China’s J-20 stealth fighter jet could get engines that put it ‘on a par’ with the F-22 in next 2 years

China J 20 Stealth Fighter
China’s J-20 stealth fighter at an air show in Guangdong Province, November 1, 2016.

  • China’s fifth-generation J-20 jets were designed to compete with US F-22s but use stopgap engines that limit their speed and combat capabilities.
  • China has spent two decades trying to master the technology behind the WS-15 engine, which a military source says is now almost ready to enter service.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

China’s “Mighty Dragon” J-20 stealth fighter jet is expected to get purpose-built new engines within the next two years, according to a military source.

The WS-15 engine has been specially designed for the J-20 and is designed to improve its manoeuvrability and combat capabilities.

“The development of WS-15 is nearly complete … or may be finished within one or two years,” said the source, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic.

The source added that the project had fallen behind schedule and had taken more than 10 years but the upgrade means “it will be on a par with the American Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor.”

On Monday, Hong Kong-based Phoenix Television broadcast an interview with Li Gang, the pilot who made the J-2o’s maiden flight, in which he said the new engines would maximise the fifth-generation fighter’s capabilities.

At the time of the plane’s debut in 2011 – which was timed to coincide with a visit to Beijing by then-US defence secretary Robert Gates – it was fitted with Russian Saturn Al-31 engines.

These were designed for fourth-generation fighters, which meant the new fighter was less agile than the US planes it was supposed to compete with.

J-20 stealth fighter china
China’s J-20 stealth fighter.

The American Raptors are fitted with engines that use two-dimensional thrust-vectoring nozzles – a technology China has been trying to master for two decades and which will be used in the new engines.

These nozzles allow the direction of the engine thrust to be controlled, which means the plane can perform sudden manoeuvres that conventional aircraft cannot – for example avoiding missiles.

China has made some progress in this field and in 2018 it unveiled the WS-10C Taihang engine, which offers greater manoeuvrability but less power than the WS-15.

But the WS-15 engine failed its final evaluation in 2019 and the WS-10C, first tested on a single-engine fighter, has been used as a stopgap for the twin-engined J-20.

The J-20 was designed to be a fifth-generation stealth fighter jet on par with Lockheed’s F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning multirole strike fighters.

The fighters were rushed into service by the People’s Liberation Army in 2017 after the Pentagon started deploying its F-35s in the Asia-Pacific region.

The PLA currently has 50 J-20s in service and the military source said the Chengdu Aerospace Corporation (CAC) is expected to produce another 50 by the end of this year.

“But compared with the Lockheed Martin production line, which is able to deliver more than 100 F-35s every year, each of the CAC’s [four] production lines only has the capacity to make about one J-20 a month,” the source said.

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China’s military is keeping a close eye on the US’s development of a new, advanced fighter jet

F-22 raptor f 22
US Air Force F-22 Raptors.

The US Air Force’s desire to radically reshape and accelerate the way it develops future fighter planes could propel China to ramp up its plans for next-generation aircraft, Chinese experts said.

A military insider familiar with China’s next-generation aircraft project said Chinese aircraft designers were keeping a close eye on anything disclosed by their American counterparts about NGAD, or the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) programme.

If implemented, NGAD would create a network of advanced fighter aircraft, sensors and weapons, with jets and autonomous drones fighting side by side rather than as a single-aircraft platform or technology.

“China has also planned to develop a next-generation aircraft, but so far just specifically for the air force not for the navy, calling it a ‘background plane,'” said the insider, who requested anonymity.

“Because of a lack of reflection standards and relevant parameters, there are doubts around the development progress of the background plane.”

The US has announced two next-generation programmes: NGAD for the Air Force, and the F/A-XX for the Navy, a long-term plan to develop next-generation ship-borne aircraft to complement and eventually replace the current F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighters.

In September, the US Air Force revealed it had flown a full-scale demonstration model built as part of its NGAD programme.

The fighter is one of at least two sixth-generation jets being developed by US contractors to maintain the USAF’s technological edge, according to the Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan released in 2016.

At a US Air Force Association symposium last week, Gen. Mark Kelly, head of Air Combat Command, said the Air Force needed to have its next-generation air dominance fighter soon if it wanted to compete with China.

“What I don’t know – and we’re working with our great partners – is if our nation will have the courage and the focus to field this capability before someone like the Chinese fields it and uses it against us,” he said.

“We just need to make sure we keep our narrative up and articulate the unambiguous benefit we’ve had as a nation to have that leading-edge technology ensuring we have air superiority for the nation and the joint force.”

China J 20 Stealth Fighter
China unveils its J-20 stealth fighter during an air show in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province, China, November 1, 2016.

Beijing-based military expert Zhou Chenming said Chinese aircraft designers would welcome US Air Force efforts to speed up the launch of NGAD fighters.

“Before making the direction of new aircraft, Chinese aircraft designers should clarify the parameters of their rival aircraft, especially the American fighters, including their combat range, speed, flying height and other dogfight capabilities, for basic reference,” he said.

Development of the country’s J-20, the PLA’s most advanced stealth fighter jet, was smooth because its design was based on its American rival, the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter, he said.

The F-22 entered service in 2005, while China’s J-20 was launched in 2011 and formally joined the PLA Air Force in 2017. But China has failed to produce the WS-15 tailor-made engine designed for the J-20 fighters, and must still use the Russian AL-31F engine and its lesser home-made version, the WS-10C.

Steve Burgess, an aircraft specialist at the US Air War College, said the NGAD was aimed at developing a new fighter for the 2020s, a move to further reinforce the status of the US military as the global leader, as well as widen the gap between China and his country.

“Engine design problems will continue to hold China back [in their next-generation aircraft development programme],” he said, adding that Chinese aircraft technology still failed to threaten the US.

But Song Zhonging, a former PLA instructor, said China’s defence industry had more “privileges” than the US in terms of funding, compared with the strict budget approval process in the US.

US Congress has approved US$904 million of the Air Force’s US$1 billion request in the 2021 financial year, a sign of limited support by American lawmakers. In the 2020 financial year, the service received US$905 million for the programme.

Because of the high cost of an F-22 – about US$250 million – the last one was delivered in 2012. Amid criticism from taxpayers, the Pentagon decided to develop the inferior and lower-cost single-engine F-35 Lightning, for more than US$1 trillion over the 60-year lifespan of the programme, making it the most expensive weapons project in the American military.

“Thanks to the increasing pressure from the US … that has encouraged Chinese leadership to pour and mobilise all resources and manpower to strengthen the country’s defence industry,” Song said.

Russia has announced that the country’s two aerospace juggernauts Mikoyan (MiG) and JSC Sukhoi have joined hands to build a conceptual sixth-generation fighter jet, the MiG-41 interceptor, under the PAK DP programme.

Western European countries are trying to develop their own new-generation aircraft such as the Future Combat Air System and Tempest fighters.

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