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If the Chinese J-20 is a True Fifth Generation Fighter

A silent observer looking around. At times he must protect his identity with avatars and weird sounding names.

if-the-chinese-j-20-is-a-true-fifth-generation-fighter

This is an update of my previous article regarding the Chinese stealth fighter J-20.

And going back to my previous work, I saw the J-20 not as a sophisticated piece of engineering, but a cheap copy of western fighters. In its present state, it cannot go toe to toe with other Fifth Gens, but likely it’s an effective terror weapon against smaller countries. You know, these past years they are flexing their muscles in the West Philippines Sea by occupying someone else’s exclusive economic zone. And the leader of a certain country was too afraid to stand up. And a fifth-generation fighter in China’s disposal is an effective way to convince these countries that a struggle is futile.

Given that it’s really a fifth generation, as what some sources say.

I once heard a report that the so called “Mighty Dragon” was downgraded from a proud fifth generation fighter, to a fourth gen. The internet is infested with fake news and propaganda stories, with some coming from China. Hence, I did a bit of research on what really happened, or if the story has credence. Nevertheless, with problems plaguing China’s stealth fighter programs, you cannot blame anyone if they doubt that the J-20 is really a real Fifth Gen. But then this might be the price of knock-off technologies. You only get a get half of the quality.

How Do You Define a Fifth-Gen

An F-22 Raptor, the U.S. Fifth-Generation champion.

An F-22 Raptor, the U.S. Fifth-Generation champion.

Fifth-generation fighters belong to an exclusive class. They are the most advanced warbirds to ever hit the sky. They are usually developed in the early 21st century, and only a few countries have their own champions to boast. The U.S. got the Raptor and the Lightning II, while Russia’s answer is the SU-57. Now, the characteristics of a fifth-generation fighter could be vague, and at times controversial. But aircrafts under this category share some common design elements.

First is the stealth, which became the very trademark of this fighter generation. Approach on beating the radar includes the use of chines for cross section reduction, to the use of composite materials. And no Fifth Gens are sluggish flying buses. They are designed to be highly maneuverable to help them win dogfights. So nimble in fact, that the term supermaneuverability applies to them. They achieved high agility through aerodynamics, and trust vectoring.

Fifth-gens could also assume multiple roles, equipped with advanced avionics and with networked data fusion from sensors and avionics.

Now that we know what makes a fifth-generation aircraft, we then move on to what happened to the J-20. There are sources that said that it got downgraded to a mere fourth-generation. But how true is it?

The News

the F-16, an example of a successful fourth generation fighter.

the F-16, an example of a successful fourth generation fighter.

Yup, the news exists, and it came out in August 1, 2020. And after doing some media fact checking, and researching, I could say without doubt that the news is real. And to sum it up from various sources, and to look beyond the loud headlines, this is what it said.

India recently acquired a Rafale fighter jet, and it was often compared with other warbirds, particularly the ones Pakistan and China owned. The Rafale is French built and classified as a “4.5th Generation” as it possesses the technology halfway between the Fourth and Fifth. And suddenly, the China’s “Mighty Dragon” entered the conversation, being its most advanced fighter. The J-20 was then criticized for its shot comings, while a media report from Global Times called it a “Fourth Generation Fighter.”

I checked the article of Global Times to verify this, and indeed, they described their J-20 as “Fourth Generation.” But as explained by the sources, it’s for a different reason.

According to Global Times, which is a Chinese news outlet, it’s simply a difference of classification. The U.S. classified their aircrafts differently, unlike China, while China has its own fighter classification. Hence for PLA, the J-20 is a fourth generation.

But to add to the confusion is the Chinese Media, which continue to use western classifications, and some suggested that the J-20 is both a Fourth and Fifth Gen if the two classifications are put to considerations. And amid the confusing aircraft labeling, the question whether the J-20 is really deserving to be called a Fifth Gen surfaced. Going back to my past article, this “Mighty Dragon” is problematic.

