Chinese J-20 stealth fighter gets massive upgrade
Chinese J-20 Fighter Jet

The recent Pentagon report details the improvements and adaptations that China is implementing in its J-20 stealth fighter, with an emphasis on the integration of manned and unmanned teams.

This month, a report issued by the Pentagon on China’s Military Power indicated that Beijing is immersed in experiments to optimize its J-20 stealth fighter. The text reveals that the People’s Liberation Army Air Force is exploring the integration of concepts that combine manned and unmanned equipment in its recent combat platform.

For comparison, the US Air Force is employing a similar approach in its Next Generation Air Dominance fighter program.

The report reveals different adaptations to China’s J-20. Among them, it stands out that “China is carrying out improvements in the J-20, which could include an increase in the air-to-air missile (AAM) capacity that the plane could carry in its low visibility mode, the implementation of vector propulsion nozzles, and the incorporation of the supercruise function thanks to the installation of WS-15 engines of our own manufacture and greater power.”

The geopolitical context

With tensions increasing between Washington and Beijing, an escalation in the possibility of a kinetic conflict is on the horizon.

The Chengdu J-20, also known as “Mighty Dragon,” represents the fifth generation of China’s air superiority combat platform. Following the line of its counterparts, the American F-22, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and the Russian Su-57, the J-20 is positioned as the third fifth-generation fighter to take to the skies.

Emerging from the Chinese J-XX program in the 1990s, the J-20 was unveiled in 2016 during the Zhuhai Air Show in Guangdong. This aircraft has been manufactured by Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group, located in Sichuan.

As a direct rival to the American fifth-generation platforms, the J-20 incorporates the distinctive characteristics of an advanced stealth fighter. From its coating that reduces radar detection to a sophisticated suite of electronics and avionics, its aerodynamic design makes the J-20 a powerhouse in the air.

During its brief service in the PLAAF, the “Mighty Dragon” has undergone significant improvements. In 2021, the Russian-sourced AL-31FM2 engine that originally powered the fighter was replaced by the locally produced WS10 engine.

Although this engine seems to surpass its Russian version in capabilities, according to state sources, there are warnings about the lack of real combat testing of this engine, which could classify it as a potential risk.

Chinese J-20 stealth fighter gets massive upgrade
Chinese J-20 Fighter jet

A Jane’s defense specialist said: “Doubts remain over whether China has managed to achieve the required thrust in the J-20 with current payloads with locally produced WS-10 engines.” At the same time, an expert at the Yuan Wang military study center in Beijing emphasized that the F-35’s XA100 engine stands out over the Chinese WS-10.

Based on a recent Pentagon report, it is suggested that the latest version of the J-20 could be adapted to control drones. Specialists postulate that “the two-seat model of the J-20 could operate wingman” drones.

On the other hand, the US Air Force is investigating this innovative concept for its NGAD fighter. Reports indicate that the NGAD systems proposal will integrate unmanned aerial vehicles that will cooperate with piloted fighters.

Chinese J-20 stealth fighter gets massive upgradeThe inset photo shows the fixed Luneburg lens, while the main image shows a block, indicating a retractable system.

These Collaborative Combat Aircraft will have the mission of surveillance, analyzing adversary air defenses, and expanding command and control under human direction. In this mode, the sixth-generation fighter will lead the drones that follow it.

It is estimated that China has produced between 180 and 220 J-20s, surpassing the 187 F-22 Raptors manufactured. However, the Air and Space Forces warn that, based on serial markings on fuselages at aeronautical events, Beijing could be simulating a larger inventory of reactors.

If a military conflict arose between Washington and Beijing, the PLAAF’s contingent of J-20 fighters would be crucial. In addition, Beijing is advancing its H-20 stealth bomber project, considered similar to the USAF’s B-2 bomber.