The Chengdu J-20 is China’s first attempt to produce a 5th-generation stealth fighter that can match the likes of the U.S. F-22A Raptor and F-35 Lighting II and the Russian T-50.

Background

China initiated preliminary research on the 5th-generation fighter aircraft technology in the late 1990s. The two primary fighter aircraft manufacturers, Shenyang Aircraft Industries Corporation (SAIC) and Chengdu Aircraft Industries Corporation (CAIC), were competing for the contract of the PLA’s next-generation fighter programme known to Western intelligence as XXJ or J-XX.

In 1997, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) reported that an advanced F-22-class twin-engine stealth fighter codenamed XXJ was being developed by the Shenyang-based 601 Institute and SAIC. In 2001, an Internet source photo showed a F-22-like aircraft model was being tested in a wind tunnel at 601 Institute. At the same time, it was revealed that 611 Institute was also working its own advanced fighter aircraft design, possibly based on the knowledge and experience gained from the development of its J-10 fighter.

In December 2010, imagery of a new fighter aircraft with strong stealth features undergoing low-speed taxi test at the CAIC test site began to emerge on Chinese Internet sites and social media. The aircraft was subsequently identified as the first prototype of the J-20, the 5th-generation fighter developed by the CAIC. It was reported that the aircraft made its maiden flight successfully on 11 January 2011, followed by a second prototype in May 2012. Both examples appeared to be serving as technology demonstrators to validate the aircraft’s aerodynamic design.

The third prototype featuring some minor modifications on aerodynamic design and a chin-mounted electro-optical targeting system (EOTS) began test flight in March 2014. The aircraft is believed to be much closer to the finalised design of the J-20. By late 2015, at least nine prototypes of the J-20 were undergoing various flight and weapon testing.

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J-20 prototype ‘2001’ that made first flight on 11 January 2011
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The second prototype ‘2002’ that first flew in May 2012
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The third prototype ‘2011’ with minor aerodynamic modifications and a chin-mounted electro-optical targeting system (EOTS)

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Prototype ‘2015’
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Prototype ‘2016’
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Pre-production prototype ‘2101’

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Design

The J-20 is a single-seat, twin-engine stealthy fighter featuring a tailless delta wing layout with a pair of foreplane canards, two V-shape all-moving tails, two tapered under-fuselage stabilising fins and tail booms. The aircraft’s airframe shows strong adar cross section (RCS) reduction features, including a blended fuselage with internal weapon bay, serrated edges on undercarriage/weapon bay doors, and diverterless supersonic inlet (DSI).

The J-20 prototypes are powered by two Russian Lyulka-Saturn AL-31F turbofan engines (76.2 kN/17,130 lb dry and 122.55 kN/27,557 lb with afterburning), which do not offer the super cruise and thrust vectoring control (TVC) capabilities. China is seeking to acquire the more advanced AL-41F1S (117S) engine (86.3 kN/19,400 lb dry and 142 kN/32,000 lb with afterburning) from Russia. This would offer the aircraft some substantial performance gain but still not likely be sufficient to allow the aircraft to match the F-22A.

Armaments of the aircraft include one internal cannon, two main internal weapon bays with 4 payload hard points for MRAAM or bombs, and  two side internal weapon bats with 2 payload hard points for SRAAM. Air-to-air weapons include the PL-10 IR-homing SRAAM and the PL-15 active radar-homing MRAAM.

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J-20 carrying the PL-15 MRAAM inside its internal weapon bay

J-20 with the PL-10 SRAAM

The aircraft’s sensors include an active electronically scanned array (AESA) fire-control radar, an electro-optical targeting system (EOTS) mounted under the aircraft nose, and a side-looking electro-optical distributed aperture system (EO-DAS) similar to that of the F-35. The aircraft is also believed to be equipped with highly integrated avionics and high-capacity data link.

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