In an ambitious effort to close the gap with the United States’ much-vaunted F-22 and F-35 fighter jets, it is well known that China has been looking toward the J-20, also nicknamed the “Mighty Dragon.”
This aircraft is known to be a heavy twin-engine, single-seat, low observability, multi-role jet—but recently, as pointed out by defense writer John A. Tirpak at Air Force Magazine, a short video that is circulating on the internet is showing a brand-new two-seat version of the jet.
“It could indicate at least a trainer version of the airplane or possibly China’s future approach to manned-unmanned air combat teaming,” Tirpak writes.
“China has hinted at the existence of a two-seat J-20—possibly known as the J-20B or J-20S—in social media videos and trade show presentations, but the new images, if authentic, indicate the airplane has reached the fabrication stage. China has leaked or allowed videos to be circulated of Mighty Dragons taxiing at the same test facility since the J-20’s existence was first revealed during former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ visit to that country in 2011,” he continues.
The magazine notes that the United States never gave the green-light to develop a two-seat/trainer version of the F-22 and F-35.
“This was both to save money but also because it was believed pilots could become proficient enough in the simulators that their first flight in the types could also safely be their first solos. That decision was based on experience with the A-10 and F-117, neither of which had an operational two-seat version for training,” he writes.
“While China may have learned from operating the J-20 in a training/development role for the last few years that a two-seat trainer is needed to improve safety, the fact that it was not created early in the program hints that there are other reasons for its appearance now,” he adds.
Drones and Unmanned Aircraft
The development of a two-seat aircraft could mean that China’s military is looking to operate drones or other unmanned aircraft along with its main fighters.
“A second crew member in the cockpit could relieve the pilot of managing these additional aircraft while operating in what is sure to be a complex and rapidly-shifting air combat environment. The back-seater could reduce the pilot’s workload substantially in this application, at the cost of some reduced range due to the extra weight of a second crew station,” Tirpak claims.
“China is known to be working on a number of ‘loyal wingman’-type projects—including a stealthy-looking, cockpit-less jet similar to the J-20 called ‘Dark Sword’—and recent intelligence estimates have said that China is advancing rapidly in artificial intelligence. Dark Sword features a chin-mounted, faceted electro-optical system like the one on the J-20 that is a near-twin of that on the F-35, and which the Pentagon believes was stolen and copied. The second crew member could potentially manage unmanned teammates for a large number of J-20s,” he concludes.
Ethen Kim Lieser is a Washington state-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.