Developed by Chengdu Aerospace Corporation for People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), the J-20 ‘Mighty Dragon’ is the backbone 5th generation air superiority fighter of China and since its introduction to active service in 2017, it has generated a handsome degree of buzz among the nations, media and international defense community. So being the next-door neighbour of India, what does the J20 have to consider it a fearsome opponent? Let’s see –
The J20 has placed itself in the most elite group of active-service 5th generation fighter jets – the ranks of which are only held by US’s Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, F-35 Lightning II and Russia’s Sukhoi Su-57 other than China. It is also the only nation in Asia other than Russia to use a truly-stealth-capable fighter aircraft.
This twin-engine jet is currently the biggest 5th-gen fighter with a length of 21.2m and a wingspan of 13.01m. It is powered by two Shenyang WS-10C afterburning turbonfan engines, each producing upto 147kN of thrust in afterburning stage.
It has low-observable Diverterless Supersonic Inlet (DSI) intakes which hide the heat of the engine blades from enemy radar. while the stealth characteristic is one of the primary focal points, this jet can be used in a variety of missions. It has been designed to be a dominant air-superiority fighter while also versatile in deep strike and precision strike capability. Its ‘advanced sensors’ can be used in electronic warfare to jam enemy radars and communications. It can also perform Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions, interception, destroying enemy bombers, tankers and AWACS and long-range strikes into enemy bases, ships etc.
According to some defense analysts, the J20’s Type 1475 (KLJ-5) Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) Radar is a decently competent radar system. It is also enabled with EOTS (Electro Optical Infrared Targeting System) and can be datalinked with other friendly platforms to deploy early-warning/miniature drones – a feat which will can’t be achieved by India before HAL AMCA Mark 2 in its current scenario. Its onboard EOTS-86 which is designed by Beijing A-Star Science and Technology can reportedly detect, track and intercept stealth aircraft passively without emitting electromagnetic signals.
Obviously not as stealth-capable as the F-22 whose Radar Cross Section Area is the size of a honey-bee, it is still by far by a very capable stealth object. According to several defence experts, it does not do a perfect job in stealth signature but still it is a very good low-observable platform, which itself can prove to be menace from Indian borders if not detected erstwhile. High quality composites and radar-absorbent materials have been applied to minimize its stealth signature but China has not revealed the detailed specifics.
The J20 can achieve a maximum speed of Mach 2.0 and a range of upto 5500km with 2 external fuel tanks. It has a combat range of 2000km and a service ceiling of 20000m. It is also said to have supercruise capability. It can store a maximum of 12000kg of fuel internally.
The J20 due to its much bigger size has more space for weapons. It has a maximum weapon capacity of 11000kg and can house upto 6 air-to-air missiles. Chinese-made Pl-10 (Short range Air-to-air missile), PL-12 (medium range AAM) and Pl-15 (Long Range AAM) can be integrated in its internal weapon bays. The PL-15 is a significant threat and has immense Beyond-Visual-Range strike capability. It even dwarfs US’ AIM-120 AMRAAM with its 300km range and is likely to meet its primary contender, the AIM-260 Phoenix (JATM – Joint Advanced tactical Missile) much later as it still hasn’t yet entered operational service. The extended-range PL-21, an under development active radar guided BVR air-to-air missile with 400km range will also be integrated to be fired from the J20 once it finalizes development.
It is following the roadmap of the F-35 Lightning II as it is looking its future with 3 variants of itself. While the J-20A is the primary serial production unit till now, it also has the J-20B and the J-20S. The J-20B is still in a prototype stage and is expected to have better cockpit and sensor suite technologies, modified engines, thrust vectoring capability and improved stealth technology. The J-20S is a twin-seat variant which is being developed to include a greater variety of mission profiles. The second-operator layout will help the J-20C in carrying out airborne early warning and control missions, battlespace surveillance and a better control of the onboard miniature drones.
Political Backlash and Drawbacks of the J20
Despite being a 5th-generation stealth jet and having an exceptional status meant only for the elites, the J20 has been the centrepoint of discussion and political backlash and criticism among various defence experts and rival countries regarding its design and development. Some defense experts have accused China and their military R&D departments of stealing the design of F-22 and F-35 for the J-20. As soon as the J-20 was publicly revealed even some Russians accused them of having equivalent similarities from their cancelled MIG 1.44 prototype and underbelly design from the Sukhoi Su-47 forward-swept wing aircraft. Many Kremlin-owned media outlets also spoke in favour of this ‘steal’. China has been accused many times of carrying out cyber breaches and classified military theft especially by the USA and some experts also went vocal regarding these ‘copied’ designs. Some of the J-20’s onboard technology including the EOTS and related sensor suites have ben ‘awfully similar’ to the systems used by the F-35 and many have suggested that espionage might be in play in this domain.
The J20’s engines are not as top-notch as they should be for a 5th gen fighter. Low reliability and weak engine issues have always been a problem for Chinese military and its not an exception even for the Mighty Dragon. The WS-10 engines have been found fault at failing consistent thrust throughout supersonic flight and has been depending on Russia for their 145kN Lyulka-Saturn AL-31 engines to be installed in many production units of the J-20. Many nations and media have mentioned China as being in the forefront of reverse-engineering other-nation military assets but in this case, they haven’t been living up to their name as cited by many analysts and reports as the WS-10 engines have been plagued with blade cracking, low endurance and under-performing standards across various units.
