The long-awaited appearance at Airshow China 2016 of the Chengdu J-20 was anti-climactic, but served to bolster the mystique around one of the 21st Century's most iconic fighter designs. Supporting the opening ceremony, two J-20s roared down the runway at several hundred feet and performed a vertical split. One aircraft departed immediately, but its partner stuck around to perform a few high-g turns before a high-speed climb out, disappearing into China's hazy skies. The type did not appear in the static display, there were no models or pictures in the exhibition hall, and no comment from AVIC officials.
Apart from the J-10As of the August 1st display team, other fighters kept a low profile at the 2016 show. The AVIC J-31 prototype, which appeared in the flying display in 2014, made no repeat appearance, although a large model of an updated version, the FC-31, was displayed in the hall. One notable attendee was the J-10B, making its first appearance at Zhuhai in the static park. The aircraft on display was surrounded by a broad range of air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons and sported an infrared search and track (IRST) sensor – one of several improvements over the original J-10A.
Despite the secrecy around China's fighter programmes, news has continued to trickle out both in China Daily stories posted on the defence ministry's web site, and via online forums in China; a lively source of debate and speculation about Chinese military aircraft. Although these sources throw up interesting angles, they can be contradictory and tinged with patriotism.
Despite being just one element in a broad modernisation of the People's Liberation Army Air Force combat fleet, the J-20 commands disproportionate attention. There are many unknowns, but more details are emerging as the aircraft, first revealed in 2010, enters low-rate production.
In March 2017, the China Daily quoted an official of Aero Engine Corporation of China, Chen Xiangbao, as saying: "It will not take a long time for our fifth-generation combat plane to have China-made engines." He was likely referring to the WS-15, a 30,000lb-thrust (134kN) engine in development since the 1990s. Despite the J-20's status as a Chinese aviation icon, early models are powered by the Saturn AL-31, the same powerplant as the Sukhoi Su-35, of which Beijing is believed to have 12 examples from a 24-unit order.
The official added that China has produced single-crystal turbine blades and powder metallurgy superalloy turbine disks. Both technologies allow fighter engines to operate at extreme temperatures. That said, mass production is still an issue, and "quality is not very satisfactory".
"The road to success is filled with setbacks and failures,” said Chen. "Each of the world's engine powers has walked this road."
Figuring out what engine, exactly, powers photographed examples of the J-20 greatly exercises defence chat rooms. One or two aircraft are believed to have been fitted with the Chinese engine, owing to differences spotted on nozzles powering the jets. The Chinese WS-15 engine protrudes slightly more from the rear fuselage and has a wider nozzle.
"It is difficult to truly ascertain how much progress is in fact being made with the WS-15 engine," says Forecast International analyst Dan Darling. "While reports indicate improvement in the engine's development and Chinese military officials state that the engine should be ready for serial production by the year's end, the Chinese market is so opaque that any outside determination may prove premature or unreliable.
"Nonetheless, progress with the WS-15 would indicate a major step for China in fighter development, as it has previously been reliant upon Russia for sophisticated engines. It would provide the J-20 with sustained supercruise capability and bring Chinese engine-making capabilities up closer to par with Western rivals."
In March, another China Daily report quoted Zhang Hao, who heads an air force fighter test centre, discussing the J-20. Coming shortly after a Xinhua report that the J-20 has entered service, his remarks were notable because he explicitly referred to J-20 missions.
In a war, said Zhang, the "J-20 would make way for other aircraft in an air battle." This suggests an aerial superiority mission similar to that of the Lockheed Martin F-22 – a type to which the J-20 – accurately or not – is often compared. He went on to say the J-20 would eventually become a "large family" of aircraft, with Beijing focused on continually improving its "information processing and intelligence capabilities".
Apart from a plan to develop more J-20 variants, the story reveals that China's air force will not allow exports of the type. It also revealed that the type has participated in beyond-visual-range test engagements.
Malcolm Davis, senior analyst, defence strategy and capability at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and an expert on Chinese air power, says: "The media often directly compare the J-20 to the F-22, and this is not quite right. The F-22 is an air dominance fighter, whereas I get a sense that the J-20 is more designed to do long-range interception and counter-air, as well as strike. The latter in terms of maritime strike would be particularly important in an A2AD [anti-access, area-denial] context.
"The F-22 can deliver air-to-ground munitions, but really, it's optimised for the air superiority mission. The J-20 has frontal aspect stealth, rather than all-aspect stealth, long range and high payload, so it's more designed for offensive strike, whether it's offensive counter-air or maritime strike."
A2AD is a cornerstone of Chinese war planning, and designed to force potential foes, namely the USA, to operate too far from the mainland to be effective. Obliging allied forces to operate far from China's coast would be essential should a conflict erupt over Taiwan, which Beijing views as a breakaway province. Long-range strike aircraft, as well as cruise and ballistic missiles, are important components of its strategy.
Darling adds that apart from its direct combat missions, the J-20 will be part of a "family-of-systems" approach being adopted by the Chinese military, allowing it to serve as a source of real-time information for the nation's broader combat effort.
Posts on Chinese chat rooms recently have shown a J-20 in Chengdu performing what appears to be practice for an air show flying display. It is rumoured that the J-20 will appear daily on this year's schedule at Zhuhai.
