China Stays Ahead in Asian Stealth Race

J-20 "2101" Takes to the Skies

Defense Ministry officers stand in front of the first domestically-made stealth aircraft, X-2, at Nagoya Airport in Toyoyama town, central Japan, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. The demonstration plane is expected to make its maiden flight sometime after mid-February. A Defense Ministry official said the technology will give Japan the option of developing its own stealth fighter jets in the future. (AP Photo/Emily Wang)

Japan recently made news by showing off the X-2 Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Advanced Technology Demonstrator – Experimental (ATD-X),a full-scale test model of a domestically designed fifth-generation fighter, unofficially called ‘ShinShin.’ But on Jan. 18, China demonstrated it is well past demonstrators. At the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation factory in Sichuan, China it began the test flights on “2101”, the first production J-20 stealth fighter.

2101 Takes Flight

“2101” will be the first J-20 stealth fighter to enter Chinese service. Its yellow primer will be painted over with darker radar absorbing materials once its handed over to the PLAAF.

“2101” is the first airframe in the inaugural production batch of J-20 fighters. With the first J-20 squadron expected to be fully delivered by year’s end, the China Flight Testing Evaluation regiment will being developing operating procedures, tactics and technical proficiency to bring the J-20 to combat readiness. At this pace, it is expected that in 2017-2018, the Chinese Air Force will have its first operational stealth fighter squadron.

Proudly Made in China

Apart from its Russian engines, the J-20 is completely made and designed in China. And even then, future J-20s will be flying with a more powerful domestic engine, the WS-15, by 2021. While the J-20 isn’t for sale (yet?), other advanced Chinese weapons are finding eager buyers.

The J-20 fighter is the showcase of modern Chinese military technology. While it currently relies on Russian AL-31 series turbofan engines (the powerful domestic WS-15 engine will enter service in 2019-2021), everything else on the J-20 is Chinese; its stealth coating, infrared sensor, powerful AESA radar, are all domestically made.

Mighty Dragon

2101, like all J-20 fighters, has a main dorsal weapons bay to carry up to six medium/long range air to air missiles, and two side mounted weapons bays for shorter ranged missiles. Along with a powerful AESA radar and stealth hunting infrared sensor, it’ll be a dangerous opponent to stealth and non-stealth fighters once Chinese pilots learn how to take full advantage of their new powerful weapon.

The incoming J-20 service entry will happen around the same period that the US F-35 becomes combat ready. Perhaps more important to regional arms races and prestige, it give China roughly a ten year lead on building and using domestically developed stealth fighters vs. other Asian rivals (domestic Indian, Japanese and Korean stealth fighters are not expected to enter service until after 2027). In addition to J-20 and the soon to follow in production J-31 stealth fighter, Chinese plans also call for stealthy drones, bombers and advanced cruise missiles.

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