This past week, all of the Chinese forums and aviation forums online were left buzzing with pictures and videos of the first flight of J-20. At the same time, news of Hu Jintao being surprised by Gates asking him about the first flight of J-20 were also circulated around the web. Either way, the recent news of J-20's appearance has caused a lot of headlines around the world. The question is what now? What does this mean for the Chinese aviation industry and PLAAF?
When we read the news online reporting J-20, we see a lot of different opinion. There are some that are immediately dismissive toward the plane, toward China's ability to field a 5th generation fighter jet and to weed of reliance on Russian support. I find much of these articles to be extremely misinformed on the current situation in PLAAF and Chinese aviation industry. For example, one common misconception is that China is still relying on AL-31F on J-10 and J-11 at the moment. While it is true J-10s are still using AL-31FN, it is also quite evident that J-11Bs are entering service in two different regiments (one in PLAAF and one in PLANAF) with FWS-10 as the power plant. I will get back to the issue of engine later. At the same time, there are also a lot of excited PLAAF fans online who are looking at this as the F-22 competitor and the F-35 killer. Some are even wondering about the need to continue produce more J-10 variants with the apparent arrival of J-20. While it is easy for a PLA follower like myself to get excited about J-20, it is also apparent that China has a long way to go.
I have always said that I expected the 5th generation fighter jet to first achieve operational status around 2018 (meaning having at least one full regiment converted to this plane and completed basic training on it). At this point, I still expect it to be so if everything works out. The first and the biggest question is engine. I was extremely surprised to find out a particular upgraded variant of WS-10 was used for the first flight instead of AL-31F. I believe that J-11BS's first prototype was also using WS-10, but did not think it had enough thrust for J-20. I think that J-20 made its first takeoff without the need to turn on its afterburners and took off at much shorter distance than J-10S. I don't think a fighter jet with two severely underpowered engines would be able to do that, so its engines should have more power than that of standard WS-10. Right now, there are basically two plausible theories right now regarding to the engines:
1) They are a specially modified version of WS-10G (an upgraded variant of WS-10) that generates comparable thrust to 117S. This variant has been in development for a while and has already finished long endurance testing. However, due to the continued struggle of Shenyang Liming (factory 606) in mass production of the basic variant of WS-10, this variant also could not move forward in its deployment. Due to the immaturity of the design, it would have much shorter service life and MTBO than more mature engines like AL-31F or even WS-10.
2) They are a specially modified version of WS-10's basic variant. These two engines are carefully prepared with more advanced materials and are switched to operate at higher thrust level than a normal production copy. Again, the MTBO time of these engines are much shorter than the normal WS-10s, because they have to handle the wear and tear of continuously generating more thrust.
Of the two, I think the first one is more likely. What does this say about WS-10? I think that while there are problems with the design, it can be successfully deployed in service if it is produced and maintained properly. PLA would not allow one of their biggest projects to make first flight with an engine that they have no faith in. I guess that is the main problem. Shenyang Liming has become the joke of Chinese aviation industry with its recent failures. After several years of fanfare, the WP-14 (Kunlun) project was recently abandoned. I would think much of that is due to Liming's problems with project management and quality control. At the same time, WS-10 and J-11B program have been delayed by at least 2 years due to continued troubles with the quality of WS-10 produced by Liming. WS-10 has only recently been fielded on J-11B after a lot of changes. You can only discover all the little problems with an engine after it has been installed on many aircraft and flown many hours. And I hope in the coming couple of years, Shenyang AeroEngine Research Institute (SAERI, not to be mistaken with Shenyang Liming) will be able to really increase the reliability of the design and use that in its other projects like QC-280, WS-10G and WS-10-118. However, even a really well designed engine can have a lot of problems if the manufacturer does not have good production or quality control processes. I hope that Shenyang Liming can fix its current problems. Otherwise, all of the production responsibility should be shifted to Xi'an AeroEngine PLC (factory 410). XAE has been mass producing WS-9 for JH-7A without any major reported problems and is also responsible for one third of the parts on WS-10. I believe that it is also responsible for producing WS-15 and large bypass turbofan engines for Y-20 once those engines are ready for mass production. It is obviously a long way from reaching the manufacturing quality of GE, PW and RR, but it is the golden standard of Chinese AeroEngine companies. It also scored major boast recently when it formed join venture with Nexcelle to produce and assemble jet engine nacelle components of the C919 project. These things will only help the project management and quality control of XAE. At this point, you may wonder why China does not just give up on Liming and pass everything on to XAE or even any of the other AeroEngine manufacturer. I think that China is trying to keep several factories around to foster competition. It remains to be seen whether or not XAE or GuiZhou Liyang or Chengfa group (factory 420) or any other factories will get in on WS-10. So, while J-20's first flight with WS-10 is a good sign, we still need to wait a couple of years to see if Liming or XAE or anyone else can finally reliably mass produce WS-10 engines for J-10 and J-11.