Though it garners less attention then the J-20, which is clearly headed to full deployment with the Chinese air force, the FC-31 is another programme of interest. Dubbed "Gyrfalcon" by AVIC, the type is designed for missions such as offensive/defensive counter-air, deep strike, suppression of enemy air defences, interdiction and close air support, as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
In a video shown during a brief presentation at the Dubai air show in 2015, a squadron of FC-31s communicates with each other through secure datalinks. Another slide showed how the aircraft's small cross section reduces the threat radius of enemy sensors and weapons. No details were given about the FC-31's sensor suite or weapons, but AVIC says all equipment and communications can be tailored to customer requirements.
The aircraft has six external hardpoints, with an internal weapons bay that can carry a further four munitions. Payload is 8,000kg (17,600lb), of which 2,000kg can be carried internally. Combat radius with internal weapons is 648nm (1,200km), and maximum take-off weight is 25,000kg.
"In terms of fifth-generation platforms, it's worth keeping an eye on the FC-31, which might end up on the deck of China's third [and subsequent] aircraft carrier as a [Lockheed] F-35C-type capability alongside the J-15," says Davis. "The J-31 – which was the forerunner to FC-31 – had a troublesome start, but these [issues] seem to have been resolved in an updated design, the FC-31, that is also being aimed at the export market."
Indeed, at the Dubai show, AVIC officials admitted they want a partner to help with the programme. Unfortunately, it is not clear that Beijing's limited client list for military aircraft has the deep pockets to fund such an ambitious aircraft. While Pakistan may eventually be interested, it is still busy developing the Chengdu/Pakistan Aeronautical Complex JF-17. Beijing has enjoyed some success selling aircraft overseas, but is a no-show in the world's major fighter competitions, which attract European, Russian and US manufacturers.
It is not clear what engine the FC-31 uses, but it is believed to be the Klimov RD-93 that powers the RAC MiG-31. A few examples of the FC-31 have been produced and spotted airborne. Also in Zhuhai during 2016, a large model of the FC-31 was displayed in the hall, near an "advanced avionics concept cockpit" with a sidestick controller, conventional head-up display and large multifunction touchscreen display.
As Davis notes, one line of thought around the FC-31 is that it will be adopted for use aboard China's growing fleet of aircraft carriers. The country has one operational vessel, the Liaoning, that was salvaged from a Russian hulk, the Varyag. A locally built sister ship is undergoing sea trials, and a third, larger, carrier is planned. For the time being, the People's Liberation Army Navy operates the J-15 – a copy of the Su-33. The type has the dubious distinction of being the heaviest carrier-borne fighter in operation globally, and reportedly has significant safety and mechanical issues.
Beijing is also in the process of taking deliveries of the Su-35 from Russia. Following a long procurement process, it started receiving the advanced Russian type in early 2017. A full complement of 24 aircraft should be delivered by the end of 2018.
"The Su-35 acquisition is one of the most important developments for the PLAAF," says Davis. "The Su-35 represents the pinnacle of [Su-27-family] design, and China can now learn a great deal from its technology and manufacturing to perfect designs like J-11D and J-16, or to develop other combat aircraft in the future. Expect to see the Chinese studying the Su-35 down to the last detail, and then a future PLAAF aircraft to incorporate its systems."
Indeed, Darling notes that Russia was originally wary of selling the type to Beijing, owing to the "latter's penchant for harvesting Russian technologies for domestic development and production purposes".
Indeed, two of the Chinese air force's most important aircraft have foreign ancestry. Some observers believe the J-10 series is based on the Israel Aerospace Industries Lavi project from the 1980s. Though the J-10's layout resembles that of the Lavi, with a single engine intake under the fuselage and canards, Chinese officials have insisted that the J-10 is an indigenous design. The J-11, on the other hand, is regarded as a reverse-engineered copy of the Su-27. Irrespective of their progeny, the two types are key to filling out the service's modern fighter ranks.
The J-10 has three variants, the A, B and C. The J-10B has a number of major updates from the J-10A, including an intake optimised for low observability, the IRST sensor, and other new systems. The J-10C sees the type receive an active electronically scanned array radar. Davis believes this variant is comparable to Lockheed's F-16C Block 52.
In addition to several variants of the J-10, the air force has also deployed an advanced variant of the J-11, designated the J-16. With tandem seats, the type is powered by the WS-10A, and is viewed as a multirole aircraft in the style of the Boeing F-15E. An electronic warfare variant, the J-16D, is being developed, which will give China a similar capability to that offered by the Boeing EA-18G Growler.
"The J-16 is a true multirole combat aircraft, unlike J-11B/BS, and has provision for inflight refuelling," says Davis. "It would also be able to carry the very long-range Chinese air-to-air missiles on missions against US airborne early warning and control aircraft to weaken the ability of US Navy carrier-based airpower to operate within China's A2AD envelope.”
In addition to its fighter fleet, Beijing is working to create a well-rounded set of capabilities. This includes investments in its own AEW&C fleet, as exemplified by the KJ-2000, an Ilyushin Il-76-based platform that complements its KJ-200s, based on the Shaanxi Y-9 tactical transport. China has also developed a more advanced AEW&C platform, known as KJ-500. In addition, work continues on a Y-9-based anti-submarine warfare platform, and the Xian Y-20 strategic transport.
Beijing also continues to add capability to its H-6 bomber, derived from the Tupolev Tu-16, and is developing an advanced stealth bomber, the H-X, which is similar in design to the Northrop Grumman B-2.
Few nations have developed advanced airpower capabilities as fast as China in recent years. While major gaps remain, namely in engine technology, Airshow China 2018 will show that Beijing is determined to develop an air force worthy of a true superpower.