Tag Archives: Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II

Check Out This Photo of an F-35 Thundering Through The “Star Wars” Canyon With Visible Shock Waves

An F-35 performed some high-speed passes through the famous “Jedi Transition” in the Death Valley. Generating visible shockwaves.

The image in this post was taken by world-renowned Dutch photographer Frank Crébas in the Death Valley on Dec. 2, 2016.

It shows one of the RNlAF (Royal Netherlands Air Force) F-35A Lightning II with the 323 TES (Test & Evaluation Squadron), the Dutch unit based at Edwards Air Force Base and responsible for the Operational Test and Evaluation Phase (OT&E) as part of the Joint Operational Test Team, piloted by Maj. Ian “Gladys” Knight, the 323TES’s Director of Operations, flying at low altitude through the famous Rainbow Canyon, located adjacent to Death Valley.

As already explained here, the flight through the canyon (dubbed “Star Wars Canyon” for its resemblance to the ones where some of the most famous scenes of the Lucas’s saga were filmed) out into the expanse of Death Valley and referred to as the “Jedi Transition,” has become very popular with photographers from all around the world who daily exploit the unique opportunity to shoot fast jets, warbirds and also airlifters during their transit through the canyon.

Interestingly, this time the F-35s performed a really high-speed pass.

Take a look:

 

The aircraft was so fast it generated visible shock waves Crébas got thanks to his EOS 1DX mk II, with a EF-200-400 lens, at 1/2500 shutter speed.

“It was extremely windy out there and made it almost impossible to shoot with such a lens.. But I got it nailed ;-)” Frank wrote in a message to The Aviationist.

The speed of sound at the surface of the earth is a measure of the speed that a vibration travels through the atmosphere. At sea level, this speed is approximately 760 miles per hour (661 knots).

At speed lower than the transonic region, air flows smoothly around the airframe; in the transonic region, airflow begins to reach the speed of sound in localized areas on the aircraft, including the upper surface of the wing and the fuselage: shock waves, generated by pressure gradient resulting from the formation of supersonic flow regions, represent the location where the air moving at supersonic speed transitions to subsonic.

Check out more Frank Crébas’s stunning photographs at the Bluelife Aviation website and Facebook page.

 

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F-35B completes DT-III with Heavy Sea State & Weapons Focus

The two platforms (United States Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II and U.S. Navy USS America) represent a quantum leap in Marine aviation capability, particularly when considered in combination with the MV-22B Osprey, AH-1Z, UH-1Y and incoming CH-53K.

The fourth ship to carry the name, the USS America (LHA-6) serves as the flagship for a new class of amphibious assault ships that is built specifically to support “aerial assault.”  The LHA class utilizes the area on assault ships typically occupied by the “well deck” to provide additional hangar space, increased are for shipborne aviation maintenance, and additional aviation fuel and weapons stores.

It was fitting that the F-35B would complete its Development Testing (DT-III) on an advanced US Navy (USN) platform named “America.”

The two platforms [United States Marine Corps (USMC) F-35B Lightning II and USN USS America] represent a quantum leap in Marine aviation capability, particularly when considered in combination with the MV-22B Osprey, AH-1Z, UH-1Y and incoming CH-53K.

20161103-N-SS390-0xx PACIFIC OCEAN (NOV. 3, 2016) BF-1 GBU-12 External Weapons Uploading/BF-5 GBU-32 JDAM uploading Station 8 internal weapons bay.  F-35B Lightning II short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft conducts test operations on the flight deck of amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6). The highly diverse cadre of Pax River Integrated Test Force (ITF) technicians, maintainers, engineers, logisticians, support staff and test pilots are embarked for the third and final developmental test phase (DT-III) of F-35B carrier suitability and integration. (Photo by Darin Russell/Released)

