Even though the J-20s did not fly a dramatic flight demo, the two fighters thundered above hundreds of spectators as well as political and industrial dignitaries and executives, made a few climbs, turns and formation fly-bys and then disappeared again.

The public appearance was far from being unannounced, due to the preparation at CAC earlier this month.

Four days ago even the PLAAF itself announced in an official statement, that it would demonstrate its latest J-20 stealth fighter jet at the Zhuai Air Show: Senior Colonel Shen Jinke, PLAAF- spokesman noted, that “the J-20 was designed by our aircraft researchers for future aerial combat. Test pilots from the Air Force will use it to perform at the 11th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition.”

The Chinese Chengdu J-20 is a fifth generation stealth aircraft developed by Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF).

We still know little of about this aircraft even though it bears a loose resemblance to at least three (if not more) other types of aircraft: the F-22 Raptor; the Mig 1.42 prototype; and the the Mig-31 “Firefox”, a fictional aircraft appearing in “Firefox”, a 1982 action film produced and directed by, and starring, Clint Eastwood based on a 1977 novel written by Craig Thomas.

j-20a-lrip-yellow-30-9-16-12

The aircraft is believed to be equipped with IRST (Infra-Red Search and Tracking), AESA radar and several other interesting stuff, but its ability to match the most advanced western “hardware” is still much debated.

What follows is an analysis of the latest J-20’s achievements.

2016 milestones

With the arrival of the first LRIP aircraft in December 2015 and further new aircraft since then, all “older” prototypes (2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017) were transferred in the meantime to the CFTE at Xi’an-Yanliang for further ongoing tests with regular detachments for alleged weapons testing at the PLAAF’S Flight Test and Training Base (FTTC) at Dingxin. These tests so far included captive tests with four large drop-tanks and reportedly included firings of both the new PL-15 long-range AAM as well as the new PL-10 short-range AAM. Besides that, it was reported that the WS-15 has just finished ground testing (with a thrust of about 160kN reached), and it is ready to begin the test on an IL-76LL platform.

In retrospect the year 2016 so far was an extremely successful year for CAC: reports assume that at least seven LRIP J-20As were flown; and most interesting, not only in yellow primer or standard PLAAF-grey with toned-down national markings, but apparently at least one spotting an all-new splinter scheme [similar to that used by West’s Aggressors]. Other reports assume that a few J-20A have already left Chengdu to a first OPEVAL unit, which is most likely established at the flight test center (FTTC) at Dingxin air base, where 12 new hangars were erected since 2015.

Otherwise most spectators, enthusiast and analysts still have to be patient and it is surely too early to judge to what extent the J-20 can match the stealth properties of the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II or how far its avionics are comparable. So far not even its external dimensions, specifications on its KLJ-5 AESA-radar –that is also under test on a special Tu-204C testbed – nor its type of engine were officially revealed, however following the latest reports it is not unlikely a special custom-tailored version based on the Salut AL-31FM2.

j-20a-lrip-grey-splinter-camo-17-10-16-2-xl

Conclusion

Since its maiden flight in January 2011 ten prototypes were manufactured (Note: the two demonstrators 2001, 2002 = now 2004, + the prototypes 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017 and two static test specimen) and that this type is to be the third stealth fighter jet to enter operational service following the United States’ F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II. In retrospect the J-20A has indeed reached the LRIP-phase with the J-20’s design being frozen. If the PLAAF follows now the usual procedures, a first unit equipped with these LRIP J-20As of the current interim standard will enter service within the PLAAF at around the year’s end or early 2017; much earlier than expected. As such it seems to be confirmed that even if limited in its capabilities due to the missing WS-15, the PLAAF will bring that type to service as soon as possible to exploit and explore operational tactics and procedures for this new fighter.

Concluding, the J-20 is a giant leap for the PLAAF both capability-wise and technology-wise alike. Did anyone of us expect a Chinese stealth fighter to be operational before 2020 when asked in, let’s say, 2010?

