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.