20161103-N-SS390-0xx PACIFIC OCEAN (NOV. 3, 2016) BF-1 GBU-12 External Weapons Uploading/BF-5 GBU-32 JDAM uploading Station 8 internal weapons bay. F-35B Lightning II short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft conducts test operations on the flight deck of amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6). The highly diverse cadre of Pax River Integrated Test Force (ITF) technicians, maintainers, engineers, logisticians, support staff and test pilots are embarked for the third and final developmental test phase (DT-III) of F-35B carrier suitability and integration. (Photo by Darin Russell/Released)

Pilots, engineers, maintainers and personnel from VX-23 (Air Test and Evaluation Squadron) of NAS Patuxent River, MD flew across the country with their two heavily instrumented F-35Bs for the shipboard DT-III late October through Nov. 17, 2016.  They were joined by aircraft and personnel from VMX-1 (Marine Operational Test and Evaluation squadron) to support the maintenance phase of DT-III.  VMX-1 also participated in operational activity in preparation for the F-35Bs first shipborne deployment in about a year.

DT-III evaluated and validated the Short Take-off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) performance of the F-35B in high sea states, with full weapons loads (external & internal), with asymmetric loading (including taking off with a full load of externals, jettisoning one side and landing), live weapons and night operations.  Onboard maintenance activities involved the entire replacement of an engine, driveshaft and lift fan on one of the VMX-1 aircraft.  After replacement, the VMX-1 aircraft was flown off the deck.

20161103-N-SS390-0xx PACIFIC OCEAN (NOV. 3, 2016) An F-35B Lightning II short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft conducts test operations on the flight deck of amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6). The highly diverse cadre of Pax River Integrated Test Force (ITF) technicians, maintainers, engineers, logisticians, support staff and test pilots are embarked for the third and final developmental test phase (DT-III) of F-35B carrier suitability and integration. (Photo by Darin Russell/Released)

20161103-N-SS390-0xx PACIFIC OCEAN (NOV. 3, 2016) An F-35B Lightning II short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft conducts test operations on the flight deck of amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6). The highly diverse cadre of Pax River Integrated Test Force (ITF) technicians, maintainers, engineers, logisticians, support staff and test pilots are embarked for the third and final developmental test phase (DT-III) of F-35B carrier suitability and integration. (Photo by Darin Russell/Released)

USMC VMX-1 Commanding Officer, Col. George “Sack” Rowell, noted that “the F-35B will equal or exceed the shipborne operational capabilities of the AV-8B Harrier in high sea states.  Flight operations took place in winds of up to 47 knots from various angles, a deck roll of 5° and deck pitch of 3°.  Maintenance work was accomplished (albeit with challenges) while the ship was rolling 9°!”

20161107-N-SS390-0xx PACIFIC OCEAN (NOV. 7, 2016) An F-35B Lightning II short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft conducts test operations on the flight deck of amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6). BF-1, Flt 614, Mr. Peter Wilsonl & BF-5, Flt 263, Major Rob Guyette test high sea states.  The highly diverse cadre of Pax River Integrated Test Force (ITF) technicians, maintainers, engineers, logisticians, support staff and test pilots are embarked for the third and final developmental test phase (DT-III) of F-35B carrier suitability and integration. (Photo by Darin Russell/Released)

20161107-N-SS390-0xx PACIFIC OCEAN (NOV. 7, 2016) An F-35B Lightning II short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft conducts test operations on the flight deck of amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6). BF-1, Flt 614, Mr. Peter Wilsonl & BF-5, Flt 263, Major Rob Guyette test high sea states. The highly diverse cadre of Pax River Integrated Test Force (ITF) technicians, maintainers, engineers, logisticians, support staff and test pilots are embarked for the third and final developmental test phase (DT-III) of F-35B carrier suitability and integration. (Photo by Darin Russell/Released)

DT-III was a great success achieving primary DT-III flight test points as well as numerous additional milestones for the F-35B;