As such even if probably no match in terms of stealth to the latest F-fighters (due to no stealthy-nozzle, open chaff-and-flare boxes and other details…) it is surely much more stealthy than any other type operational in that area. Even if its engines are not the top ones desired – aka the future WS-15 – they are surely comparable (if my theory is correct and I’m quite confident!) – they give that type already a performance surely not worse than the latest J-11B … as such it is a huge step even if it might be well below the F-22’s capabilities.

Andreas Rupprecht is an aviation journalist. He has written several books on China’s military aviation, including “Flashpoint China” and “Modern Chinese Warplanes”.

Image credit: Weibo/Chinese Internet via Rupprecht

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  • leroy

    I watched video of the J-20 flying at the Zhuhai air show. Needless to say, I was not impressed. Not with the plane’s looks, not with its obvious lack of stealth, not with its large size, not with its ho-hum maneuverability. The electronics are probably as lackluster. I wouldn’t hesitate to fight it in a Tomcat (R.I.P.) or Eagle. Viper or Typhoon. Rafale or Hornet.

    Now you China-good America-bad and canard fanatics may like it, and we won’t ever hear you say a bad word in critique against it, but trust me – the U.S. military is not worried about putting F-22 or F-35 in a fight vs. it
    .
    Obviously the air vehicle was made using stolen design schematics from the U.S. F-35 and Russia’s failed MiG-1.44 projects. A bast_rd child if I may be so bold. But competitive with American 5th gen? Not on your life! Yet for them it is admittedly a start.

    Next time, when we design our 6th gen, let’s make sure we secure all servers. Let the Chinese make a plane all by their lonesome – that is IF they can. But fear the F-35? The PLAAF and RuAF had better. They have nothing that can compete with it, and won’t for at least one to two decades. Hope the locals enjoy the airshow.

    • Tobias Rikard Bjurefjäll

      They are not intended to fight against F-22 and F-35, so yes, US military have no worries about that, and with the rest you say, you must be an well educated experts that have this ideas that most aerodynamic, military and electronic expert do not have, very interesting indeed.

    • Diego Castellanos

      “Needless to say, I was not impressed”… Of course leroy, my little kid. You are going to each possible military website saying the same: “They have nothing that can compete with it, and won’t for at least one to two decades”… blah, blah, blah. Keep in your delusions.

      • leroy

        I’ve got a Gold set of wings compliments of the U.S. Navy. Tell me Diego, what did they pin on your chest after all those hours flying kites?

    • MzUnGu

      And I suppose how Yak-141 look like F-35 is just coincidence…

    • Dilewizite

      “and won’t for at least one to two decades”

      WOW now that’s some insider’s information. How long have you worked in the Pentagon to be so sure about the future of the Russian forces ?

    • Middle_Kingdom

      LoL…Does saying all these nonsense make you feel more comfortable? F-22 is decent but F-35 is like a piece of shit before J-20. Btw, your 6th Gen fighter is a joke. We can do dozens of pre-design picture within one day…

    • Tribunal-Orders-Rape

      Your comment clearly has been shoved right up from your one single pipe of green-with-envy and fake-as-ersatz self-righteousness that your mom gave you at birth.
      The J-20 is designed to work with ground / surface radars to completely wipe out American aerial tankers, AWACS, JSTARS and especially the F-35 using its superior PL-15 and PL-21 missiles that outstick anything carried by the little stubby and squat fella, the F-35.
      The J-20 is not designed to fight in American airspace. This job is strictly reserved for the huge arsenal of cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and hypersonic missiles that the aggressive American attacker currently cannot match.

      • leroy

        You are funny. Nothing China has can compete with U.S. and Western equipment. Nothing. No ships, planes or submarines. Maybe you can explain why China can’t build a decent fighter engine, and why they have to steal most of what they have from the low-tech Russians? If there is any envy here, it’s coming from your hilarious comment!

        • Buddy Frank

          You can’t hear correctly. A man just said China has the fastest super-computer for the last 6 years in a row.

          No major nation fight a war for 70 years. Let’s leave it that way and hope we will never have to find out who’s #1.

    • Pepe Le Cox

      everything is a waste of money for the US taxpayer, China will never go to war with USA and viceversa, USA will never go to war with Russia and viceversa, all this technology is designed to be sold at the end, is a busineess like any other, but very profitable!

