As the India China standoff in Ladakh nears its 8th month, there is no end visible on the horizon. The two sides are dug-in and fully prepared for the harsh winter that has already set-in. The two hot subjects for discussion in media are the heated oxygen-rich accommodation for the troops, and the balance of airpower in the region. There is talk of the H-6 bombers that have been seen at nearby airbases like Hotan and Kashghar. But of greater interest is the Chinese government-controlled media-hyped J-20 stealth fifth-generation fighter. China claims it as equivalent to the American F-35, but the reality is that the new aircraft is still struggling on many counts. Indian Air Force (IAF) is studying the aircraft in greater detail and factoring the implications of its combat deployment.
J-20 Induction and Overview
J-20, Mighty Dragon, is a stealth air superiority fighter developed by China’s Chengdu Aerospace Corporation. The aircraft first flew in January 2011. Two Chengdu J-20s made their first public appearance at Airshow China 2016. Aircraft have reportedly been inducted in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) in March 2017. Around 50 are claimed to be in service. Essentially it is a single-seat aircraft with air superiority as primary mission and having precision strike capability. The first J-20 combat unit was formed in February 2018. That makes it the world’s third operational fifth-generation stealth fighter aircraft after the F-22 and F-35. A twin-seat variant of the J-20 is rumoured to be in development for use in the tactical bombing, electronic warfare and carrier strike roles. The aircraft is being equipped with the new variant of WS-10 Taihang engines with serrated afterburner nozzles to enhance stealth.
Basic Aircraft Characteristics
The J-20 has a long and wide fuselage, with a chiselled nose section and a frameless canopy. It has low observable intakes and all-moving canard surfaces. The delta wing has forward-swept trailing edges. There are twin outward canted all-moving fins. Aircraft is known to have high instability requiring more powerful pitch control authority at high angles of attack, which is supported by canards and by thrust vectoring. They also give it good short-field landing ability. At 20.4 m (66.8 ft), it is similar in size to the Sukhoi 30 family of aircraft. Its empty weight of 19,391 kg (42,750 lb) is nearly 2 tons more than Su-30. The maximum Mach 2.55, is more than the Mach 2.0 of Su 30. Also, the combat range of the aircraft is claimed to be higher than Su-30. Some of these figures will evolve further once more data comes out in the public domain.
Aircraft Engine – Still Evolving
Initial J-20s are powered by a Saturn AL-31FM2 with a “special power setting” thrust of 145 kN (32,600 lbs). The Shenyang WS-10 engines are reportedly being used since mid-2019. This is still under development. In July 2020, China unveiled the J-20B after it went into production. This aircraft is known to be equipped with new Chinese WS-10C engine with an improved thrust, and stealthier serrated afterburner nozzles and higher reliability, but it is not designed for thrust vectoring unlike the WS-10 TVC (WS-10B-3) demonstrated on a J-10 in 2018. The final intended power-plant is the Xian WS-15 with a thrust of 180 kN. This would give it the supercruise capability and will be stealthier. The aircraft is equipped with a retractable refuelling probe.
Radar and Avionics
J-20s is known to use Type 1475 (KLJ-5) active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar with 1856 transmit/receive modules. Others feel that the radar could have 2000–2200 transmit/receive modules, giving greater power and performance. The J-20 has an Electro-Optical Targeting System under its nose and six units of Distributed Aperture System (DAS) sensors are mounted around the fuselage. The aircraft also has an advanced communications suite with data-link with other platforms such as fighters, AWACS, and drones. The system provides 360-degree coverage. With sensor fusion combining radar and IR image, better situational awareness is created. The aircraft features a glass cockpit, with 24 x 9 inches primary large colour liquid crystal displays (LCD) touchscreen, and three smaller auxiliary displays. There is a wide-angle holographic head-up display (HUD).
The main integral weapon bay under the fuselage can house four short and long-range air-to-air missiles (AAM) like PL-9, PL-12C/D, PL-15 or PL-21. Two smaller lateral weapon bays behind the air inlets can carry short-range AAMs (PL-10). These side bays allow closure of the bay doors before firing the missile, thus allowing the missile to be fired in the shortest time possible as well as enhancing stealth. Aircraft does not seem to have an integral gun. Besides, there are four external hard-points for carrying auxiliary fuel tanks, perhaps only for ferry. One expects four long-range and two short-range AAMs.
Stealth with a Question Mark
J-20 copied the frontal stealth shaping design from the F-22. The aircraft’s side and axisymmetric engine nozzles will certainly expose the aircraft to radar. Use of canards on a low-observable would surely compromise of stealth. The diverterless supersonic inlet (DSI) would be good for stealth performance. The aircraft also uses radar absorbent materials. Former IAF Chief Dhanoa had mentioned that IAF radars were able to see the J-20 during air exercises close to the border. This could be, either because, for routine training exercises, Chinese are possibly flying the J-20 with radar reflectors (Luneburg lens) for better contact and safety reasons, or over-hyped stealth capability.
