In 1995, Chengdu and Shenyang were both asked to design a 5th generation fighter aircraft. Westerners became aware of such a project, then named XXJ, in 1997. It was rumored that the Chinese had received parts of the F-117 shot down in Serbia in 1999. This was denied by the Chinese, who argued that the F-117 technology was already outdated.

At least 3 distinct programs existed: the Shenyang J-12 and J-13, and the Chengdu J-14. For the latter, the photo of the model appeared on the Internet, but it was so retouched by the censors that it was believed for a long time to be an artist’s impression or a fake.

Chengdu J-20

Rumors were running about the manufacture of a stealth aircraft by the Chinese. However, the aircraft made its first flights in December 2010 at the Chengdu flight test center, located in the middle of the city. The Chinese authorities let spotters take pictures of the aircraft, and the photographs, then the videos appeared on the Internet. The astonishment is such that one believes at first in a fake.

The plane, presented as the J-20, or Project 718, has a front part copied from the F-22 (with a one-piece canopy) and the rear part from the MiG 1.42. As early as 2001, a transfer of information between MiG and China was suspected. It is a delta canard type aircraft (the canard planes have a positive dihedral), with 2 small one-piece tailplanes, fully mobile and inclined at 25°. The air inlets are of the DSI type (Diffuser Supersonic Inlet), and the blades of the engines are perfectly hidden. The trap doors of trains comprise “teeth of sharks”, facilitating the stealth.

Its frontal SER would be estimated at 0,05 m². However, experts would have raised 8 points embarrassing for the stealth, of which the apexes and the ventral anti-roll keels. These last ones will perhaps disappear with the development of very elaborate electric flight controls.

It has at least one armament hold, 2.20 m wide, and perhaps 2 small holds on each side of the air inlets. It would also have 4 points of carriage under canopy. No cannon is planned for the moment, but it could carry 6 PL-12Cs optimised for the payload, PL-12Ds or PL-21s equipped with ramjets, or PL-10s with short range, infrared guidance and compatible with a helmet sight. The PL-10 could take place in the small side holds.

As for its dashboard, it would have no less than 6 multifunctional screens, and a wide-field holographic HUD, if we are to believe a mock-up unveiled at the 2010 Zhuhai air show. It could be equipped with an AESA-type electronically scanned radar, possibly derived from the KLJ5. For the moment, it is equipped with WS-10 engines. Eventually, it will receive WS-15 engines, currently under development. It could also be equipped with optical sensors and an electromagnetic self-protection system, which would be tested on J-10Bs.

There are 4 prototypes, plus an airframe used for static tests. The one coded 2001 made its inaugural flight on January 11, 2011 in the hands of Gong Li. It flew during 18 mn, extended train and accompanied by a two-seater J-10S. The second, coded 2002, made its first flight in May 2012.

The third, coded 2011, was unveiled on January 16, 2014 and made its high-speed taxi tests in February 2014. It features some improvements, such as redesigned air intakes similar to those on the F-35, and presumably an electro-optical/infrared sensor also similar to the F-35. Finally, the fourth, coded 2012, made its maiden flight on July 26, 2014.

Large (21.36 m), heavy (up to 40 tons at takeoff), the aircraft does not seem to be made for air combat. It seems less maneuverable than the F-22, but could fly at Mach 1.5 in supercruise (Mach 1.7 with WS-15 engines). On the other hand, it seems to compensate with a high payload and fuel capacity.

Chengdu J-20

Its role is still questionable. As a technology demonstrator for some, or as an interceptor or long-range ground attack aircraft for others, the hypotheses are all over the place. The PLAAF spokesman said the aircraft could be operational by 2017 or 2019, but only time will tell if these predictions are optimistic or not. In late April 2014, the Chinese government said it hoped to have 20 aircraft by 2020.

Big doubts still exist about China’s ability to provide engines, equipment, RAM materials to create a true 5th generation aircraft. In the meantime, NATO has already named it “Fire Fang“. The aircraft could also be offered for export, for example to Pakistan, certain African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries, for a unit price of between 73 and 110 million dollars.

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