The Chengdu J-20 ‘Firefang’ fighter jet is the entry of Chinese fighter aircraft into the 21st century.
Decried by some, praised by others, stealth is nevertheless a strong marker of the last quarter of the 20th century as well as of the first of the 21st in the field of military aeronautics. The reduction of radar signatures has been, and still is, at the heart of the ambitions of the designers and engineers who are thinking about the aircraft of today and tomorrow. For a long time, the very concept of stealth aircraft was the absolute preserve of the United States. However, after the year 2000, this changed with the emergence of such programs elsewhere, and notably among America’s adversaries. The first non-American fighter with such technology to enter service was Chinese: the Chengdu J-20.
At the beginning of the second half of the 1990s, the People’s Republic of China launched a vast program to equip its air force with two models of so-called stealth fighters. Having no experience in this field, it decided to split the program then known as J-XX. Some publications also present it as XJJ, even as J-X or XJ.
At that time it did not really have any competitors. Ex-Soviet Russia was embroiled in major economic problems while the Europeans (but also the French) focused more on multi-role capability than on stealth. China was therefore alone in facing America. Very early on, the latter got wind of the J-XX programme, to which the CIA gave the nickname of Black Eagle.
The project was stalled. It received a surprising helping hand from Serbia. On the evening of 27 March 1999, Serbian flak managed to shoot down a Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk ground attack aircraft without destroying it completely. The components of the stealth aircraft were quickly recovered by Serbian special forces who began to offer them to the highest bidders. China and Russia were the main clients of these elements considered highly confidential in the United States. This technology, resulting from the genius of the men and women of the Skunk Works, was to revive the J-XX program.
In fact, two aircraft were being developed at the time: an air superiority fighter under the aegis of Chengdu and a light multi-role fighter under that of Shenyang.
It is the first of these two that interests us here.
When the first leaks came out of China, probably with the approval of local counter-intelligence services, everything suggested that the aircraft would be a sort of local copy of the Lockheed-Martin F-22A Raptor. However, there were some indications that the aircraft would not be as innovative as hoped. The 2000s were synonymous with rumors, more or less convincing artists’ views, and information distributed in dribs and drabs. In fact, it was during this time that the name of the aircraft was finally known: J-20. The name of Wēilóng, or in French the “powerful dragon”, was then announced. Chinese propaganda presented it as superior to all other fighters in the world.
First images, admittedly rather blurred, appeared in 2010 showing the first taxiing tests of the Chengdu J-20. And the aircraft looked as much like the F-22A Raptor as it did like the experimental Soviet Mikoyan MiG-1.42. What intrigued Western experts at first glance were not the huge duck plans but the two Russian-made Saturn AL-31F turbojet engines, the same ones that were powering the Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker at the time. In 2010, China still seemed unable to produce such engines efficiently.
And it is logically in this configuration that the first flight of the prototype took place on January 11, 2011 in the hands of test pilot Li Gang. The aircraft was marked 2001. This inaugural flight lasted only fifteen minutes during which the retraction of the landing gear was not possible.
Nevertheless, the Chinese propaganda announced the event as a capital one.
From then on, the Chengdu J-20 Wēilóng was known to most of the world’s aeronautics specialists. Beijing did not hesitate to announce that three hundred examples would be in service in 2015! At the same time, the test teams were making flight after flight.
The reality of the aircraft’s development caught up with the Chinese authorities, who in 2014 announced that twenty aircraft would be operational three years later and probably three hundred by 2025-2027. At the same time, many in North America and Europe were cautious about the operational realities of this machine.
Externally, the Chengdu J-20 is a mid-wing monoplane built entirely of metal and equipped with retractable tricycle landing gear. In addition, this fighter has two canard planes and a double tailplane with a wide spacing. Propulsion is provided by two Russian Saturn AL-31F engines with a unit thrust of 14969 kilograms with afterburner.
As with the F-22A Raptor, the J-20’s weapons consist mainly of air-to-air missiles integrated into a belly hold in order not to lose stealth. The majority of the missiles are medium-range PL-12 and long-range PL-15. The short-range PL-10, considered to be the Chinese equivalent of the American AIM-9 Sidewinder, may also be used, although it does not seem to be part of the usual arsenal of this fighter. In addition, the J-20 was designed to eventually field the PL-21 very long-range air-to-air missile. The Chinese stealth fighter was not designed to accommodate a machine gun.
Officially, the Chengdu J-20 entered service in March 2017. Strangely enough the name Wēilóng disappeared at that time. A few weeks later NATO assigned it the code of Firefang. The Chinese aircraft thus became the third stealth fighter to enter service in the world, after the American Lockheed-Martin F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II.
This entry into service did not dispel doubts about the quality of the aircraft. During the frequent Chinese fighter incursions over the Formosa Strait, the Taiwanese fighter force’s Dassault Aviation Mirage 2000-5 and General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon never encountered even one Chengdu J-20 Firefang. Chengdu J-10 Firebirds and Shenyang J-16 Flanker G+ of course, and even frequently but not a single stealth fighter! In the same vein, when the Indian Dassault Aviation Rafale EH/DH were approached by Chinese fighters in the Himalayas, they were still non-stealth fighters.
One could almost come to believe that Beijing does not dare to engage its latest generation fighters against fighters that it claims are inferior.
In January 2019, the Chengdu aircraft manufacturer acknowledged difficulties in developing flight simulators for the J-20. As a result it undertook to build a pre-production operational transformation two-seater to validate its use in the coming years. This aircraft flew in August 2020. Since then, it is said that this two-seater could replace the single-seater in air superiority missions.
Although Beijing recently declared that 150 of these aircraft would be in service by the end of 2021, it seems that by the summer of that same year only 40 Chengdu J-20 Firefangs would actually be in active service. And all of them would be single-seaters. Even if Beijing claims that a locally built turbojet exists, all the pictures show the stealth plane with its original Russian engines.
This plane looks impressive, that’s for sure! However, it looks more and more like the famous German Heinkel He 100 of the Hitler era: a pure propaganda fighter.
The J-20 has obviously not yet been sold for export.
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