U.S. Interest Grows as More J-20 Details Emerge

 - January 2, 2019, 4:32 AM
Two J-20s perform during Airshow China 2018 in November. The aircraft in the foreground carries a PL-10 missile deployed externally from the closed side bay. (photo: Xinhua)

In the first week of December a full-scale replica (FSR) of a Chengdu J-20 Mighty Dragon was spotted parked outside the Air Dominance Center at Savannah Hilton Head Airport in Georgia. The United States Marine Corps later confirmed that the aircraft was built for USMC training. While the purposes of the FSR remain uncertain, the arrival of the mock-up hints at the high level of interest being shown in the J-20 by the U.S. military as more features of the aircraft become known following its revelation in 2011.

On February 9, 2018, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) officially acknowledged that the J-20 had completed all tests and entered operational service.  While the production rate remains low, and the J-20 is active in limited numbers, the aircraft is often referred as the “needle to break all webs” by Chinese analysts. Using its stealth features, the J-20 would spearhead any Chinese campaign, disabling key defensive assets and providing tactical data for the main PLAAF offensive.

During the Zhuhai Airshow in November, a pair of J-20s showed off the type’s missile-carrying capabilities for the first time by opening their weapon bay doors to show four PL-15 medium-range missiles in the main bays, and PL-10 short-range missiles in the side bays. The latter are notable for being able to deploy the PL-10 missile while having the bay doors closed. This mechanism enables the aircraft to reduce its radar signature while having a missile deployed externally to allow it to seek its target. The F-22, on the other hand, has to ensure that the doors are open during the engagement process, compromising its stealth features.

An important parallel development from a strategic perspective is a new tanker variant of the Y-20 transport, which emerged in the first week of December. The PLAAF has used its Xian HY-6U as its primary aerial tanker but, due to its small capacity, it is mainly reserved for smaller types such as J-8 and J-10 fighters. China has only three larger IL-78MP tankers, and with the future introduction of the “YY-20,” J-20 and J-11 fighters will gain increased combat range and influence over the operational area. The ability of the J-20 to conduct air-to-air refueling was confirmed by state television CCTV, which broadcast footage of a J-20 with its refueling probe deployed from below the right canopy. The type is also able to carry four large drop tanks externally.

Undoubtedly the J-20 will still have more tricks to reveal in the years to come. The highly anticipated domestic WS-10B engine with thrust-vectoring exhaust is already flying in a J-20 testbed (S/N 2021) and could give the fighter enhanced power and handling capabilities. China’s ability to develop an operational thrust-vectoring engine was demonstrated in the J-10B, which also caught the media attention at the Zhuhai airshow. Also of potential is the certification of air-ground munitions for the J-20, a capability not yet shown in the public domain.