China Joins the Stealth Club with New Aircraft – A Look at the J-20

Up to now the US military has been the only one to deploy a stealth aircraft operationally. In fact, apart from the handful of early-production F-35s that have started trickling out to partners like the UK and Australia, the USA has been the only country to operate stealth aircraft at all. Russia’s PAK-FA is semi-stealthy, but still several years away from being operational, and Iran’s Shafaq and Qaher-313 are just bad jokes. But now China has announced that it’s joined the stealth club, with a small group of its Chengdu J-20 model declared operational this month.

Before everyone panics, there isn’t much risk of the free world being assaulted by swarms of Chinese stealth aircraft just yet. They definitely have five or six of them, and maybe as many as a dozen, but compare that with the F-35; despite its many troubles, over 200 of those have already been built.

There are also questions about just how operational the J-20 fleet really is. Most analysts believe that the ultimate aim is to fit it with the indigenous Xian WS-15 engine, a modern design in roughly the same class as the F-22A’s F119. However that design isn’t complete yet, and China has had a lot of problems with producing its own engines. Right now the J-20s seem to be powered by either the Russian-made Lyulka AF-31, originally designed for the Su-27, or one of its Chinese equivalents. The problem is that the J-20 is a heavier and less streamlined aircraft than the Flanker and it seems to be underpowered right now.

As well as the engine issues, some people are also wondering just how stealthy it really is. Its general appearance suggests it could have a reasonably small radar signature from directly in front, but there are a lot of bumps on the airframe that are likely to increase its detectability. The fuselage also has large, slabby flanks, and unless the Chinese have done something radical there, the J-20 is likely to give a large return from side on. Finally, it has a pair of prominent strakes under its tailboom extensions. These suggest lateral stability problems, and they’re also going to give a nice radar echo.

One way to work out how effective the J-20 actually is will be to watch how many the Chinese build. They have a track record of displaying a new, “highly advanced” tank then only producing a few dozen of them, and if the same happens with this new plane that could be a sign that it’s meant more as a psychological than a physical weapon system.

Considering the J-20’s large size and apparently front-focused stealth, there’s been speculation that its real role is to take out AWACs and other force multipliers with long-range missile shots; it’s likely to have a good combat radius, and large weapon bays mean it can probably take a good number of heavy missiles along with it. Used in that role it could pull off some spectacular ambushes early in a conflict. But is it a war-winning design? Not unless it’s built in very large numbers.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Fergus Mason

Fergus Mason grew up in the west of Scotland. After attending university he spent 14 years in the British Army and served in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Iraq. Afterwards, he went to Afghanistan as a contractor, where he worked in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Camp Leatherneck. He now writes on a variety of topics including current affairs and military matters.
Fergus Mason

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