  • Shipborne integration of Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) V.2
  • Engine, driveshaft and lift fan removal and replacement aboard a L-Class ship
  • Live ordnance operations with the F-35B aboard a ship (from ship to MCAS Yuma Range)
  • F-35B integration with USN AEGIS validated
  • Operational Test aircraft flew Block 3F software at-sea
  • 1st Royal Navy pilot F-35B carrier qualified
  • Joint Precision Approach and Landing System (JPALS) utilized for shipborne landing
  • Use of night vision goggles (NVG) for landing
  • Link-16 Integration with a variety of aircraft

The success of the tests validates the Marine Corps experience with the aircraft to date.  USMC Lt. General Jon Davis, Deputy Commandant for Aviation Marine Corps captured that experience, “I’d deploy tomorrow. Tomorrow. The commanding officer (CO) of VFMA-211 is chomping at the bit, he would deploy them.  So would the CO of VFMA 121.  They are ready. These airplanes are highly capable and ready to go.

161104-N-VR008-0030 PACIFIC OCEAN (Nov. 4, 2016) A Sailor directs F-35B Lightning II aircraft on the flight deck of amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) during flight operations. The F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) variant is the world’s first supersonic STOVL stealth aircraft. America, with Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron 1 (VMX-1), Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 (VMFA-211) and Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23 (VX-23) embarked, are underway conducting operational testing and the third phase of developmental testing for the F-35B Lightning II aircraft, respectively. The tests will evaluate the full spectrum of joint strike fighter measures of suitability and effectiveness in an at-sea environment. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Kyle Goldberg/Released)

161104-N-VR008-0030 PACIFIC OCEAN (Nov. 4, 2016) A Sailor directs F-35B Lightning II aircraft on the flight deck of amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) during flight operations. The F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) variant is the world’s first supersonic STOVL stealth aircraft. America, with Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron 1 (VMX-1), Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 (VMFA-211) and Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23 (VX-23) embarked, are underway conducting operational testing and the third phase of developmental testing for the F-35B Lightning II aircraft, respectively. The tests will evaluate the full spectrum of joint strike fighter measures of suitability and effectiveness in an at-sea environment. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Kyle Goldberg/Released)

The potent USMC/USN amphibious assault platform of F-35Bs, MV-22Bs, AH-1Z, UH-1Y and in years to come CH-53K will soon be sailing the seas.  It is natural to recognize the platforms support of a broad spectrum of military operations and missions.  However, it is important not to overlook the role the assault carriers (LHD) platforms have historically played and will continue to play; keeping sea lanes free and open for movement of global commerce, and supporting delivery around the globe of humanitarian aid following natural disasters.

The ongoing success of the USMC introduction of the F-35B fleet speaks to a certain reality. In short order, the USS America (and companion ships) will be a message sending presence to some and a welcome friend to others!

161113-N-VR008-0097 PACIFIC OCEAN (Nov. 13, 2016) Sailors assigned to amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) prepare to launch an F-35B Lightning II aircraft from the flight deck during flight operations. The F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) variant is the world’s first supersonic STOVL stealth aircraft. America, with Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron 1 (VMX-1), Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 (VMFA-211) and Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23 (VX-23) embarked, are underway conducting operational testing and the third phase of developmental testing for the F-35B Lightning II aircraft, respectively. The tests will evaluate the full spectrum of joint strike fighter measures of suitability and effectiveness in an at-sea environment. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Kyle Goldberg/Released)

161113-N-VR008-0097 PACIFIC OCEAN (Nov. 13, 2016) Sailors assigned to amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) prepare to launch an F-35B Lightning II aircraft from the flight deck during flight operations. The F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) variant is the world’s first supersonic STOVL stealth aircraft. America, with Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron 1 (VMX-1), Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 (VMFA-211) and Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23 (VX-23) embarked, are underway conducting operational testing and the third phase of developmental testing for the F-35B Lightning II aircraft, respectively. The tests will evaluate the full spectrum of joint strike fighter measures of suitability and effectiveness in an at-sea environment. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Kyle Goldberg/Released)

The Aviationist thanks Sylvia Pierson, and Brandi Schiff, JSF/JPO PA;  Capt. Sarah Burns & 1st Lt. Maida Zheng, USMC PAOs;  Captain Joseph R. Olson, Commanding Officer of the USS America and entire crew;  Lt. General Jon M. Davis, USMC Deputy Commandant for Aviation; and USMC VMX-1 Commanding Officer, Col. George “Sack” Rowell.

