Following months of speculation, fueled by tidbits gleaned during the Zhuhai airshow in November, the first images of China’s newest combat aircraft were revealed in the week before Christmas. Believed to be designated the J-20, the aircraft is under development by Chengdu (611 Design Institute) and Shenyang, with the former leading the effort having effectively won a design competition in 2008.
The J-20 was photographed during taxi trials by onlookers outside Chengdu aircraft plant 132 and, while there is no official acknowledgment of the aircraft’s existence, this illustrates an unprecedented openness on the part of Chinese officialdom to allow any access to such events. Recent photos of the J-20 lifting its nose at high speed on the runway suggest that first flight is imminent, if it has not already occurred.
Coded 2001, the J-20 is thought to be one of two built. The aircraft are probably technology demonstrators rather than true prototypes, and an operational fifth-generation fighter is expected to be rather different and some years from service. The J-20 is a canard-delta design of considerable size, indicating an aircraft optimized for long-range and high-altitude operations. It is thought that a new engine, the WS-15, is being developed to ultimately power this class of aircraft. The Saturn 117S that powers the Sukhoi T-50 is another alternative. However, the prototypes appear to be powered by either the WS-10 developed for the Shenyang J-11 “Flanker”-copy or the Saturn AL-31FN, which currently powers the J-10. The design incorporates stealthy features, notably the caret-shaped intakes with diverterless supersonic inlet bulges in the upper corner.