China Commissions its New Fifth Generation Warplane

A Chengdu J-20 flying in the November 2016 airshow in which it was first publicly unveiled. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

China’s fifth-generation combat aircraft, the J-20, has been commissioned into the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLA-AF).

A spokesperson for the Ministry of National Defense said flight testing was going on as scheduled.

The J-20, now to be named the J-20A, made its maiden flight in 2011. It was first unveiled at an air show in November of last year. The planes are designed and made by Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group.

There’s no fixed definition of fifth generation fighters. Typically, these aircraft feature ‘low observable’ technologies- what we would commonly call ‘stealth’ features. They also usually incorporate engines with higher thrust, which allow them to reach supersonic speeds without resorting to the use of fuel-hungry afterburners. More broadly, fifth generation planes can be distinguished from their fourth generation predecessors like the F-18A or Mig-29, by a wide range of improvements in sensor systems, self-protection features, and radar-jamming capabilities.

At least, that’s the theory. In reality, governments and aerospace giants have struggled to produce affordable and efficient planes of this class. By one count, there are 14 programmes for fifth generation aircraft the world over, including the J-20A. A few of these are in service in limited numbers; most are in development, many are in trouble.

For instance, the American F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is among the most prominent of the fifth generation aircraft, but it’s plagued by massive cost overruns, design flaws, and under performance.

It’s unlikely the Chengdu J-20A will be immune to these problems. While few details are available, it’s clear the Chinese-designed WS-15 turbofan engine, which is supposed to power the J-20A, is not yet ready for primetime. For the time being, the Chinese appear to be using a Russian engine, but this may not allow the aircraft to maintain sustained supersonic speeds without afterburners- a key feature of fifth generation planes.

Is it just a fighter?    

It’s not known how many J-20As have been produced and how many the PLA-AF is currently testing. But assuming the programme is successful, what sort of warplane is the J-20A?

While it’s sometimes referred to as a fighter jet, the J-20A is likely to be something closer to a multi-role combat aircraft than an air superiority fighter.

Dave Majumdar, defense editor for The National Interest, has examined the J-20A in some detail. He notes that the airframe ‘liberally borrows design cues’ from the American F-22 and F-35s.

This is hardly surprising. The Chinese are believed to have hacked and stolen data on the F-35 programme just as they are assumed to have done with other weapons projects.

The F-22 is an air superiority fighter with significant ground attack capabilities, and the F-35 is a multi-role combat aircraft.

As further evidence for the J-20’s multi-role orientation, Majumdar notes that: ‘Like the American F-35, the newest J-20 prototypes appear to have an electro-optical targeting system mounted under the nose … A dedicated air superiority fighter wouldn’t need that kind of sensor.’

‘Perhaps the most compelling evidence that would point to the J-20 being optimized for the strike role is the fact that the airframe is enormous but has relatively small wings. It’s also seems to have huge weapons bays. While such a configuration works well for a fast supersonic strike aircraft, it’s not ideal for an air superiority fighter that needs be able to sustain high rates of turn’, Majumdar concludes.

In short, the J-20 may be part of China’s much talked about anti-access/ area denial (A2/AD) strategy for the Pacific Ocean. The jet’s primary goal may be to infiltrate enemy defences and attack the key support aircraft that enable air combat operations over expanses of water: AWACS, JSTAR, and tanker planes.

India’s fifth generation projects

Two of the world’s 14 fifth generation aircraft projects have Indian connections. One is the indigenous Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) project, which is still in early stages. The other is the Fifth-Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA), a joint venture with Russia.

After years of delays, in July an ‘Experts Group’ gave the ministry of defence a greenlight for pursuing the FGFA, which is, despite its name, a multi-role combat aircraft. Russia’s Sukhoi Design Bureau has already built prototypes of this aircraft as part of its PAK-FA project.

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