DT-III was followed by a Proof of Concept at sea. Read the full story here.

 

Israeli Government Approves Purchase of 17 more F-35s bringing the total to 50 stealth jets

Despite criticism, Israel decided to exercise the option for another 17 aircraft. And there might also be some F-35Bs at the horizon to enable the Israeli Air Force to continue operating from dispersed locations in case of attack.

On Nov. 27, the Israeli Ministerial Committee for National Security, headed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu decided to purchase another 17 F-35A Conventional Take Off and Landing (CTOL) aircraft, bringing the total to 50 Lightning II jets.

The first two examples of the controversial, expensive, advanced 5th Generation aircraft, designated “Adir” (“Mighty One”) by the Israeli, are expected to be delivered to the Israeli Air Force (IAF), at Nevatim Air Base in southern Israel, in about three weeks.

The stealth aircraft, that the Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman defined “the most advanced in the world and the best for safeguarding Israel’s aerial superiority,” was contracted through the U.S. government’s Foreign Military Sales program; the first 33 examples were purchased in two batches: the first one worth 2.75 billion USD and the second for 2.82 billion USD, including infrastructure, parts, and training simulators.

The Israeli F-35s will have some components contributed by Israeli companies, including Israel Aerospace Industries that will produce the F-35’s outer wings, Elbit Systems-Cyclone, that will provide center fuselage composite components as well as Elbit Systems Ltd. that will provide Gen. III helmet-mounted display systems to be worn by all Lightning II pilots.

Although the extent of “domestic” modifications is still unknown, the IAF F-35As will be somehow different from the “standard” F-35s, as they will embed national EW (Electronic Warfare) pods, weaponry, C4 systems etc. This is the reason why Israeli F-35s are sometimes dubbed F-35I (for Israel), as if they were a different variant from the three baseline versions (A, B and C).

For sure, the new sales represents a good promotion for Lockheed Martin, considered the fame of the Israeli Air Force, known to be one of the most advanced and very well equipped: if the F-35s were deemed to be able to meet all the requirements of a service with a really strong reputation, that has been at war for decades and has employed its combat planes to perform some really complex operations (like the air strikes on the Iraqi nuclear reactor and the Syrian nuclear facility in 2007), then they should be good for most of the world air forces (some of those continue to invest in the program.)

Still, there are many, even at the Pentagon, who firmly believe that the F-35 is not suitable for combat for years to come.

By the way, the news comes few days after Canada announced the plan to use F/A-18E/F Super Hornet multi-role fighters as “gap fillers” until Ottawa decides on a replacement for its fleet of legacy Hornet aircraft. In fact, after investing in the program for several decades, the new Trudeau Government canceled Canada’s planned purchase of the F-35 (considered too expensive) and announced a new, forthcoming open competition for a permanent CF-18 replacement.

Anyway, it seems that the IAF might end up operating F-35Bs as well.

As we have already reported last year, talks between Israel and U.S. about a possible IAF acquisition of the F-35B, the STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) version of the Joint Strike Fighter, have started in 2015, according to some Israeli media outlets.

F-35Bs would allow the aircraft to take off and land from austere landing strips in should Iran be able to knock out IAF airbases with precision weapons.

Israel is a small country and its main airfields could be easily threatened by long-range weapons in the hands of state actors or handed over to militant movements like Hamas and Hezbollah: IAF’s only chance to continue operating in case of attack would be dispersing aircraft to remote locations, an option that would be viable only thanks to the unique F-35B STOVL capabilities.

adir-first-flight

 Image credit: Lockheed Martin

 

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We went aboard USS America during USMC F-35B Proof Of Concept Sea Trials

We Visited the USS America with 12 F-35Bs on Board!