      • Tim Wm Mullenberg

        Drones are the most efficient predators on the planet and everyone know the number of targets are relatively small if you destroy only the people with influence. Terrorist easily win mental battles, war is about forcibly changing attitudes.

  • New User

    Su-35 is likely to be the premier multi role fighter in the PLAAF’s forthcoming inventory.

    • theworkingclass

      The Shenyang J-16 is more likely to be the premier multi role fighter than the Su-35, which is from Russia. China is only buying 24 Su-35s but they can build their J-16 as much as they want. The Chengdu J-10 series already has a strike version. I am waiting for a strike variant of their new J-20. Perhaps specialized for anti-ship missiles, unless they intend that role for their upcoming H-20 bomber.

    • kiwi7

      Shortly after 17th Nov. meeting between Mr. Vladimir Putin and Mr. Xu Qiliang (Deputy Chairman of the Central Military Commission), Russia nad China signed a contract for 24 Su-35 units to supply.

      Flying beauty, isn´t she?

      • leroy

        So was a Spitfire, but you wouldn’t take it into combat today. This is a 1970s vintage aircraft that cannot compete with U.S. 5th gen. The Russian Air Force is a joke and getting funnier with every NATO nation that is transitioning to the F-35. In an air war, Sukhois and MiGs would be falling from the skies like chickens dropped out of hot air balloons! All flap no fly.

        • Ned Carbine

          Obviously you are not a pilot and speak for overseers. The F-35 flies about as well as a cannon ball, can’t dogfight and has Chinese chips. So much for the F-35.

    • Tribunal-Orders-Rape

      The Su-35 is actually a piece of crap. Why ? It is unlikely to do well against smaller aircraft like the Gripen armed with the Meteor missile.

  • Mongee Phase

    Retro engineering near perfect clones of all types of tech for half of the prize. Under cutting the market in all fronts including aerospace & astronautics. Good for some if you know how to take advantage, buying directly from China. Regardless J-20 is a good testing bed for the next Stealth dragon. 20-30 years from now….

  • Alan Grant

    I don´t know about its capabilities, but it looks pretty cool, specially with that paint scheme, reminds me of the futuristic fighter concepts drawings from the 80´s, lol.
    I have always thought this plane was a demostrator, are they going to make this desing operational?

  • the real proof will be when they get in skirmishes with some of their neighbors. Vs indian rafaeles, japanese or korean f-16/15’s will be the real test

  • Dilewizite

    uh, did you write MIG31 Firefox ???

  • so is it just really a fat interceptor?

  • sferrin

    “We need to cancel the F-22. It’ll take Russia and China 20 years to build a stealth fighter.” – Bob Gates.

    Loved the big middle finger China gave him when they performed the J-20s first flight the day he visited China less than a year later.

    • Uniform223

      Despite Gates’s terrible decision (lets just call it stupidity), the F-22 would most likely still be more advanced (in the area of sensors and avionics) than anything the J-20 could ever hope to be. Same goes with the F-35. The F-22 and F-35 will not be sitting idle.

  • Pepe Le Cox

    The moderator here es biased, my posts are always delayed more than two or three days, will never post here anything, you win avitionist! post only leroy and you will have zero comments in the future

    • cencio4

      Moderation here happens on a “best effort” fashion.
      When I have time to check the comments in moderation queue, I can moderate them. Depending on the schedule and number of comments, there can be as many as 100 comments waiting moderation every day. There is absolutely no discrimination between one post and another one.

  • leroy

    This story published in Wired by aviation expert Richard Aboulafia, of the Teal Group, says it all (and might I add agrees with my analysis):

    “Take the J-20 front canards, the elevator-like surfaces ahead of the wing. They’re no good for stealth flight, and they’re likely there to counteract an inherent instability in the design. The J-20 lacks the maneuverability and electronics, communications, and sensing capabilities of its US counterparts. “In head-to-head combat, the J-20 would lose in seconds,” Aboulafia says.”

