Monday, December 28, 2015

Chinese Stealth Fighter J-20 Starts Production

J-20 2101 China Stealth Fighter


"2101" rolled out of the factory on December 26, 2015, still in its bright yellow factory primer. 2101 is structurally most similar to "2016" and "2017", the 7th and 8th J-20 prototypes. With the first LRIP squadron likely to be completed by the end of 2016, Chinese pilots will quickly put the J-20 through the paces to push every bit of capability out of their new stealth fighters.

In a Christmas gift for Chinese fighter pilots, December 25th saw the unveiling of a new J-20 fighter in fresh yellow fuselage primer on the runway of the Chengdu Aviation Corporation (CAC) factory. More notable than its paint color, however, was the numbering of the plane: "2101." As opposed to "2018" or "2019" to follow the eighth flying prototype "2017," "2101" suggests the plane is the first of the low rate initial production (LRIP) airframes, which signify the move away from prototype production to building fighters for actual military use.

LRIP is the stage in the program where CAC will build enough production fighters (about 12-24) for test and evaluation flights by the PLAAF to understand the J-20's capabilities, before further committing to large-scale production. Initial operational capability should come around in the 2018-2019 timeframe, once the Chinese Test Flight Establishment (CTFE) regiment develops the technical proficiency and competence to use the J-20 to the fullest in combat operations.

J-20 2101 China Stealth Fighter

Up and Away

At the CAC factory in Chengdu, Sichuan, the first production J-20, "2101", is put through taxiing tests on the factory runway. "2101" will soon have a coat of radar-absorbent material (RAM) applied over its yellow primer coated composite airframe to increase its stealthiness against radars.

"2101" is the ninth J-20 fighter built by the CAC in under five years (the first J-20 prototype flew in January 2011). In comparison, the first production F-35A (AF-6) flew in February 2011, five years after the first F-35 prototype flew in February 2006. The F-22 also took about five years to transition from first flight to LRIP (September 1997 and February 2002).

J-20 2017 China stealth fighter

Black Dragons

"2101", and other LRIP J-20s are going to be similar to the design of the final prototype, "2017", seen here.

Given over a decade's worth of global technology advances, intensive investment and competent program management, it should come as no surprise that China will be the second nation in the world to start production of stealth fighters. The J-20 will give the PLAAF a technological advantage over every other Asian air force. While the J-20 may not be able to supercruise (fly at supersonic speeds without using fuel-thirsty afterburners) with its current Russian AL-31 turbofan engines, its high level of stealth, long range and electronic warfare capabilities will make it a very formidable foe for other fighters.

The J-20 also carries a powerful active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, nose-mounted infrared search and tracking sensors, and fuselage-mounted cameras to give its pilot a VR 360 degree imaging (similar to the F-35's avionics). For weapons, the J-20 would have long-range missiles like the PL-12, PL-15, and PL-21, and short-ranged infrared-guided PL-8 and PL-10. Networked with other platforms such as the Divine Eagle anti-stealth drone, the J-20's array of sensors will give it the ability to go toe-to-toe with other stealth fighters.

J-20 2101 China Stealth Fighter


A group of CAC engineers and technicians gather behind 2101, likely to be ironing out any details before its maiden flight in the coming days.

While the J-20 certainly a formidable foe today, in the next several years of development advances, its capabilities can be expected to grow. Future J-20's will likely have super-cruise capable Chinese WS-15 turbofan engines and improved gallium nitride AESA radars, with further out options including pilot controlled UAVs. As J-20 testing wraps up, the PLAAF will also have many other new projects to roll out, like the J-31 stealth fighter, H-20 stealth bomber, Sharp Sword stealth UAV and hypersonic weaponry.

You may also be interested in:

China is Building the World's Second Stealth Air Force

Stealthier Stealth? Seventh Upgraded Chinese Stealth Fighter Prototype Aims to Take Flight

6th J-20 Fighter Rolls Out, With Soon More to Follow

Stealth Radar Tests on Passenger Plane

Photos Emerge of China's 4th New Stealth Fighter

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