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The Chinese Stealth J-20 Is An Inferior Fighter Jet

Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his favorite topics.


China is flexing some serious muscles lately. There is no denying how this large nation is evolving into a global superpower. With the world’s major industries relying on China to produce their products, and with China the source of most of our everyday stuffs, they just established themselves as a major global economic force. With such a vast wealth they have a lot of funds to fuel their growing military assets.

And they want everyone to know how powerful they become.

Just to let nations know who the biggest bully is, I mean power in Asia; they sequestered someone else’s economic zone to create an artificial military base. To show off their latest might, China will choose the smallest of the nations and harass them with their overwhelming hardware.

And they are not through yet.

So, the West has Fifth Generation fighter jets; those dazzling fleet of radar evading, supercruising, aerial flipping smart weapons platforms that will bomb any rogue nations or terrorists. That was nothing, because China had built one. The West was shocked to see the Chengdu J-20 streaking in the sky and boasting its own fifth generation capabilities. It had everything, down to the stealthy outline. Instantly China is the monster of Asia-Pacific, tipping the balance of global power…

At least that’s what PLA claims.

With only a handful of these birds in flight, it’s too early to downplay or admire the J-20. It is a threat, but people are skeptical.

The Stealthy J-20

The J-20 with opened weapons bay.

The J-20 with opened weapons bay.

As what’s mentioned above, the J-20 is China’s answer to all Western fifth generation fighter jets. It is designed as an air superiority fighter, much like he American made F-22 Raptor. Though stealthy by nature, it adopted a different airframe than its twin engined counterpart. The fuselage is long and wide, while behind the chiselled nose is a frameless canopy. It uses delta wings and canards, while the engine exhausts are rounded.

For agility, high instability is its important design criterion. Supersonic and transonic performance is further enhanced by its canards.

Also like the Raptor and its generation, avionics and cockpit technology are top of the line. Being a stealth fighter, weapons are carried internally though options could be made for additional external carry.

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Judging from the above description, the J-20 is a frightening aircraft. It sounds like a real F-22 match, but again how true is it?

Why it is rushed into service?

The J-20 being prepared.

The J-20 being prepared.

Aircraft this complex and advanced takes years, to develop and even perfect. Just look at the case of the US made Raptor and the European Typhoon. I mean they are building a game changer, and they can’t afford anything that might cost them their edges. When these jets leave the ground, they must fly flawlessly. And when J-20 made a public appearance, it had a fatal flaw that should have been avoided if it undergoes proper development. We will get to that later, but one might be wondering why it is rushed into service. In fact sources say that the deployment was ahead of schedule.

Now, the US has started deploying F-35s in its Asia-Pacific bases while South Korea plans to take 40 of them. Japan is also planning to buy F-35 for its helicopter carriers. With China within the reach of advanced US hardware, and its rivals showing off serious military strength, China became alarmed. The J-20 is their only jet that could take on fifth generation threats; hence they want to get it ready as soon as possible.

And they ended up with a number of embarrassing technical glitches.

Engine Problems

The J-20 showing its engine exhaust nozzle.

The J-20 showing its engine exhaust nozzle.

In their haste to make the thing fly, the aircraft ended up with substandard engines that made it look like an older jet. The J-20 is flying with makeshift power plant that can’t even cruise at supersonic speed. It was planned that the J-20 will be using the WS-15 engine, which at that time is still under development. Hence it went into the air with an old WS-10B, the same kind that the J-11 and J-10 uses. The problem here is that since the WS-10B is meant for older aircrafts, it made the supposedly newer J-20 performs like older fighters. For a fifth generation fighter, the thing can’t supercruise without firing the after burner. It will be a huge step backwards if you are operating a stealth fighter with an afterburner, which will be discussed later on. But stealth technology aside, the inability to supercruise meant the range is cut. Afterburners eat a lot of fuel; hence the J-20 had to stay subsonic to stay long in a fight.

And suddenly China claims that the fabled WS-15 is nearing completion, but with “minor” problems. WS-15 by this time is really unreliable. China just demonstrated the ability to build sophisticated engines but the question now is how they can come up with reliable engines. Yes, the so called minor problem is reliability. The engine worked well under laboratory conditions, but during one testing in 2015, it exploded.

Questionable Stealth

The front profile of the J-20 resembles the F-22.

The front profile of the J-20 resembles the F-22.

And now that China shoved an old engine into its fifth generation fighter jet, its stealth is also compromised. There is a good reason why the F-22 abandoned the use of the afterburner for good. Apart from the fact that the Raptor aims to cruise at supersonic speed at extended time, the heat of the afterburner will give the aircraft’s position. It increases the rear aspect of an aircraft’s infrared signature. Now, when a jet fires the burners, it kicks out a lot of heat behind the engine, hence becoming detectable to enemy infrared radars. The way the exhausts are mounted also matters when it comes to stealth. Supercuise technology already reduces the signature of the F-22’s IR profile. In addition, its exhaust nozzles are flat to further reduce profile, and hidden behind wing components.

The J-20 has none of those. It still sticks to the usual exhaust nozzles.

The engines and the nozzles are not the only thing that affects the stealth of the J-20. Upfront, the nose and canopy resembles that of the F-22. But the use of canards may give the aircraft's positioning to radars.

And then there is this incident with the Indian Air Force, where their SU-30MKI fighter detected a J-20 from several kilometres away. It is possible that the J-20 is using a radar reflector for safety, but with its problems with the stealth designs, the report could be doubtful.

The J-20 is Inferior to its Western Counterparts

Up to now with all the technical flaws that the J-20 never resolved, we are left to wonder if it’s really a match against the F-22 and F-35. It lacks some aspects of a fifth generation fighter, and the world is seeing the results of its rushed development. We might see improvements on its features, but as of now it’s a piece of junk compared to the more competent Western fighters.

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