Enigmatic genesis: unveiling China J-20’s surprising origins

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In a major step forward, the Chengdu J-20 became the first non-US fifth-generation fighter aircraft to be used. It joined the Chinese People’s Liberation Army [PLA] Air Force in March 2017, just six years after its first flight.

Photo credit: The Drive

The J-20 undoubtedly showcases China’s growth into a major military aviation force. This growth is due to their vast economy and strong research and development efforts. However, the details about the creation and ultimate goals of the J-20 remain quite mysterious, making it a unique project in the world of stealth fighter development

Want to understand more about China’s first steps into fifth-generation fighter programs? The key could be a confidential document, written in Chinese between 1996 and 2003, which holds some important clues. 

Photo credit: Chinese Internet

The research paper, named “Strategic Study of China’s Fighter Aircraft Development”, explains why China decided to build a next-generation, high-performance aircraft, which later evolved into the J-20. It also details the various functions this aircraft was designed to fulfill.

Gu Songfen, an esteemed scholar at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Engineering, is the mastermind behind the informative paper. With previous roles such as vice president and chief designer at the Shenyang Aircraft Design Institute, Songfen is a leading figure in China’s aerospace industry. The paper he authored is a wealth of knowledge, meticulously drafted to address the major concerns of that period.

The main focus is on the fifth-generation programs in the United States. This report not only delves into the critical areas of Chinese fighter aviation, but also predicts the performance characteristics of the new fighter, and discusses what tasks the J-20 is likely to take on.

Even though the first fifth-generation fighter, the F-22 Raptor, only began serving the U.S. Air Force in late December 2005, the groundwork for these advanced planes was laid as far back as the late 1970s. Both the United States and the Soviet Union had plans to introduce them around the year 2000.

However, the U.S. defense sector saw a large decrease in the 1990s which resulted in significant delays for the F-22 program. On the flip side, the ambitious MiG 1.42 project was canceled after the dissolution of the USSR. By 1997, Russia’s defense sector, along with its research, development capabilities, and economy had dramatically shrunk.

A study from China points out that fifth-generation fighter jets are far superior to those of the fourth generation. They stand out because of their better communication systems, stealth capabilities, firepower, and performance in information-centric warfare. Plus, this study emphasizes how crucial air power has become in today’s battlefields. The turning point in military tactics, apparent in the 1991 Gulf War, guided this shift heavily.

Photo credit: EurAsian Times

When the Cold War ended, China’s air force was about 30 years behind the United States and the Soviet Union. This effectively meant that around 75% of China’s fighter jets were variations of the outdated MiG-19 model from the mid-1950s. 

In 1991, China began getting fourth-generation fighter jets from the Soviet Union, namely, the Su-27 Flanker. Known as one of the best heavy-duty fighters of its time, China used more Flankers than any other country. This sparked a trend in the People’s Liberation Army [PLA] for the use of big jets, paving the way for the future creation of the J-20 next-generation fighter jet.

The development of the fifth-generation fighter significantly improved the PLA Air Force’s defense and attack capabilities. At the same time, the project sped up the modernization of our military’s aviation industry. As expected, creating this advanced fighter led to breakthroughs in technology, contributing to the refinement of our current fourth-generation designs.

Video screenshot

Advanced tech like composite materials, AESA radars, data links, and newer aircraft missiles such as PL-15 and PL-10 are now in use. Initially conceived for the J-20, these technologies have been seamlessly incorporated into the J-10C, J-11BG, and J-16 fighter aircraft — the last two are deemed ‘4+ generation’ versions of the Su-27 Flanker.

In countries like the United States and Russia, we find a similar, though less intense, trend. Russia is smartly using high-tech parts from their unfinished MiG 1.42 project to enhance older-generation aircraft. 

A visible example of this is the AL-41F-1S engine used in the Su-35 fighter. Originally taken from the Su-27 AL-31F engine, it was improved by adding technology developed for the MiG 1.44’s power system, resulting in a significant 17 percent increase in thrust.

