Chengdu J-20: China’s First Stealth Fighter

Beijing now possesses a fifth generation fighter, making it the third country in the world to join the stealth club.

For months there had been rumblings on Chinese Internet forums: rumors of photos quickly suppressed by censors. Word was, China’s first stealth fighter prototype, the Chengdu J-20, was nearing its inaugural flight. On Christmas Day, photos finally surfaced online — and stayed there. It was official: Beijing now possesses an apparently flyable prototype fifth-generation fighter, making it only the third country after Russia and the United States to join the stealth club.

The J-20 appears to share design characteristics with earlier stealth types. It has the same angled chin as the Lockheed Martin F-22 and F-35, plus those jets’ all moving tailplanes. Its twin engines are probably Russian-made 117S models. Like the Russian T-50, it’s big: an estimated 70 feet, compared to 66 for the T-50, just over 60 for the F-22 and the F-35’s 50. “The bigger that the aircraft is, the more likely it is that it is a bomber as much as, if not more than, a fighter,” Ares‘ Bill Sweetman noted.

Is the J-20 intended as a production program? If so, how soon might it enter service? There’s no way to know for sure, but Sweetman stressed that the J-20 might not spend as long in development as, say, the F-22 and F-35, both of which required 15 years from demonstrator first flight to service entry. “We don’t have a pattern for Chinese major programs,” Sweetman warned.

If it enters service, and enters service fast, the J-20 could help China flesh out its still largely outdated fleet of some 1,500 fighters, bringing Beijing closer to achieving air parity against its local coalition of rival countries: the US, Taiwan, Vietnam, Japan, South Korea and India. Even with the J-20, China will be overall outnumbered and behind technologically — but much less so.

The J-20’s first flight should occur any day now.

This story first appeared on War is Boring, December 29, 2010.