The Chengdu J-20 “Mighty Dragon” — China’s Top Stealth Fighter?
April 1st, 2023
7 minute read
In 1961, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China signed a technology transference arrangement for the MiG-21, which was produced as the Chengdu J-7. Throughout the Cold War, in fact, China relied on a number of Soviet designs — even following the Sino-Soviet split that saw the breaking of political relations between the two communist nations over different interpretations and practical applications of Marxism-Leninism.
The J-7 was produced under license, and later became one of the first Chinese-made aircraft to be widely exported. Between 1965 and 2013, some 2,400 were manufactured, and despite its age, the J-7 remains in service around the world.
More Advanced PLAAF Fighters
In the latter stages of the Cold War, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) adopted more advanced aircraft including the Sukhoi Su-27, while it later developed domestic versions that were meant to improve upon the design. That included the Shenyang J-22, a twin-engine jet fighter that has been in active service since 1998.
Fast forward and China and Russia are moving closer together again, but there has been a shift in their relationship — with the view that Beijing not Moscow is now the dominant partner. Moreover, China isn’t relying on Soviet/Russian designs and instead has forged ahead with its own indigenously designed and developed military aircraft — while acquiring insight from foreign aircraft.
That is certainly the case with the Chengdu J-20 “Mighty Dragon,” which descended from Beijing’s J-XX program of the 1990s. Originally designed as an air superiority fighter with precision strike capability by Chengdu Aerospace Corporation (CAC) — China’s second-largest fighter production base — the Mighty Dragon is actually the world’s third operation “fifth-generation” fighter aircraft after the United States F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II — both of which were produced by aerospace giant Lockheed Martin.
“The Chinese defense industry has developed at pace in recent years, and has addressed historical problem areas such as aircraft engines,” said Harry Boneham, aerospace analyst at international analytics firm GlobalData.
The J-20, which has been officially adopted by the PLAAF, is noted for its canard-delta configuration, blended fuselage with low radar cross-section, and large canted twin tails. It is equipped with two large internal weapon bays for long-range and air-to-air missiles. The J-20 also has two small sidebays that can hold short-range air-to-air missiles. It can reportedly carry more fuel and weapons than the F-22 Raptor.
A Great Leap Forward
The aircraft heralds the “great leap forward” that the PLAAF has been able to make in recent years, even if Chinese industry has continued to struggle to develop an adequate engine for the J-20. As has been widely reported, early Mighty Dragon prototypes and even low-rate initial production models were equipped with the Russian AL-31 engines — highlighting that Beijing hasn’t fully broken away from Moscow yet.
China actually struggled for years to perfect quality, domestically-produced jet engines for its fighters.
It has sought to address the issue with the WS-10 engine, the powerplant employed on the series-production J-20A variant that entered service in September 2017. Efforts have continued to perfect the WS-15, which could provide the J-20 the ability to sustain supersonic speed without an afterburner — or supercruise.
“In the past, China had depended upon imports from abroad, most commonly Russia, to supply engines even for its domestically produced platforms,” added Boneham. “However, in 2022 the WS-15 engine developed for the J-20 reportedly made its maiden flight.”
With its current powerplant, the J-20 is believed to have a top speed of Mach 2.0 — twice the speed of sound. A question still remains, however, whether the Mighty Dragon could take on a Raptor as the dominant air superiority fighter.
“The Chinese defense industry has made progress in the field of engine development, and the WS-15, an indigenously developed engine intended for use on the J-20 is reportedly nearing the end of development,” said Boneham. “In terms of capability, it is thought the F-22 and J-20 are comparable, but limited scope on the capabilities of both the F-22 and J-20, due to their secretive nature means a comparison can’t be truly applied.”
Aviation buffs also like to compare China’s fifth-generation fighter to the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, and countless articles have speculated which would dominate the skies in a dogfight. Yet, it needs to be stressed that while both are highly capable, there is no clear-cut answer — and we should hope not to find out in the fight over Taiwan.
“With regards to the comparison of the F-35, the F-35 and J-20 have different roles, the former is a strike aircraft whereas the latter is an air superiority aircraft,” Boneham noted.
Exporting the Mighty Dragon
As Moscow faces international sanctions that impact its ability to meet the demand for its military hardware, there could be interest from nations in Asia and Africa. Yet, Boneham said China is unlikely to sell the J-20, at least in the near future.
“This is due to a fear that such exports would allow adversaries, primarily the U.S., to access the J-20s fifth-generation technology,” he explained. “A similar rationale had been adopted by the U.S. in opting to not export the F-22.”
China has actually been quite coy about sharing any significant details about the J-20 — while at the same time its state media has routinely hyped the capabilities of the Mighty Dragon. It has routinely been presented at air shows, yet still kept away from onlookers on the ground.
Last summer, the United States Department of Defense (DoD) halted acceptance of new F-35s after it was discovered that a magnet used in the aircraft’s engine was made with “unauthorized material” from China. The issue was eventually resolved, but it served as a reminder that while the F-35 may have had materials from China, the J-20 is believed to have some “DNA” from the F-22 and F-35.
Though the F-20 was the world’s first non-American stealth fighter, there were those in the U.S. and even Russia that accused Beijing of stealing design elements. It is easy to see elements of the F-22 in the J-20’s design, while it also evolved from a strike aircraft to an air superiority fighter. Beijing may have also been provided some design assistance from Russia, but perhaps not without direct input from Moscow — meaning that someone within Russia’s aviation sector may have passed along details.
Beijing was even more brazen in its efforts to glean details about the F-35.
In 2007, Chinese hackers, believed to be working at the behest of Beijing, had stolen several terabytes of classified information about the American aircraft. The timing is noted as Lockheed Martin was hacked shortly before the Mighty Dragon was actually hatched and revealed to the world.
“Whilst it is impossible to say how much Western fifth-generation aircraft design has been drawn from by the J-20 designers due to the secrecy surrounding the aircraft, there are visual similarities between the F-22 and J-20,” said Boneham. “These similarities have generated speculation that data theft and espionage may have been involved in the development of the J-20. The data leak at F-35 producer Lockheed Martin in 2020, for example, was thought to have been attributable to China, although this has not been confirmed.”
It certainly wouldn’t be the first nor the last time that China has “liberally” borrowed from foreign designs.
“Many recent Chinese aircraft have born similarities to U.S. platforms,” Boneham continued. “For example, the J-31 appears to share design features with the F-35 and CAIG Wing Loon II drone is comparable to the US MQ-9.”
Whether or not the J-20 actually has any F-22 or F-35 DNA may not be the point. Good artists may copy, and great artists may steal, but China’s fifth-generation fighter will likely still lag behind due to the issues with its engine. The greater concern for the U.S. and its regional partners is that the Mighty Dragon could be a mighty leap forward that will lead to even more capable fighters coming out of China.
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