21st Century Asian Arms Race

Is The Chinese J-20 Stealth Fighter A Flop?

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Via Wikimedia Commons.

Recently published analysis of the J-20 may have done irreparable damage to the hype surrounding the twin engine stealth fighter. Often hailed as a peer to the US-made F-22 Raptor, the delta wing-and-canards Chinese stealth fighter is the first of its kind in the world. But ever since it entered service in early 2017 and got its combat readiness approved by the PLAAF this February, troubling new details have cast doubt on its abilities.

Two articles in particular raise some very controversial points about the Chinese air force’s most advanced airframe. According to a bombshell report by the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the J-20 isn’t even good enough for its anointed role.

In a story published by the SCMP on February 10 the veteran military affairs reporter Minnie Chen cites unnamed sources to expose a critical flaw of the J-20: its engine type. Chen claims the J-20 is powered by two WS-10B turbofan engines. These are a “modified version” of the domestically made engines on the J-11, the multirole fighter copied from the Russian Flanker.

The J-20 is supposed to be powered by WS-15 engines code named “Emei.” The reason these aren’t used, one of Chen’s sources explains, is because they failed during a test four years ago. The absence of the WS-15’s meant the J-20’s flight performance on substitute engines makes it inferior to the supersonic F-22.

Chen also reveals the contractors for the WS-15’s remain hard at work perfecting and then standardizing its crystallized turbine blades. The effort isn’t cheap and Chen’s research puts the related R&D costs for turbine engines since 2010 at $23.7 billion. This amount covers a broad effort to manufacture high performance military aircraft engines that outclass those imported from Russia.

Another unflattering story about China’s stealth fighter came from Asia Times and was credited to its staff. It mentions another publication, the Kanwa Defense Review, to make three specific claims. First, the J-20 isn’t even in low rate production and it’s unknown how many are flying. Second, the few existing J-20’s need to be kept in two environmentally controlled hangars when not on missions. Third, the J-20’s current engine–this time referred to as the “WS-10A”–is defective.

With these facts at hand, Asia Times concludes the J-20 isn’t what it appears to be. It’s a mere “4.5-generation effort” rather than a true equal to the Raptor. Its career might even prove short-lived because the adoption of supersonic WS-15 engines will force changes to the airframe, resulting in a different model, i.e. the speculative J-20B that arrives at decade’s end.

The J-20’s portrayal in two Asian news outlets offer a stark contrast to the aircraft’s official reception by Chinese state media. Last week the Global Times hailed the J-20 for being “armed by the combat troops of the air force,” a status that could mean it’s ready for offensive missions. Exactly where the J-20 is destined to fight is unclear since vague platitudes are used for describing what it can do. A PLA spokesperson, for example, announced “the J-20 will engage with rivals in the future who dare to provoke China in the air.”

There’s very little substance to these remarks given the open record of Chinese military aircraft entering foreign airspace rather than the other way around. The PLA hasn’t even bothered to address the issues raised at home and abroad concerning the J-20 and the official silence may be an implied admission their airframe isn’t working as intended.

It’s hardly surprising how the J-20 is now the subject of unflattering portrayals by non-Chinese media. As with other kinds of PLA weapon systems, its effectiveness is subject to so much skepticism. Take it from Zachary Keck writing for The National Interest. Keck uses the revelations from the SCMP to show how the J-20’s flaws cements the consensus of Chinese technology still being inferior to the US’.

What has gone unmentioned in this flurry of Asia-Pacific aviation journalism is the J-20 appears to be suffering from the same limitations as its Russian counterpart, the PAK FA. It has the wrong engine and untested capabilities with scant proof it will enjoy mass-production. The striking parallels between the J-20 and PAK FA should weigh down the PLA’s optimism about their homegrown stealth program. Only successive breakthroughs in the near future can decide whether the J-20 and its heirs thrive or fail.

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