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J-20 Mighty Dragon

Written by Jehron Baggaley



              It’s fast, it’s agile, and it’s deadly. With the introduction of the new Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter in 2017, China achieved the prestige of becoming an official operator of a fifth-generation stealth fighter, the second country to ever complete such a project, after the United States. This new jet, nicknamed the Mighty Dragon, was intended to level the playing field with the west by showing that China had perhaps not only caught up to the same level of aeronautical expertise, but maybe even surpassed it. If it truly is as dominant in the sky as some experts believe, it has the potential to turn the tide of future wars. On the other hand, some analysts are more skeptical, and think that the jet is nothing more than an international copycat. Join us today as we explore the development and design of China’s mysterious J-20, and whether or not the Mighty Dragon has what it takes to face off with other top-of-the-line fighter jets from around the world.

A New Player

              Developing a fifth-generation fighter jet is the ultimate sign of air superiority in 21st century warfare. The exact definition isn’t always agreed on, but in general, jets of this type have only the most advanced stealth capabilities, the most cutting-edge avionics, and unparalleled situational awareness. Along with these, other traits usually brought up include electronic warfare, the aircraft’s overall agility, quick take-off, cruising speed, and weapons systems.  

              To be honest though, these definitions tend to ebb and flow with time, but you get the general idea. These fighters are in a class of their own, far above the rest in nearly every category.

              And that’s exactly why developing such an aircraft became the biggest priority of several air forces around the world following the cold war. The United States got the edge in the game when the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor entered service in 2005, and they immediately got started on yet another, the F-35, taking a 2-0 lead in the international arms race. Now this is usually the point in these types of stories where Russia is right on America’s tail in the classic rivalry, but not this time. Russia was actually way behind in putting out such an advanced aircraft, and, really, they still kind of are to this day. China, on the other hand, was quickly emerging as the next big player.

              In the early 2000s, western intelligence sources reported that the Chinese Air Force was working on designing a fifth-generation fighter, a project which the west codenamed the J-XX program. This was later confirmed when two companies were reported to be vying for the military contract: the Shenyang Aerospace Corporation, and the Chengdu Aerospace Corporation. Both companies constructed their prototypes, and after evaluation by the Air Force, the Chengdu model was selected to fulfill the J-XX program. There isn’t a ton of information on what exactly influenced the decision between the two, but what is known is that the winner was somewhat smaller than the other. After losing the bid, Shenyang made the decision to continue with their prototype with the hopes of developing it into an export fighter to sell abroad, and Chengdu got started on what would soon be known as the J-20.

After securing the contract, the initial research stages of the J-20 came together pretty quickly, perhaps suspiciously quickly, but we’ll get into that later, and by 2008 an official announcement was made that the first flight could be expected a few years later. True to their word, in December 2010, the first J-20 was spotting taxiing around an airfield, and just a few weeks later, in January 2011, the Mighty Dragon prototype took off on its maiden flight over southwest China, soaring around for 15 fifth-generation minutes before touching back down on the runway.

As the years went by, the prototype went through several changes, including some fairly major ones, like a redesign of the tailfins in 2014 along with experimenting with several potential engine models.

In 2016, the J-20 was officially revealed to the public at Airshow China when a pair of them stole the show with their flyover, cruising straight over the crowds before showing off a bit of the new jet’s maneuverability. And then, the moment arrived that had every military analyst on the edge of their seat: in 2017, Chinese state media reported that designs for the J-20 had been finalized, and the aircraft was ready to enter mass production. It had taken more than a decade of research and development, but Chengdu’s dream fighter was finally ready.


Design and Weapons

The first thing you’ll notice on the J-20 is its eye-catching canard setup, that’s the smaller wings near the front of the plane. These were reportedly chosen over the more traditional wing and tail configuration for a couple reasons: first, this canard design along with the wings’ extended edges is said to generate nearly 2 times as much lift when compared with other wing configurations. Along with this, China claims that the J-20 has excellent performance at supersonic speeds because of reduced drag, especially when turning. But, in the spirit of full disclosure, this level of performance is debated in the west. According to one test pilot though, Li Gang, the J-20’s maneuverability is comparable to that of the J-10, a much smaller aircraft.

The jet has an overall length of about 21.2 meters, just under 70 feet, and has a wingspan of 13 meters, which is about 42 feet. The cockpit is a bubble canopy, meaning it gives the pilot or pilots unobstructed view in every direction. And yes, we said pilots, plural, because the J-20B variant spotted in 2021 is the world’s first twin-seated stealth fighter, though it’s still being worked on – the regular J-20 fits only a single operator.

