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Is a New Version of China’s J-20 Stealth Fighter Coming Soon?

J-20
Image: Chinese Internet.

China’s J-20 stealth fighter made ripples throughout Asia and the world when it made its public debut about a decade ago.

Sort of Like the F-22? 

The fighter, Asia’s first indigenously designed and built, shares some similarities to the U.S. F-22 Raptor stealth fighter, and has prompted speculation that the Chinese design owes much to its American counterpart.

Though the J-20’s canopy and nose design are visually quite akin to the F-22, similarities between the two end there.

The J-20 features prominent canards, control surfaces somewhat similar to miniature wings, in between the cockpit and main wings. Though canards are not inherently a non-stealthy design feature, the J-20 overall is likely less stealthy than other 5th generation fighter designs.

The J-20 program has yielded surprisingly few fighters despite the program’s age. Despite the United States producing nearly 200 F-22 airframes, and well over 600 F-35s, China has fielded a paltry amount of J-20s: estimates vary from 50 to 90, depending on the source.

China’s stealth fighter program has been hindered by difficulties with domestic engine design. The twin-engine fighter had relied on superior Russian-designed engines, though reporting indicated that the J-20 program has been able to surmount their engine difficulties with the introduction of a more powerful domestic alternative to the Russian-supplied engines.

A New Variant Coming Soon?

In addition to domestic engines capable of highly maneuverable thrust vectoring, there are also indications that a new J-20 variant could sport an additional seat in the cockpit, turning the twin-engine, single-seat fighter into a two-pilot jet fighter.

Though two-seat fighter design was relatively common among 4th and 4+ generation fighter aircraft, no 5th generation fighter today is a two-seater. Thanks to advancements in electronic sensors, communications, and information processing, a second crew member’s role as a weapons officer have since become redundant. China’s J-20 may go in a different direction, however.

Citing Chinese defense industry reporting, details have emerged about a new J-20 variant that would in fact add an additional cockpit seat in order to grant the stealth fighter greater a range of greater capabilities. In a twin-seat arrangement, the pilot at the front would likely be responsible for flying the J-20, whereas the rear airman could direct the stealth fighter’s electronic warfare assets against enemy fighters or other targets.

Why the Change? 

A second crew member could also act as a pilot for unmanned aircraft flying in coordination with the J-20, in essence giving the stealth fighter command over a swarm capability. This could in theory greatly enhance the J-20’s offensive capability by using unmanned and expendable drones to gather information about the battlespace as well as attack enemy aircraft or surface ships at less risk to the J-20 airframe.

Though certainly feasible from an engineering standpoint, in remains to be seen what the future will hold exactly for the J-20, aside from better engines. One thing is however certain: the J-20’s capabilities are likely to improve in the future. Though two-seat fighters are an older fighter design, when combined with modern drone technology, the J-20 could offer Beijing a potent — and unique — stealth fighter capability.

Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer based in Europe. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.

Written By

Caleb Larson, a defense journalist based in Europe and holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He lives in Berlin and writes on U.S. and Russian foreign and defense policy, German politics and culture.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. frazier stall

    April 28, 2021 at 7:24 pm

    A 2-seater.makes sense. Especially if you’re able to use ultra long-range missiles equipped with EO sensors.This will allow pilot to communicate with missile so that the jet won’t mistake an airliner at long distance for an AWACS.

  2. E T Gwynn

    April 29, 2021 at 2:44 pm

    No one on this earth questions that a child deserves a mother and a father, including the child.

    Concurrently, no one on this earth wonders why communist aircraft appear to clone those of the United States of America. We all know they steal the information and then pretend to have created their own

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