China’s fifth-generation fighter moved much closer to operational capability last year, Richard D Fisher Jr. reports for IHS Jane’s 360.
In 2014 China’s Chengdu Aircraft Corporation released four new prototypes of its J-20 fifth-generation fighter, with the two latest iterations having been unveiled in November and December. This brings the total number of J-20 prototypes to 6.
The prototypes’ debut signals a major scaling up of development of the J-20 since until 2014, only two prototypes had previously emerged, in 2009 and 2010.
The speed at which operational prototypes of the J-20 are now emerging signals that the J-20’s initial operational capability could be reached as soon as 2017 or 2018.
This advance comes during a period of technical difficulties for America’s own fifth-generation fighter. The latest problems facing the F-35 include the jet’s engines shutting down if the fuel becomes too hot, along with the Air Force’s variant of the F-35 having a software glitch that stops the aircraft from being able to fire its main cannon. The glitch is not expected to be fixed until 2019.
The J-20 bears striking external resemblance to both the F-35 and the F-22.
At the independent Australian think-tank Air Power Australia, Aviation expert Carlo Kopp notes that China imitates the basic shapes and skeletal designs of existing aircraft to speed development while minimising the risk of a costly and embarrassing engineering failure later on.
“By cleverly exploiting contemporary United States-developed stealth fighter shaping design rules,” Kopp writes, “Chengdu engineers were able to rapidly get an excellent basic shaping design with a minimum of risk and cost, and significant long-term stealth performance growth potential.”
Aside from reverse engineering, the J-20’s design has also likely benefited from acts of Chinese espionage.
In July, a Chinese entrepreneur was arrested after stealing gigabytes of data related to US military aviation projects. Previous extensive theft of F-35 data is thought to have been behind a number of redesigns among the successive stages of J-20 prototypes.
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