At the back of the J-20 are the 2 main engines. When it first entered production, it was equipped with Russian-made AL-31 turbofan engines, but China didn’t want to rely on imports for too long, and in 2019 it was announced that newer J-20s would instead be fitted with Chinese-manufactured WS-10s, which have higher thrust and better stealth thanks to serrated afterburner nozzles. And supposedly this is only a temporary replacement, as China plans to install their newest WS-15s, a more powerful thruster, but these haven’t finished development. Though, in March 2022, a state media reported that a J-20 had tested these new engines successfully, and that they showed improvement in every category. So it’s likely that once these WS-15s are given the green light, they’ll be fitted onto every newer J-20. This will be a crucial addition to the aircraft because supposedly with the next-gen WS-15s, the J-20 will be able to supercruise.
              The current engines can blast the J-20 to a reported maximum speed of Mach 2.0,  and bring it to its surface ceiling of 20,000 meters.

              But let’s get on to its real purpose: its weapons.

              Shockingly, it isn’t known if the J-20 completely even has a main autocannon. Yep, you heard that right, the main weapon that’s been associated with fighter aircraft for an entire century might not have made the final cut. This isn’t 100% known, but so far the J-20 has yet to be spotted with a cannon.

              The bottom of the aircraft opens up to reveal the main weapons bay, which can house four missiles, either of the air-to-air type or air-to-ground, depending on what’s needed. Aside from this, one missile can be carried in the internal side bays, bringing the total to 6 missiles, all concealed within the jet. Recently, it has been spotted experimenting with external pylons on its wings, but these might be meant more for carrying extra fuel during peacetime or training operations. Perhaps in the future they will be adapted for the jet to carry more missiles but at the moment we haven’t seen any direct evidence of this.

              6 sensors placed around the airframe provide 360 degree threat detection, and under the nose is the electro-optical sensor that will allow the J-20 to find and track its targets.

But despite all this, we know very little about its intended purpose on the battlefield. The lack of an autocannon means that it is certainly hoping to stay far from any enemy fighters, so perhaps it is planned to be an air superiority fighter that will be primarily armed with long range air-to-air missiles. Its high surface ceiling and excellent maneuvering would be perfect for such a role. Other analysts, however, think that the J-20 would be best suited as a long-range strike aircraft, able to penetrate enemy radar systems and destroy critical targets before being detected.

So the best estimate right now is that the J-20 is intended to be multi-role, and able to adapt its armament for air superiority, ground strike, or any other need that could arise. One job that really seems appropriate is striking naval targets or airborne radar assets, as this would be a critical battle role if a war were to ever break out with the United States in the Pacific Ocean.

Speaking of the United States, how does the J-20 stack up against its competitors?


Competitor or Copycat?

              The only real situation the J-20 has been involved in so far was a brief encounter with a few F-35s over the East China Sea in 2022. Obviously the two sides didn’t dogfight it out and shoot the other down because, well, World War 3 hasn’t started yet, but they did get a rather good look at each other in the air. US General Kenneth Wilsbach later stated that he was relatively impressed by the J-20’s “command and control”. But apart from this, we don’t have a ton of information to go off of, so our comparisons today are going to involve a fair amount of speculation.

Let’s start with the numbers. We don’t know the exact production stats, but most estimates place the total amount of combat-ready J-20s to be somewhere between 150 and 200. This number is expected to rise throughout the 2020s, by which point the aircraft will likely become the backbone of the Chinese Air Force. In comparison, the US currently has 450 F-35s, whose production rumbles on, and 186 F-22s, whose production has been stopped. So if everything continues according to plan, it seems that within the next decade both sides will have somewhat equal numbers of fifth-generation fighters. And yes, the F-35 is intended for completely different combat roles than the F-22, but we’re going to bring them both into the comparisons because it isn’t exactly clear which equivalent role the J-20 will be filling.

              But wait, you’re saying, you’ve forgotten one! Russia’s fifth-generation Su-57, their most advanced fighter ever! Well, we’ll bring them along when they can finally scrap together a decent amount of their new jet. Suffice to say that China is already years ahead of Russia in terms of sheer production.

              But what about other factors? As we mentioned earlier, the J-20 can hold 6 air-to-air missiles in its internal bays when fully armed. This slightly beats out the F-35, which can only hold four such missiles while maintaining its stealth, but it does come with a 25mm autocannon, and if stealth isn’t a requirement the F-35 can always enter ‘beast mode’ and carry several more when its wings are fully loaded. And the F-22 beats out the J-20 by carrying up to 8. So as far as missiles go, the J-20 currently seems a bit outmatched, but if some new improvements lead to it carrying missiles under its wings perhaps it can level the playing field. And lacking the autocannon might not be as bad as you’d think – if the situation ever arises, an external weapon can always be adapted, just like with the F-35 B and C variants. Bu this, of course, would be less stealthy.

