In a Christmas gift for Chinese fighter pilots, December 25th saw the unveiling of a new J-20 fighter in fresh yellow fuselage primer on the runway of the Chengdu Aviation Corporation (CAC) factory. More notable than its paint color, however, was the numbering of the plane: “2101.” As opposed to “2018” or “2019” to follow the eighth flying prototype “2017,” “2101” suggests the plane is the first of the low rate initial production (LRIP) airframes, which signify the move away from prototype production to building fighters for actual military use.
LRIP is the stage in the program where CAC will build enough production fighters (about 12-24) for test and evaluation flights by the PLAAF to understand the J-20’s capabilities, before further committing to large-scale production. Initial operational capability should come around in the 2018-2019 timeframe, once the Chinese Test Flight Establishment (CTFE) regiment develops the technical proficiency and competence to use the J-20 to the fullest in combat operations.
“2101” is the ninth J-20 fighter built by the CAC in under five years (the first J-20 prototype flew in January 2011). In comparison, the first production F-35A (AF-6) flew in February 2011, five years after the first F-35 prototype flew in February 2006. The F-22 also took about five years to transition from first flight to LRIP (September 1997 and February 2002).
Given over a decade’s worth of global technology advances, intensive investment and competent program management, it should come as no surprise that China will be the second nation in the world to start production of stealth fighters. The J-20 will give the PLAAF a technological advantage over every other Asian air force. While the J-20 may not be able to supercruise (fly at supersonic speeds without using fuel-thirsty afterburners) with its current Russian AL-31 turbofan engines, its high level of stealth, long range and electronic warfare capabilities will make it a very formidable foe for other fighters.
The J-20 also carries a powerful active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, nose-mounted infrared search and tracking sensors, and fuselage-mounted cameras to give its pilot a VR 360 degree imaging (similar to the F-35’s avionics). For weapons, the J-20 would have long-range missiles like the PL-12, PL-15, and PL-21, and short-ranged infrared-guided PL-8 and PL-10. Networked with other platforms such as the Divine Eagle anti-stealth drone, the J-20’s array of sensors will give it the ability to go toe-to-toe with other stealth fighters.
While the J-20 certainly a formidable foe today, in the next several years of development advances, its capabilities can be expected to grow. Future J-20’s will likely have super-cruise capable Chinese WS-15 turbofan engines and improved gallium nitride AESA radars, with further out options including pilot controlled UAVs. As J-20 testing wraps up, the PLAAF will also have many other new projects to roll out, like the J-31 stealth fighter, H-20 stealth bomber, Sharp Sword stealth UAV and hypersonic weaponry.
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