The J-20 Flaws

The troubled WS-15 engine.

The troubled WS-15 engine.

China continuously brags about its stealth plane, and in one simulation exercise, it scored 17 kills without a loss.

At least that’s what China claimed.

Again, we shall consider the elements that makes up the exclusive class of fifth generation fighter. Or, with the Chinese classification in consideration, a fourth-generation fighter.

We will start with the stealth, the signature characteristic. It was alleged that the jet stole some of the ideas from its western counterpart but copying the radar busting technology of the F-22 and F-35 is not that easy. In fact, other nations with their own fifth-gen programs still can’t do it right, and China is one of them. Yes, the J-20’s nose and canopy are like the F-22, but the side and the engine are vulnerable to radar detections. Then, there are the canards, a sure way to compromise its stealth, while its reliance for afterburner means it cannot stay stealthy at supersonic speed.

Stealth is not its only problem. Again, the flawed engine was tackled in the past article, though recent sources suggested that a new model, the J-20B has improved engines and trust vectoring nozzles. Trust vectoring is what enables the SU-57 and the F-22 to execute those dizzying maneuvers, though installing those contraptions in an underpowered aircraft might add to the weight burden. Yet, the new variant will have better engines though conflicting stories suggest it could have the Russian TVC-AL-31FN-X, or the locally made WS-10.

But do note that WS-10 is for fourth-generation fighters, like the troubled J-10, and still lacked the weight to trust ratio. The more powerful WS-15, the one originally planned to power the Mighty Dragon suffered from reliability problem, hence it was left with older engines, though there are claims that the WS-10 was enhanced for power and we will see an improved WS-15 in the future. And when enhanced power was combined with thrust vectoring, it means superior agility, right?

Unfortunately, the J-20’s agility remained in question, as most of the sources came from proponents’ narratives. In fact, the fighter never carried autocannons for close range dogfights, indicating that it has different role. And indeed, it will serve as a long-range aerial sniper. A long -range interceptor that will take on a hit and run at a distance. And compared to the SU-57, it’s definitely no aerial gymnast. But who knows if the improved version could dance like the F-22, but only the future could tell? As overall, engines, stealth, and even the flight control remains a problem.

Overall

The SU-57, a better fighter than the J-20.

The SU-57, a better fighter than the J-20.

There you go, China simply uses a different classification system for its fighter, unlike the west. For them, their Mighty Dragon remains a fourth generation, though their media further confuses matter by using the western classification instead. The question here is if the J-20 could really be classified as a fifth gen in the west, as people pointed out that it never performed as one. As of today, it’s still way below the F-22 and the SU-57, and question remains if it could even match the 4.5th generation fighters. You know, the Rafale, and the nimble Eurofighter Typhoon.

The truth is still out there, and only time could tell if the Mighty Dragon is truly mighty, or just another flopping fish. But to answer the question, yes, the J-20 is a fifth-generation fighter according to western classification. Only a messed up one.

References:

1. Hollings, Alex (November 17, 2019). "What does it actually mean when we say 'fifth generation' fighter?" sofrep.com

2. "Did China downgrade its J-20 stealth fighter from fifth generation to fourth?" 01 August 2020. https://www.theweek.in/news/world/2020/08/01/did-china-downgrade-its-j-20-stealth-fighter-from-5th-generation-to-4th.html

3. Xuanzu, Liu (July 7, 2020). "Next gen fighter jet forthcoming in great power competition: J-20 chief designer," Global Times.

4. Brimelow, Benjamin (November 20, 2020). "China's first stealth jet looks an awful lot like the US's first stealth fighter — here's how the J-20 and the F-22 stack up." Business Insider.

5.Hunter, Jamie (July 20, 2020). "China's Enhanced J-20B Stealth Fighter May Arrive Soon, Here's What It Could Include." The Drive.

6. Keck, Zackary (July 8, 2020). "Engine Problems: Why China's J-20 Stealth Fighter Can't Beat America's F-22 or F-35." The National Interest.