The report clearly states that the main goal of the J-20 program was to create a fighter aimed at long-range air control. This strategy was similar to the American F-22’s approach but differed from the MiG 1.42, which was designed with a greater balance and versatility in mind. The new fighter was designed to counter enemy backup aircraft, especially their early warning planes. It’s planned to work in digitized combat missions.

Photo credit: eng.chinamil.com.cn

The competition isn’t just with the American F-22, but also with its sleek, single-engine counterpart that later became the F-35. Interestingly, reports suggest that the F-35 could be used by the Taiwan-based Republic of China Air Force from the mid-2010s. This perspective is consistent with China’s significant investment in Flanker aircraft. These aircraft were designed to outperform the superior American fighter, the F-15, and the predecessor to the F-22. They have proven their ability to do so in numerous practice exercises. 

In the 90s and early 2000s, the F-22 experienced major production reductions, leading to a significant 75 percent decrease in its planned manufacturing run. Just four years after its debut, requests to stop its production began to roll in.

The speculation that the F-22 plane was heading for retirement has finally been confirmed in 2021. The F-22s had several drawbacks. They were not sold internationally and were slow to receive upgrades, putting them at a disadvantage compared to other planes like the F-35 and J-20. They lacked modern features like helmet-mounted sights. Plus, their capacity to take part in network-centric warfare and electronic warfare was limited. 

Photo credit: ADN

The J-20 stands out as the only heavyweight aircraft in its generation that’s actively being used and still in production. It competes with the lighter, more common F-35. Even though the F-35 isn’t really meant for intense air battles and is largely used for strikes, the progress made in the J-20 has provoked the US into speeding up the creation of a sixth-generation superior air combat fighter to surpass the F-22. By 2030, it’s predicted that both China and the US will start using these kinds of fighters.

The Strategic Study correctly predicted some challenges in China’s aviation industry, specifically regarding the development of a fifth-generation engine for the J-20 fighter jet. The study thought that the aircraft’s full development would start between 2006 and 2007, with test flights around 2013, and it would join the service in 2020. The new engine, named WS-15, was expected to be ready by 2021. Interestingly, the fighter jet became operational four years earlier than predicted. However, the upgraded WS-15 engine is now running three to four years behind schedule. 

As for power, the early estimates for the fifth-generation engines were around 15 tons of thrust. However, the recent predictions for the WS-15 indicate a stronger output of around 18 tons.

Photo credit: South China Morning Post

Forecasts suggest that this fighter jet can stay operational for around 40-50 years. It has a tiny radar cross section—less than 0.3 square meters. This feature, combined with its excellent endurance, enables the plane to cover Japan’s total expanse only requiring a single mid-air fueling. As far as we know, these projected features have been achieved. 

Interestingly, initial projections may have underestimated some aspects. For instance, they proposed an AESA radar with a tracking range of 200 kilometers, able to monitor 20 targets at once. Now, we learn that even smaller aircraft like the J-10C and the F-16 Block 70 – both equipped with smaller AESA radars – can track over greater distances.

Moreover, the J-20’s tracking ability is believed to be almost twice as good as initial estimates. The J-20 program has surpassed its goals in a noteworthy way. This program is unique as no other similar weight category plane is being mass-produced. Since 2017, large investments have significantly improved the performance of the J-20. In March 2022, it had its first encounter with a foreign fifth-generation fighter, the American F-35, in the East China Sea. Leaders of the U.S. Air Force spoke highly of its performance. Without much debate, the most recent versions of the J-20 are regarded as among the best outside of the United States.

As for production, the J-20 is set to outnumber its counterpart, the F-22. Estimates show the aircraft count hitting over 300 by mid-2024, and yearly production exceeding 100 by 2025. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force plans to acquire this fighter at a rate twice as fast as any other worldwide military service does for a similar class of aircraft.


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