Beijing will evolve the Chengdu J-20 fighter into roles well beyond aerial supremacy.
The aircraft’s primary mission for the time being is “making way for other aircraft in an air battle,” says Zhang Hao, who heads an air force flight test centre.
Zhang made the remarks in a story carried by Beijing’s official China Daily news organ.
The type will be developed into variants and will also allow for the opening of research into a “sixth generation fighter,” says Yang Wei, a deputy director of science and technology at AVIC.
"We are not complacent about what we have achieved,” Yang is quoted as saying. “We will develop the J-20 into a large family and keep strengthening its information-processing and intelligent capacities. At the same time, we will think about our next-generation combat plane to meet the nation's future requirements," Yang added that the J-20 is “the best fighter in China, so it would be used in the most crucial moments during a war.”
The 418-word story is surprisingly candid about the J-20, which has been shrouded in secrecy since it first appeared on social media in 2010. The type made its maiden flight in 2011. At the 2016 iteration of Airshow China in Zhuhai, two examples flew above the crowd at the show’s opening, but AVIC officials declined to discuss the aircraft. The China Daily story, however, says the type was “de-classified” in November 2016.
A recent, seperate two-line story from state news agency Xinhua proclaimed that the type had been commissioned into combat service, but gave few details.
Apart from a plan to develop more J-20 variants, the story reveals that the Peoples Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) will not allow exports of the type. It also revealed that the type has participated in beyond-visual-range (BVR) test engagements.
It does not reveal how many aircraft have been produced, how many will be operated, or the specific missions for which the J-20 will be developed.
Observers have suggested that a key mission for the type in the aerial supremacy role will be not just engaging enemy combat aircraft, but attacking critical support aircraft such as tankers and airborne early warning & control (AEW&C) aircraft. To this end China is developing the PL-21, a ramjet-powered missile guided by an active radar. Performance is believed to be comparable to the long-range MBDA Meteor.
A guide to possible missions is provided by Lockheed Martin’s mission list for the F-35. Apart from the air-to-air mission, it says the type is suitable for electronic attack, air-to-surface warfare, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). The F-22, originally developed as a fighter, is also capable of electronic attack and can carry bombs.
The report claims that the J-20 is the third fifth generation fighter to enter service after the F-22 and F-35. In addition, it reiterated that AVIC’s FC-31 is aimed at the international market, but gave no other details about development plans for this aircraft.
"In the past, we had to follow others' paths when it came to designing military aircraft because our research and development capabilities were primitive in this regard, but now we have become capable of designing and making what we want to have," said Yang.