Despite many stealing accusations and coincidentally similar features to the other 5th-gen aircrafts, the J-20 actually has a new and holistic approach in their double canard configuration. However, this layout is one of the least preferred design for full stealth capability – the main reason which limited itself from appearing in every country’s 5th gen fighter approach. Their large angular surfaces tend to reflect more forward radar signals. Also canards increase the radar cross section area and slightly increase the aerodynamic drag.
Also Read, The Su-57 or The AMCA – Who Wins?
Should India be concerned?
The answer to this is more relative and requires a deep analysis. The biggest concern is the convincing advantage that China holds over India is the quantity of active operational units. The J-20 has entered service in fast growing numbers and since the start of production in 2009, it is now estimated that China has more than 200 operational Mighty Dragons. On the other hand India is still at zero as the AMCA is unlikely to begin full-scale active service deployment before 2030. This sheer advantage in the starting numbers is India’s biggest threat of having a stockpile of 5th-gen fighters at the hands of a not-so-friendly next-door-neighbour.
The Sukhoi Su-30 MKI forms the backbone of Indian Air Force. In terms of firepower, the Su-30 MKI and the Dassault Rafale are the two deadliest fighter jets of India’s arsenal. They are the highest 4.5+ generation aircrafts we have and its an fearful thing to think that China’s inventory of 5th gen fighters and India’s highest class of 4th gen are as close as equal when it gets to numbers. India has 260 Sukhoi Su-30 MKIs and 36 Rafales currently while we would be dwarfed when taking in value the equal-in-class J16s, J11s etc. But irrespective of the numerical advantage, no country in their right mind would send their best fighters for a quantitative advantage to overpower the enemy, especially when the enemy is India which ranks among the very few in overall military rankings and huge international support. So this numbers head-start is only a grave issue for a hypothetical war on paper.
Unlike the F-22 and F-35 which live up to their hype, J-20 doesn’t have the best stealth technology to preach itself as the best 5th-gen multi-role stealth fighter jet. As much as Chinese military projects have always been completely classified, the nation has a history of letting their grip slip over their credibility and authenticity of information. So no matter how much advanced the J20 is in stealth signature minimization, China will not be fielding the J-20 in headbutting missions as India has some serious names in the surface-to-air missile systems including the S400, which as a matter of fact does have the capability of shooting down aircrafts.
The J-20 is a good long range fighter and do hold the advantage in accurately destroying targets with its missiles if not intercepted. And looking from the design, it is clear that the J-20 is not meant for short-range combat especially dogfighting. The Mighty Dragon stands as an exception in this genre as the jet doesn’t have any structurally integrated autocannon which is among the most crucial armaments for any jet to dominate in close-combat dogfighting. This deducts that the J-20 will not be fielded in equivalent solo missions as it lacks short-range standoff capability.
Moreover the J-20’s current arsenal totally revolves around the air-to-air missiles of various ranges. Although it can carry 100kg LS/6 small-diameter precision-guided bombs and smaller payloads but that’s just it. So keeping all the previous factors cumulatively, the J-20 isn’t of much use till now for China for strikes inside India’s border as the China won’t use their PLAAF’s brand ambassador to risk it all for petty strikes considering the current weaponry status the J-20 holds.
However the J-20 holds crucial advantage over its performance metrics. Its’ range of 5500km proves superior as Indian jets fall short below 4000km. It also lies ahead in combat range and service ceiling over Indian counterparts and will have the advantage in air-space dominance. The 12000kg fuel capacity also dwarves any other Indian jet because of its bigger size and capacity. All these will make Indian jets fall short in long-range sustained interception.
But then again comes a major roadblock for the J-20 in its thrust vectoring capability. The current mass-production J-20A does not have this feature but will be present in the near-future J-20B. Thrust vectoring is a very crucial characteristic, which very few jets actually have, but can totally dominate the enemy in combat situations and maneuverability as the rapid moves and controlling of the engine thrust vectoring nozzles result in superior evasive movements. India’s Su-30 MKI do have this capability. So coming to the point of low reliability and underperforming engines with no capability of thrust vectoring is itself a big risk to be taken if the J-20 is deployed in such combat-expecting missions.
Also Read, In Depth Analysis- Mig-29 AKA ‘BAAZ’
In 2018, the then IAF chief Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa said that the Su-30 MKI radar detected and tracked the Chengdu J-20 jet while the latter was flying over Tibet. This news created quite a buzz and questioned its stealth characteristics. The F-22 has 0 registered kills in its name (not considering the 2023 unidentified balloon shoot-down) but it is still considered by almost all as the best-ever 5th-gen fighter jet such is its stealth technology, maneuverability, avionics and accuracy of weapon systems. That’s because despite no real-time combat kills, the Raptor has smoked off numerous ‘enemy aircrafts and weapon systems’ without even appearing on radar in various aerial multilateral drills participated by the US Air Force. But such is not the case for the J-20. China has always true its custom has kept its cards close to its chest and there’s no drill or performance records available to public. So as much as of a versatile and capable the J-20 might be for the China, as a single aircraft it doesn’t pose as grave of a threat as one might think of. The more concerning issue is that the PLAAF as a whole is head and shoulders ahead of IAF and their sheer advantage in all generations of aircraft dominate this parameter.