    Most commenting here have little understanding or knowledge of stealth aircraft. Glad I’m not one of you. Of course the fact is that most of you are simply jealous because you come from countries that are far below the U.S. in any number of measures. In other words you are jealous of American superiority. My advice? Get over it. The U.S. will remain at the top of the military and economic pyramid for a long time. Your nations can’t even dream of achieving what America has and will. Too bad for you. Keep drooling!

  • Uniform223

    Are you referring to their hypersonic test bed? The U.S did it earlier with the X-51 Waverider. Of course there has been much speculation that the U.S. has had hypersonic vehicles/platforms since the late 80s ala Aurora.

  • Top secret clearence

    On September 18,2015 a 6th generation airplane flew at mach 6 speed and landed.I think it used two turbo-scram jet engines(see Popular Science article on Wang Zhengou and his turbo-scram jet engine with pictures) and a low cost grapheme alloy airframe like the C919 grapheme airframe.Grapheme is 10 times stronger than titanium and twice the melting point of titanium.The SR-71,F-22,F-35 used very expensive titanium alloy which can be seen by quantum radar.The F-22 had to moved from Japan to Guam,hopefully out of quantum range.The 24 Su-35 and the J-20 will fill the gap until the 6th generation hypersonic and 6th generation bomber (H-20) are deployed

  • Top secret clearence

    I wonder how many decades did China needed to developed quantum radar, grapheme,supersonic missiles,hypersonic airplanes,high speed rails ,4th generation nuclear plants,and BYD electric buses manufacture in California? Please do not under estimate Japan and the zero that bomb Pearl Harbor.

  • Top secret clearence

    The X-51 used a very expensive titanium airframe and scram jet engine..It was dropped from a bomber,once it obtain mach 2 speed,the scam jet ignited sending it to mach 5.1 speed for 4 minutes.The Chinese airplane took off ,flew at mach 6 speed for several hours and landed on September 18,2015.I think it used two turbo-scram jet engines and a low cost grapheme alloy airframe.

  • Top secret clearence

    The J-20 and J-31 or any weapons shown at the Zhuhai air show are for sale.China sold Saudi Arabia and Kuwait 128 PLZ-45 155mm self propelled artillery vehicles over the objection from the US at 7.4 million dollars each.China sold Iran 120 J-10B for oil.China is building a net work of high speed rails connecting every cities in Iran.I think China will sell anything to Iran to protect its investments,same with Pakistan which they gave the nuclear bomb to.

  • Top secret clearence

    The J-20,J-31,F-22 and F-35 can be seen by quantum radar.Anton Zelinger is going to China to help developed quantum commnication.He does speak Chinese he has a Ph d in physics

  • Top secret clearence

    Why spend money to do research,when the world is willing to joint venture with you?If they are not willing to share,you spend money for hypersonic planes,supersonic missiles,quantum communication,quantum radar,hypersonic cruise missiles,,4th generation nuclear reactors.Some of the success of joint ventures that China improved are rockets to the moon,high speed rails,computers,televisions,electric vehicles,air planes,tunnel boring machine and bridges.

  • Ned Carbine

    The J-20 is a piece of junk. Time to splash a couple of them just for drill.

  • Top secret clearence

    The J-20 is the stealth Mig 1.44 that the former Soviet Union developed and ran out of funds.The development was sold to China along with the jet engines.China has developed a WS-15 engine using a (Ti45Al8Ni) alloy that is 50% stronger than GEnx engines that powers Boeing 787.AECC has a 20 billion dollars budget,100 thousand employees to manufacture the WS-15 engines and Wang Zhengou tubo-scram jet engines.Please do not under estimate China innovation like quantum physics,grapheme,the largest directional telescope,the pebble bed nuclear reactor or the WU-14 supersonic missiles.Over estimation led us to Pearl Harbor ,the Maginot Line and Billy Mitchell sinking of the Navy battleship.

  • Top secret clearence

    The J-31 with a new WS-15 engines is for sale.Pakistan has ordered 30 J-31 and maybe Iran.In the last Zhuhai Air Show ,China sold 128 PLZ-45 155mm artillery vehicle for 7.4 million dollars each to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait over the US objection.The PLZ-45 is being used in Yemen.