Chengdu J-20 Thrills at Zhuhai Airshow

Photo Credit: Alex Zheng.

China’s Chengdu J-20 from the Chengdu Aerospace Company made its historic first public flight demonstration at the China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai, China 35 miles (56 kilometers) west of Hong Kong this weekend.

The J-20, rumored to be referred to as the “Mighty Dragon” by some, is a long-range air dominance fighter designed to perform similar roles as the U.S. F-22 Raptor and Russian T-50 PAK-FA.

There remain a number of puzzling aspects of J-20’s design attributes to analysts. J-20 has several seemingly conflicting design and performance parameters; it is a long-range interceptor with low-observable features but is aerodynamically optimized for the low speed, high-alpha flight regime. These themes seem to conflict when predicting Chinese doctrine for air-to-air engagements and does not reveal China’s vision of what tactical air dominance engagements would look like.

Is the aircraft designed to close with U.S. F-22’s at close range in an air combat maneuvering (ACM) engagement? Is it designed to perform close-in intercepts and attacks on armed Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPV’s- “drones”)? Is it a long-range interceptor designed to engage strategic bombers at Beyond Visual Range (BVR)? Or, is J-20 an ambitious attempt at performing all three of these widely varying roles?

Despite questions about the J-20’s role the demonstration at Zhuhai appeared sensational. The brief demo featured two aircraft and did not seem restricted from aerobatics, as with current U.S. F-35 demonstrations. The J-20 performed rolls, a show-break, high bank angle turns and limited low speed, high-alpha maneuvers. And while J-20, as an air dominance aircraft, and F-35 as a multi-role joint strike fighter, have different roles the contrast between F-35 flight demonstrations and this first J-20 demonstration at Zhuhai is striking.

There have been conflicting reports of an export version of the J-20. A March 5, 2015 report in Defense Aviation filed by journalist Niva Shetty suggests the J-20 will not be exported; “The export of advanced Chinese military technology is prohibited,” Song said. “This is in order to keep J-20’s fifth-generation technology out of hostile hands.” There is no mention of who the source reported as “Song” is in the article. A subsequent article published today in the Wall Street Journal says, “China demonstrated its first stealth fighter in public for the first time, staging a brief display of military prowess and a promotion for eventual sales of stealth technology.”

The consensus among reports suggests that the J-20 may be restricted from export while the “Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) is making an aggressive push to sell its J-31 stealth fighter to international customers” according to Dave Mujamdar’s report in the November 9th 2015 article in The National Interest.

Other media outlets have reported a similar doctrine: That J-31 may be slated for export to countries such as India while J-20 is reserved for Chinese use exclusively in protecting the contested East and South China Sea areas.

Regardless of the informational haze that remains around the J-31 and its smaller brother the J-20 this past weekend’s flight demo at Zhuhai appeared to have been a spectacular event and a significant milestone in aviation history.




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