China’s J-20 Fighter Might Need Russian Engines

 - March 7, 2013, 6:00 PM
One of China’s J-20 prototypes receives attention; this one might be a ground-test article only. (Photo: Chinese Internet)

As China reaches an agreement with Russia to buy Sukhoi Su-35 fighters, the domestic J-20 fighter program might have developed problems that China cannot solve on its own anytime soon.

Seemingly prompted by the well publicized Su-35 deal, photos of the second J-20 prototype undergoing flight tests became easily available on Chinese websites recently, likely to assure the public that the J-20 program is proceeding well. This aircraft made its first flight last May. The first prototype made its maiden flight in January 2011, grabbing much international attention. It made more than 60 additional flights that year. A third J-20 prototype is believed to exist, but only for ground and lab tests.

The recent J-20 photos featured white circles on the fuselage of No. 2002. These are thought to be markings for optical measurements of the airplane from the ground or from another aircraft, as is routine in new combat aircraft development. Some unofficial Chinese commentators concluded that J-20 weapons systems tests had begun, marking an important milestone.

In contrast to the optimism based on a few photos, however, the fact that China has yet to succeed in developing a powerful engine for the J-20–the much-expected WS15–tells a different story. Of the two J-20 prototypes that have been made known to the public, one is powered by the Russian-made AL31FN and the other by the domestically built WS10G. The Chinese version of the Su-27SK, the J-11, is powered by the WS10A. Many observers believe that a strong incentive for China to buy the Su-35 is the airplane’s 117S engine, an AL31 derivative.

According to some estimates, the J-20 program will take at least six years to complete, meaning that the J-20 would not become operational until 2017. But deliveries of 24 Su-35s and an unknown number of spare engines are expected to start in 2015, granting China time to cash in on new Russian technology gained from that program. As some Russian officials have noted, it would take China a long time to copy the Su-35, a process that ostensibly would not be cost-effective for China. What China urgently needs is a technical breakthrough in the development of fighter jet engines.

China does not seem so deficient in radar technology, and the Russian Irbis-E radar of the Su-35, though ranked among the world’s best, might not be something the Chinese are desperate to acquire.

Comments

Michael's picture

The entire purpose of buying the SU-35, if that's actually the case, is for the engines. To this day, China has not successful built a turbofan engine. But, there's no way you can reverse-engineer a gas turbine so I'm not sure what China can get out of this one. China has mastered the "art" of manufacturing air frames and aerostructures since the early 2000s.

The first turbofans ran in the late 60s but were in reality were only used in the 1970s. In other words, China is 40 years behind America and Russia in this field. This is the LAST major technical obstacle for China to overcome in order to become a major weapons supplier.

Another nation that has put HUGE amounts of resources into developing a turbofan is Japan; so far there has not been any tangible results. Without a working turbofan engine, America can cut off all engine parts to Japan. Japan's entire fleet of jets and military ships would be out of operation in 3 months. This is a powerful stranglehold on Japan.

Wonder who's going to succeed first: China or Japan?

MAun's picture

India is another country which is trying hard to develop an indigenous Engine (called Kaveri), right now they are struck too, although they have made good progress in composite materials and radar

Dalmatian28's picture

Chinese deserve credit regardless how we happen to feel about them! They have manage to get to space, build their fighter jets, design their CPU's etc. for fraction what US and Russia used to do the same. Why keep reinventing the wheel if you don't have to??? Chinese can mange their "pride" like nobody else out there! Yes, US and Russia got there much earlier... but "today \tomorrow" is what matters! China is NOT hundred years behind as many trying to make it appear! Off course they run into issues, everyone does! What they do great is throw tons of new educated personal on the issue and they get around it. They went from WW II airplanes to J-20 in twenty years! Good luck replicating that!

They are demonstrating a text book example on how to mange high risk R&D projects and save tons of money in the process...

Ps. Yeah they still tech ...so does everyone else!!!

sengko's picture

well said Dalmatian, i concur fully!
as for Michael's assertion that china has not
successfully built a turbofan, this is clearly bull
as all J11b, J15 are now flying with ws10a.
pse give credit where credit is due.

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