The Mitsubishi A6M — nicknamed the “Zero” — surprised the U.S. when its pilots first went up against it in the skies above Pearl Harbor and the warzones of the Pacific. The Zero could out-range and outmaneuver all U.S. fighter types at the beginning of the war, and the U.S. Navy lost many of its pilots to its nimble attributes. The Navy would eventually receive improved fighters like the Vought Corsair and the Grumman Hellcat, which would shoot down many Zeros from 1943 onward, but the Zero’s impact during the first years of the war was significant.
Likewise, it is possible that China’s current J-20 stealth fighter could eventually develop into a plane that could unpleasantly surprise the U.S. with its abilities — if a regional or global war broke out over the Taiwan issue. Of course, the U.S. is a lot more competent now at developing effective fighters than it was in the decade before World War II. The F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters are symbols of the Pentagon’s determination to push the envelope when it comes to fielding cutting-edge machines that can guarantee air superiority in the modern battlefield.
But the J-20 seems to be getting better and better by the day. When China first unveiled the stealth fighter in 2011, it was already an unwelcome surprise for U.S. military planners. Even at that early stage it represented a giant leap in stealth development for a country that had no stealth program before 2007.
Many analysts point to a hacking attack in 2007 in which Chinese hackers breached the secret files of the U.S.’ Joint Strike Fighter project and stole data related to the F-35 stealth fighter. Only four years later, Beijing unveiled its J-20, which features a number of design breakthroughs found on the F-35. Those same experts believe this sudden technological leap could not have happened without data that had been hacked from the U.S.
The big question now is what technologies are hidden inside the J-20, and how good the quality of its components and construction is. For instance, after its unveiling in 2011, it gradually became clear that the J-20 program did not have custom-built jet engines, but had to use Russian AL-31 engines, which can only produce 33,000 pounds of thrust, leaving the jet slightly under-powered. Some J-20 models were later fitted with China’s version of the AL-31, called the WS-10.
However, China has been developing a more powerful engine for the stealth fighter, the WS-15, which would produce 44,000 pounds of thrust. Today, the J-20 is still waiting for its first WS-15 as the engine project has lagged far behind the airframe project. The Pentagon did however state in a recent report that it is seeing advancements in China’s program to develop its own jet engines, pointing to the WS-10 as an example of China’s growing ability to move toward the mass production of the more powerful, home-grown WS-15. China-based media reported on December 19, 2022 that a Chinese official hinted that the WS-15 development process is almost completed and that prototypes had already been tested.
In late December 2022, photos emerged of a new version of the J-20. Analysts say if the grainy images are not part of a ruse, the new jet could technically be named the J-20B, because it seems to have a new cockpit canopy that blends at its rear into a newly raised upper spine of the jet. Observers speculate that the new design could improve aerodynamics and handling during transonic flight and also add more space behind the cockpit for components or added fuel storage.
It is not clear if the new variant is fitted with the new WS-15 engines, but analysts believe it is much more likely that the first versions will contain the tried and tested WS-10, while later versions would ideally feature the long-awaited WS-15. It is assumed that the WS-15 would eventually give the J-20 the ability to sustain supersonic speed without using a fuel-wasting afterburner — a capability called supercruise. Chinese sources also claim that the WS-15 has a low bypass ratio for increased efficiency at high speeds, and it’s capable of thrust vector control, for added maneuverability.
After its initial unveiling in 2011, the J-20 went into service in 2017, but just like the U.S. is doing with its F-22 and F-35, the J-20’s developers kept on researching new capabilities for its external aerodynamics and its internal avionics and mechanical systems.
So far, little has been revealed about the J-20’s hidden capabilities. We just know it seems to be a stable flying machine that is still waiting for its real engines, and that it has a stealthy external shape that is very similar to the F-22 and F-35’s external shapes. U.S. officials say the most worrisome thing about the J-20 is that it is being built in large numbers, so it could significantly affect a future war by simply out-numbering enemy airplanes.
U.S. military officials say they’re still trying to figure out if the J-20 will be used primarily as a ground-strike and air-strike plane, like the F-35, or as a pure air-superiority fighter, like the F-22. One thing that they did see that does concern them is that the J-20 can fire long-range anti-air missiles like the PL-15, which can hit fast-moving airborne targets almost 200 kilometers away. For this reason, China has been fielding the J-20 in conjunction with the KJ-500 early warning and control aircraft.
The KJ-500 is a four-engine propeller plane with a large radar disk on top. After the J-20 fires its long range missiles, it would be the KJ-500’s powerful radar that would guide the missile as it disappears over the horizon. Some of China’s newest missiles are designed to fit in the J-20’s weapons bays and some of these are claimed to be able to lock on after launch (LOAL), so the jet won’t have to open its weapons bay before the moment of launch. Other ways to guide long-range missiles is via satellites or long-range drones that are positioned to have a line of sight with the target and are designed to communicate with the missile as it flies.
These guidance platforms are called the “kill chain” of the missiles. One way to defeat these long-range missiles would be to “kill the kill chain” by either destroying the satellites and drones, or reaching back and destroying the KJ-500. Another way to defeat the missile is to jam the radio transmissions between the missile and its kill chain platforms.
As a stealth jet, the J-20 is designed to have a small radar cross section, thereby making it very hard for enemy forces to track it, and even harder to get a missile lock on it. If the stealth jet works as advertised in any future conflict, it would be able to approach close enough to enemy-controlled airspace to use its missile kill chain and launch long-range missiles at the enemy’s own kill chain — non-stealthy radar planes and fuel tankers — as well as stand-off missile platforms like the B-52 bomber.
In conclusion, very little can currently be known about the J-20’s internal make-up and whether it has the same data-link capabilities that are built into the F-35. These secure data links give the F-35 the ability to combine sensors on multiple other F-35s and other U.S. sensor platforms to give U.S. pilots an unprecedented view of what’s happening in the air battleground and work together to prioritize targets effectively.
Will the J-20 keep improving and turn out to be a game-changer in future conflicts, or just a hollow shell with limited capabilities?
Only time will tell.
Image: N509FZ, Wikimedia Commons