The rumble of the MV-22B reverberated off the flight deck of the USS America (LHA-6).

The 12 F-35Bs onboard represented more F-35s than had ever gathered at sea. The F-35B moving steadily towards deployment represents an unprecedented leap in capability, the future of formidable maritime power.

The USS America (LHA-6) cruises off the coast of S. Cal with 10 USMC F-35Bs topside (2 more below) from VMFA-211 & VMX-1, as well as a UH-1Y, AH-1Z, & SH-60. Taken during the "Proof of Concept" demonstration Nov. 19, 2016.

The USS America (LHA-6) cruises off the coast of S. Cal with 10 USMC F-35Bs topside (2 more below) from VMFA-211 & VMX-1, as well as a UH-1Y, AH-1Z, & SH-60. Taken during the “Proof of Concept” demonstration Nov. 19, 2016.

The gathering of assets was part of a joint US Navy (USN)/ US Marine Corps (USMC) “Proof of Concept” demonstration held off the coast of Southern California Nov. 18-20.

F-35Bs from USMC VMFA-211 & VMX-1 on the deck of the USS America (LHA-6) during Carrier capability proof of concept demonstration November 19, 2016.

F-35Bs from USMC VMFA-211 & VMX-1 on the deck of the USS America (LHA-6) during Carrier capability proof of concept demonstration November 19, 2016.

PAO Capt. Sarah Burns indicated that the demonstration would explore the best way to integrate a large package of F-35Bs into the current USN/USMC structure to bring the most effective power projection from the sea.

Lt. General Jon M. Davis, Deputy Commandant for Aviation shared a core value of the Marine Corps demonstrated onboard, “No Marine Corps platform fights alone.” The F-35B, MV-22B, AH-1Z and UH-1Y combined and integrated with the US Navy’s latest amphibious assault ship (USS America) complete a package that provides the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) with a broad spectrum of response options, and the most advanced mobile warfighting capability.

F-35Bs from USMC VMFA-211 & VMX-1 on the deck of the USS America (LHA-6) during Carrier capability proof of concept demonstration November 19, 2016.

F-35Bs from USMC VMFA-211 & VMX-1 on the deck of the USS America (LHA-6) during Carrier capability proof of concept demonstration November 19, 2016.

The MV-22B Ospreys speed and range have been a game changer for the USMC MAGTF, and now with the F-35B on hand the operational possibilities take yet another quantum leap. The sea based capability provides global mobility unrestrained by availability of land bases. This integrated USN/USMC capability is ideal for the fight against terrorism, and/or the insertion of Marine infantryman or special forces deep in hostile territory.

USMC F-35B of VMFA-211 (squadron jet) in transport on the USS America (LHA-6) during the integrated USN & USMC 'proof of concept" demonstration November 19, 2016.

USMC F-35B of VMFA-211 (squadron jet) in transport on the USS America (LHA-6) during the integrated USN & USMC ‘proof of concept” demonstration November 19, 2016.

The access is increased even more given the platforms ability to quickly relocate to austere forward operating bases. Given the F-35Bs stealth, advanced sensors, situational awareness and weapons, it also provides the capability to operate in proximity of areas hosting Integrated Air Defense Systems (IADS) or Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) environments.

F-35B from VMFA-211 taxis to take off postion on the deck of the USS America (LHA-16 during proof of concept demonstration November19. The American Flag graphic on the America's "Conning Tower" is reflected in the F-35Bs canopy.

F-35B from VMFA-211 taxis to take off position on the deck of the USS America (LHA-16 during proof of concept demonstration November19. The American Flag graphic on the America’s “Conning Tower” is reflected in the F-35Bs canopy.