Operational Roles and Limitations
J-20 seems best suited for air superiority role. The J-20 with its long-range missile armament could threaten adversary’s high-value assets such as FRA and AWACS. Despite China’s desperate push, and attempts to take support from Russia and Ukraine, aircraft engine remains the Achilles’ heel. Also, there are question marks about the stealth and the aircraft radar.
Chinese officials confirmed that the J-20 had entered service in the PLAAF since February 2018, and was positioned with the 9th Air Brigade at the first operational airbase at Wuhu, in Anhui province, not too far from China’s east coast. Different sources give different numbers of aircraft in service. Some Chinese government backed propaganda gives a figure as high as 50, but that is unlikely. It appears that around 10-12 aircraft are in service. It normally takes around 2-3 years for the initial teething problems to get resolved. The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) has suggested that the USA could lose its lead on operational stealth aircraft unless urgent defence investments are made. On 27 August 2019, the Chinese Central Military Commission has also approved the J-20 as the PLA Navy’s future primary fighter, beating out the FC-31. FC-31 was much shorter and easy to accommodate on carriers. The J-20 would likely be commissioned upon the Type 002 aircraft carrier under construction, and its length may be shortened.
The J-20 participated in its first combat exercise in January 2018 and engaged in beyond-visual-range (BVR) combat engagements with China’s fourth-generation fighters such as J-16 and J-10C. Developing dissimilar aircraft combat tactics is on. J-20s reportedly also conducted night engagements. The J-20 also participated in its first over-ocean combat exercise in May 2018.
Comparison with F-35
The F-35 is designed with long-range sensors and data fusion technologies to complete the OODA Loop. A key emphasis in F-35 hardware and software-driven brain using “mission data files” to work between various on-board avionics. Each threat is independently analysed and an electronic or weapons solution evolved. The aim is to remain ahead of adversary’s decision cycle. The J-20 is essentially an air superiority fighter in the conventional sense and is perhaps the largest low-observable aircraft being built. Long-range interception is the specialisation. J-20 will concentrate more on taking on force multipliers such as AWACS and FRA. Also, try to engage long-range bombers. J-20 is a heavy, twin-engine warplane, primarily to make holes in the threat in Western Pacific. J-20 is less stealthy. J-20’s stealth qualities around its nose, but forward canards are not ideal. The stealthy and more powerful engines are still far away. Some analysts say J-20 is expensive and China will not be able to match the American inventories. J-20s could also be easy prey for U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor stealth fighters.
Global Strategic Implications
It is clear that between the two Chinese stealth programs, the J-20 is the clear single aircraft that will finally be adopted by the Chinese armed forces. China’s total defence and R&D expenditure still is around one-third of the USA, but in Purchase Parity Power it comes closer. China already dominates the South China Sea and is systematically pushing toward dominating the Western Pacific ocean and later the Indian Ocean to become the predominant power in Asia. Finally, China wants to be a dominant power in the world using the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to extend influence. Aerospace success will be key to its dominance. Therefore it is making significant investments in these two areas. J 20 is one of the star-ships of this ambition. Combined with hypersonic weapons, it could be a lethal cocktail. The world seems to have underestimated the speed of development of the J-20 and several other Chinese military projects. The J-20 will give China a significant edge over India, Japan, and South Korea, which are all struggling to design and produce their fifth-generation fighters on schedule. Japan and South Korea are acquiring American F-35A. India is pushing hard with its first fifth-generation stealth aircraft Advance Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) but will have to take more calls.
Tactical Options and Way Ahead India
Induction of J-20s in Tibet sector and near Ladakh must be factored by IAF war planners. The threat of J-20s with long-range PL-15 missiles to protect critical tanker and ISR assets. FRA and AWACS would require air defence cover with air superiority aircraft leading ahead. Rafale, with partial stealth, should play a crucial role. Electronic warfare suite of the Rafale would also be important in such scenarios. Shooting down of a single J-20 will dent PLAAF morale and send signals to the world. Better tactical appreciation and BVR tactics should also help. Also, Artificial Intelligence (AI), hypersonic weapons and longer range Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAM) could keep J-20s further away. Notwithstanding the over-hype, India should never take its adversary lightly and prepare appropriate ways to neutralise the threat.
Meanwhile, India has taken very long to develop and produce the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). India has still to assign funds for LCA Mk1A. The decision for acquiring the 114 new fighters continue to get a cold shoulder. The LCA Mk II which will be around 4.5 generation aircraft is still over a decade away. Even if India pushes, AMCA, it is still around 15 years away. Effectively India is around 20 years behind China. India’s capacity to allot development funds and Capital procurement budgets has to go up. If the development of AMCA becomes inordinately delayed, acquiring two squadrons of F-35 or Su-57 may be considered.