              But weapons only matter if you can reach your target, right? So how about its combat radius – The J-20 actually comes out on top here, with a reported combat range somewhere between 1200 and 2700 kilometers, meaning it could have a much wider sphere of influence than F-35s or F-22s. Of course, mid-air refueling and carrier take-offs have a big effect on effective range, but the J-20 has a seriously impressive combat radius that puts it in a position to carry out attacks far from the Chinese coast. And, along with its range, it reportedly has a higher maximum altitude than its competitors.

              One place where the J-20 really shines though is maneuverability, and most analysts place it at top-notch. Partly thanks to the canard wings mentioned earlier, the J-20 has superb control. Its most recent engines have even been reported to have thrust vectoring, bringing it close to the top of the game, but most experts believe it likely isn’t as maneuverable as the F-22. Technically, the J-20 can reach a higher maximum speed than the F-22, but the F-22 is able to sustain such high speeds for much longer, and without the constant use of afterburners.

With regards to stealth, it can be a bit tricky to know an aircraft’s complete abilities without actually fighting with it, but military analysts have put together some pretty good guesses. For starters, most analysts believe that the J-20 not only has superior stealth when compared with Russia’s Su-57, but that it could be more on par with the F-35. Although, at the same time, canards might be detrimental to its stealth profile, as has been seen with other jets. India has reported that they have ‘no problem’ detecting J-20s that are flying near the border, and that they don’t view the new jet as much of a threat, but for all we know the J-20s weren’t even actively trying to hide themselves. After all, you don’t want to give away your best tricks when you’re not even at war. So really we aren’t entirely sure just how stealthy it is.

              Now, a post about the J-20 wouldn’t be complete without bringing up its controversies. We aren’t going to take a side in this debate today, we’ll just try to lay out the facts. Basically, China has been accused of developing the J-20 by stealing information from foreign sources. Most of this is linked back to data breaches between 2008 and 2014, traced back to a Chinese national who was living in Canada at the time. These security breaches granted him access to hundreds of thousands of classified military documents, many of which were dedicated to the development of the F-35. Because of this, many people, including some experts, are convinced that the stealth technology used in the J-20 was stolen from American programs, or was at least heavily borrowed from. And not only the stealth technology, but some aspects of the overall design. For instance, look at a side-by-side comparison of the frontal views of both jets: The F-35 on top and the J-20 on the bottom.


              Sure enough, they do look pretty similar. Along with the stealth tech, nose, and intake design, the details of the F-35’s highly advanced electro-optical sensors were also leaked, so perhaps this was also a stolen bit.

              But let’s nitpick here a little bit. Yes, they look visually similar, but the F-35 doesn’t have canards, only has a single rear engine, and is smaller overall. It would be completely ridiculous to say that the J-20 is a direct copy. That’s why some people throw in another jet as a possible source, but this one of Russian origin: The prototype MiG 1.44, a project attempting to create a near fifth-gen fighter that was cancelled more than 20 years ago:


              You can see the overall similarities in design, and people immediately drew the connection when the J-20 was first spotted, with some suggesting that the Mikoyan firm had even directly helped China. They vehemently denied any involvement with the creation of the Chinese fighter, but they had in the past sold plenty of other MiGs to China in the past, as well as various aircraft licenses, so it isn’t too unrealistic to think that the Chinese designers took a bit of inspiration from the Russian prototype.

But again, this is all speculation, there isn’t any definitive proof. It is certainly possible that China developed the entire program independently, and perhaps it’s just our bias that the ‘west is always the best’ that automatically makes us assume they must have gotten a little bit of help from somewhere. And, to give them some credit, the twin-seated B variant is entirely unique. On the flip side though, the data breaches into the F-35 program are pretty damning evidence that at least some information was pulled to help the J-20’s technology come into existence.

And even if it was made based off of foreign programs, it of course isn’t an exact replica. In fact, putting all the accusations together, it would have to be a mash-up of three different jets, the F-35, the F-22, and the MiG 1.44, or as one journalist called it, ‘a bastard child of three different fighters’.

              At the end of the day one thing’s for sure – a copycat it may or may not be, but regardless, it’s one of the most advanced jets in the world, with a lot of potential for multiple combat roles. And though there’s still a lot we don’t know about it, if it does live up to its hype then the Mighty Dragon has brought China into the coveted realm of fifth-generation stealth fighters. Even if some of the ideas were taken from other programs, China has brought them all together to create quite an interesting feat of engineering. And their timing couldn’t have been better, as tensions with Taiwan continue to rise. So keep your eye on the J-20 – it could be a major player in the coming years.

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