China is in the process of developing its own native fifth-generation fighter to compete with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and Russia’s T-50. Although China has been secretive about the exact specifications of the aircraft, experts are warning that the plane could be a game-changer in East Asia’s potentially fragile security environment.
China’s Chengdu J-20 is currently in its fourth round of prototypes. On July 26, the most recent version of the fighter flew for two hours before successfully landing. Information about the J-20 is limited, but an unnamed Asian government source told IHS Jane’s that upwards of 20 J-20s could be deployed by within the decade.
The J-20 has evolved rapidly from its first documented prototype in 2011. Each successive prototype has shown a number of design advancements that help the plane evade enemy radar detection. These changes include modifying the plane’s wing size and adjusting the air intakes to maximize stealth.
It’s likely that China is also outfitting the J-20 with an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar in the plane’s nose.
AESAs are incredibly powerful radar systems broadcast at a range of frequencies, allowing a plane to remain stealthy in the process. And the use of the AESA in the J-20’s nose marks a striking similarity to the design of the U.S.’s F-35 fifth-generation fighter. The similarities between the F-35, the F-22, and the J-20 are likely not a coincidence.
Aviation expert Carlo Kopp notes that China imitates the basic shapes and skeletal designs of existing aircraft to speed development while minimizing the risk of a costly and embarrassing engineering failure later on.
“By cleverly exploiting contemporary United States-developed stealth fighter shaping design rules,” Kopp writes for the independent Australian think tank Air Power Australia, “Chengdu engineers were able to rapidly get an excellent basic shaping design with a minimum of risk and cost, and significant long-term stealth performance growth potential.”
This potential, if China capitalizes on it, could allow the J-20 to achieve levels of stealth on par with, or even exceeding, the F-35.
This stealth capability could put all of East Asia at risk — the integrated air defense systems in the region rely primarily on types of radar that would be incapable of adequately detecting the J-20.
China would have undisputed first-strike superiority throughout a region where tensions are on the rise. Exact details of the aircraft’s
fuel capacity and range are unknown, but estimates give the J-20 a striking range of 1,000 nautical miles, which would place Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and Philippines airfields within reach of China.
And China has simmering economic and territorial disputes with each of these countries.
China’s J-20 has likely also benefited from Chinese espionage.
A Chinese entrepreneur was arrested in July after stealing gigabytes of data related to the F-35 and the F-22, along with other U.S. military aviation projects. Previous extensive theft of F-35 data is believed to be the driver of a number of redesigns to the J-20 and the cause of the aircraft’s improvements within each prototype stage.
However, China is still believed to be a long way from developing a native engine system for the plane.
Engines are “the long pole in the tent,” Reuben F. Johnson, a Russian and Chinese military aerospace analysts who writes for Jane’s, told The Diplomat. Until China develops its own engines, it is limited to using Russian imports.
Ultimately, the overall quality of a plane is just one factor in the aircraft’s effectiveness, David Cenciotti, a military aviation expert and founder of The Aviationist, told Business Insider via email.
“We don’t know much about the [J-20], but it is safe to say it’s not always a matter of technology, armament or on-board equipment,” Cenciotti wrote. “Theoretically, the J-20 will be able to match Western fifth-gen fighters in a one vs one confrontation, but a realistic engagement with airborne early warning and emissions control procedures would be something much different[.]”
And, as Cenciotti warns, training and logistics may be the most important factor. And if China can get that right, they’ll have a fighter plane that can overcome their rivals’ existing air defenses, and even match the over trillion-dollar F-35.