George Winston

 

Flypast of the Chengdu J-20 during the opening of Airshow China in Zhuhai. - By Alert5 - CC BY-SA 4.0

A pair of new Chengdu J-20 stealth fighters recently headlined China’s Airshow China in Zhuhai, although they were in the air for only a few minutes.

Justin Bronk, a research fellow specializing in combat air-power at the Royal United Services Institute, said the display left many unanswered questions.  It was not possible to say definitively what the J-20 is capable of, but he doubts if its sensor and network integration can match that of US aircraft such as the F-35 and F-22 although on paper it is a leap forward for the People’s Liberation Army.

Bronk assumes that the models on display at Airshow China were only there for show.

Airshow China – also known as the China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition – is a large and prestigious aerospace event, approved and endorsed by the Chinese government itself. It was founded in 1996, and each year it puts on display a wide variety of new products and aircraft, including full-size planes and prototypes.

This biennial showcase also includes talks from industry professionals and technical experts, and is famous for its live displays and demonstrations. It has now been held 11 times, with a show being staged every two years.

The J-20 planes that appeared there recently are likely far from finished, with new and improved features set to appear in the final version of the design some time in the future. However, even as it stands, the display of this technology and its capabilities might still be cause for concern, for America at least.

These planes could represent a potential danger in the Pacific to United States forces, he said. Capable long-range fighters like the J-20 pose a threat to airborne warning and control systems, in addition to forward bases and refueling tankers. Compared to the fighters currently in China’s arsenal, the J-20s – or at least, planes similar to them – would be a new and worrying innovation.

 

Bronk noted that the plane probably flew with under-powered engines and not the ones that will be appearing in the finished version. Engine output is an important function of any aircraft, he said. He also added that Russia and China remain somewhat behind in this field because of the high quality of manufacturing processes that is required to make and adjust genuinely first-class aircraft engines.

They did not learn much about the new aircraft, said Greg Waldron, the managing editor of FlightGlobal for Asia. With details on the planes and the technology behind them still fairly scarce, the only concrete information that could be gleaned about the engines was the fact that they were extremely loud. However, it has not been revealed yet exactly what kind of engines these aircraft currently possess or what type of engine it will have when its completed and perfected at some point in the future.

Perhaps the most important question is the type of engine powering the J-20.  In comparison with the F-22 and the F-35, US fifth-generation fighters, the J-20 has a bigger fuel capacity giving it greater range and a larger store of weapons carried internally, Brock said.

Whether the Chinese will field the plane in 2018, as Beijing has projected, remains an open question, Business Insider reported. Although the short display at Airshow China was certainly impressive, leaving many discussing its the potential ramifications, it may be some time before we see the final versions of these planes in the sky.

Bronk noted that it took ten years for developers to progress from making a flying model of the F-22 and getting combat-ready F-22s operational.  Even if the Chinese have sped the process by stealing US technology, it takes a lot of money and time to produce an effective lethal fighter such as the F-22, Bronk said. It seems fairly unlikely that China could have already progressed that far.

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