The demonstrated integration of the F-35 and the US Navy’s AEGIS Ballistic Missile Defense System adds tremendous potency to an already capable system. The F-35 can provide over the horizon targeting data to a readily available USN AEGIS platform that can quickly intercept ballistic missile, drone, or hostile aircraft with its SM-6 missile (widely believed to have a range beyond 200 mile). This allows stealth detection of targets by the F-35, and a virtually unlimited (boatload) of missiles to utilize.

F-35B of USMC VMFA-211 hovers aside the USS America as it prepares for a vertical landing on deck during the integrated USN/USMC proof of concept demonstration November 19, 2016.

F-35B of USMC VMFA-211 hovers aside the USS America as it prepares for a vertical landing on deck during the integrated USN/USMC proof of concept demonstration November 19, 2016.

The F-35B replaces three Marine Corps aircraft, the F/A-18 Hornet, the EA-6B Prowler, and the AV-8B Harrier II. Not only does it do the job of each aircraft better, it adds Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance (ISR) and Command & Control (C2) capability. The F-35B fulfills the USMC vision of “every Marine Corps aircraft a sensor, a shooter and a sharer.”

USMC F-35B of VMFA-211 launches off the USS America (LHA-6) during USMC proof of concept capabiliity demonstration November 19, 2016.

USMC F-35B of VMFA-211 launches off the USS America (LHA-6) during USMC proof of concept capabiliity demonstration November 19, 2016.

Once onboard the USS America the rumbling of the Osprey was quickly replaced by the near continuous roar of F-35Bs launching and landing. The tempo of operations demonstrated the F-35Bs readiness for deployment and combat activity. That should come as no surprise given the “B” has over 22,000 combined flight hours.

The F-35B advanced flight systems reduce pilot workload and increase safety in all aspects of flight. USMC pilot Lt. Col. Rich “VC” Rusnok an experienced AV-8B Harrier II pilot and slated to become the Commanding Officer (CO) of VFMA-121 in 2017 noted that, “hovering in the Harrier was like sitting on a one-legged bar stool.” His comment was complemented by USMC pilot Lt. Col. John “Guts” Price (slated to become the CO of VFMA-122 in 2018). Price noted that his first hover in a F-35B found him realize his learned instincts in the Harrier to provide inputs created problems in the hover, and it was better to ease off the controls and let the F-35B do as it wanted! Perhaps nowhere is this ease of flying more evident than in the speed of pilots Carrier Qualifications (CQs); in the previous 4 years only 8 USMC F-35B pilots had CQ’d, in the past 3 weeks 19 pilots CQ’d!

F-35B of USMC VMFA-211 perfroms vertical landing on the USS America (LHA-6) during integrated USN/USMC "proof of concept" exercise November 19, 2016.

F-35B of USMC VMFA-211 perfroms vertical landing on the USS America (LHA-6) during integrated USN/USMC “proof of concept” exercise November 19, 2016.

The Marine Corps lead the way with the F-35 program. The deployment of VMFA-121 the “Green Knights” to Japan is motion to take place in January 2017, with further deployments slated for 2018. It all speaks to the ongoing progress and maturity of the F-35 program. This “aerial amphibious assault force” represents a new era of flexibility and capability for the MAGTF, and I anticipate we’ll regularly see the USS America serving the nations interests in strategic locations around the globe.

USMC F-35B of VMFA-211 starts its take off run on the USS America (LHA-6) during USMC proof of concept capabiliity demonstration.

USMC F-35B of VMFA-211 starts its take off run on the USS America (LHA-6) during USMC proof of concept capabiliity demonstration.

The Aviationist thanks Sylvia Pierson, and Brandi Schiff, JSF/JPO PA; Capt. Sarah Burns & 1st Lt. Maida Zheng, USMC PAOs; Captain Joseph R. Olson, Commanding Officer of the USS America and entire crew; Lt. General Jon M. Davis, USMC Deputy Commandant for Aviation; Supporting F-35B pilots of VMFA-211 & the F-35B and MV-22B pilots and personnel of VMX-1.

 

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

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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