The first flight of the Chinese J-20 “Black Eagle” stealth fighter prototype on Jan. 11, 2010, provides growing proof of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (PLAAF’s) intent to field a stealthy, fifth-generation air superiority fighter in the decade ahead. That many military analysts are surprised by the sudden emergence of the aircraft is just another sign that China remains a mystery to most observers. That said, the revelations of the past few weeks have answered a few questions:
1. Is the J-20 real? –Despite years of questions and doubts by western observers, especially those in the military intelligence community, the J-20 is clearly quite real. Recent photos and amateur video showing taxi tests clearly showed heat shimmer from the engine exhausts, meaning that this was no plywood mockup. Furthermore, the size and shape of the J-20 looked right, given what U.S. designers have produced since the 1970s. Remember that the F-117A Nighthawk was larger than the F-15 Eagle, and the F-22A Raptor even larger. At the same time, the laws of electromagnetic physics are identical in China to those in the United States, so similarities between stealth aircraft designs should be expected, not surprising. And, of course, it has now been captured in flight on video.
2. What is the J-20 designed to be? – A close look at the photos and videos of the
J-20 show it to have planform and design details similar to a number of U.S. stealth fighter designs, including the F-22A Raptor, the F-35 Lightning, and the prototype YF-23 Black Widow. Several features clearly stand out. The absence of any sort of electro-optical (E/O) targeting system or sensor apertures makes it likely that the J-20 is primarily an air-to-air platform, with limited ground attack capabilities. In addition, the stowage of fuel and ordnance appears to be exclusively internal, showing a genuine commitment to maintaining the stealthy signature of the J-20 in combat.
3. How Stealthy is the J-20? – One reality of producing really stealthy systems is that the low-observable features must be incorporated from the beginning of the design process. Stealth is all about the details, and here the Chinese appear to have done a good job on the J-20 prototype. The lack of E/O apertures which show anywhere from the front and side quarters, along with the classic stealthy “chine” joining of the upper and lower fuselage, mean that the J-20 is likely to have similar radar cross section (RCS) measurements from those angles as the F-117A and possibly even the F-35A. Where the Chinese designers do not appear to care about the signature of the J-20 is from the stern aspect. Unlike the F-117A, F-22A, or B-2A Spirit, there are no treatments to lower the RCS or infrared signature of the J-20’s engines in the rear quarter, something that was likely not that important to the PLAAF. Their operational concept for the J-20 likely resembles that of the CIA and USAF operating the Lockheed A-12/SR-71A Blackbirds from the 1960s to the 1990s, flying high and fast on approach to targets, then dashing away and trusting to defensive geometry on egress to defeat enemy defensive missiles.
4. How soon, and how many J-20s? – As difficult as it is to design fifth-generation combat aircraft, manufacturing, deploying, and supporting such planes is another challenge entirely. Anyone who has had the chance to examine traditional Russian/Chinese production aircraft knows that quality control, along with fit and finish, can be marginal at times. Therefore, if the J-20 is to perform as a true stealth fighter, it will need to be built by a team of manufacturing professionals different from any previously seen in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). This will likely mean higher salaries, bonuses, and much improved working conditions over workers in other aircraft plants around the PRC. It therefore would not be surprising if production/life cycle costs on J-20s are two to three times what a PRC-built J-11 (Su-27/30 Flanker) would be. While this will probably limit the total number of J-20s produced and fielded, they are likely to be first-class aircraft with more capability than anything except F-22s/35s.
In fact, the J-20 is a product of the logical evolution of the PLAAF, which long ago committed itself to improving to first-class status among the world’s air forces. And from the look of the J-20 prototype, they are well on their way to that goal.