Questions have also been raised about whether other parts of a 5th generation program like missiles, avionics, aerodynamics, materials and stealth can reach that level. I think what we have seen recently in Zhuhai airshow with regards to PGMs and AShM + reports of different 5th generation AAMs in advanced development show that this is not an area of concern. In fact, aviation week reported that most of the next generation missiles were all designed with the weapon bay of J-20 in mind. I also find radar and avionics to not be an area of concern. The J-10B platform will be used to test out a lot of avionics that will eventually deployed on J-20 (albeit improved in performance). From the recent CIDEX 2010, it is apparent that the Chinese electronics industry has come a long way in a short time and is more than capable of developing and producing top notch of avionics for fighter jets and other military hardware. I think aerodynamics is another area that should be quite well developed. I certainly expect J-20 to be far more maneuverable than F-35 and at least on the same level as T-50 and F-22 in flight performance. The areas that I do question are material and stealth. Does China have the ability to produce the high quality composite carbon polymer, titanium and other material needed for a 5th generation fighter jet. I think they do due to all of the work they have with airliners, which are at the cutting of material technology. For example, Harbin aviation industry group is cooperating with Airbus as a supplier for composite material on A350. At the same time, AVIC-1 is also cooperating with Hexcel and Boeing to produce composite materials for Boeing jets. SAC is in charge of the entire aluminum-lithium fuselage for Bombardier's C-Series jets. That leaves us with the biggest question of stealth. I've already heard plenty of complaints about the effect that the canards and the variable DSI-like intake would have on stealth. I think when CAC was developing J-20, they had to make compromises between its weight, aerodynamics and stealth. They definitely developed it with the intention of creating a LO-platform as we can see from internal weapon bay, the general shaping of the aircraft, the jagged edges of all the compartments and panels and the "stealthy nozzles" on the engine. However, what kind of affect would the canards or the intakes or anything else would have all the signature of the aircraft. Did they develop J-20 with full aspect stealth in mind? And what kind of results have they achieved in plasma stealth and application of radar absorption material? These are the things I don't know and we will have to wait to be answered. One of the most significant part of J-20's development is that these areas of development can be applied on J-10 and J-11 to improve their capabilities.
What does J-20 mean for the aircraft makers of AVIC-1? It appears to all of us that CAC/611 Institute has overtaken SAC/601 Institute as the top dog of AVIC-1. After all, CAC beat SAC in the competition for the 5th generation jet and the 4th generation jet (J-10). It also scored many export contract with J-7s and JF17s, while SAC has not done anything. From this, SAC has taken a lot of heat for its inability to produce anything new, while continuing to develop new variants of J-8. I do think that a lot of it is unwarranted. It probably does not have the ability to innovate like CAC, but it has done a lot of good things with flankers. China made the decision to locally produce Su-27s, because it could not at that time develop a comparable fighter jet. While CAC was given resources to develop J-10 (and it did a great job), SAC was forced to learn something as complex as Su-27 and produce it. Sukhoi has been very surprised to find out that SAC was able to learn enough about su-27s so shortly to be able to develop (or copy as the Russians call it) and completely locally produce J-11B and J-11BS. With its experience in developing J-11B/S and studying T-10K prototype, it was able to fast track and quickly develop J-15 fighter jet. Even though CAC is the main contractor for the J-20 project, SAC's experience in heavy fighter and high quality titanium and aluminum alloy with J-11 project has been extremely important in J-20's development. So as we move forward, CAC and SAC are both very important in the future of Chinese military aviation. As SAC has shown in its ability to land major supplier contracts with Boeing, Cessna and Bombardier. I also hope that Xi'an AC and Shaanxi AC will continue to advance in RnD and production through future transport and bomber projects. It is important to continue to foster competition within AVIC-1 and compete in international aerospace industry.
The other big question is what J-20 will mean for PLAAF. In the current time, J-10 and J-11 form a good light-heavy fighter jet combination with JH-7A as the main strike bomber and H-6 as strategic bomber. PLAAF still has a large number of J-7 and J-8 regiments that will need to be replaced in the coming years. In spite of what some may think, PLAAF does not have endless amount of cash that it can spend on new weapons procurement. It is important to spend an increasingly amount of budget on recruiting the best pilots and putting them through the best training programs. Even if PLAAF is somehow handed the entire F-22 inventory of USAF today, it would not have enough budget to operate and maintain them while also maintaining all of its other aircraft divisions. Even in 10 years when J-20 first enters PLAAF in meaningful number, PLAAF will not have enough budget to field it in large number. You may ask at this point why they do not just shrink the size of its air force like what most other air forces are doing. They have actually shrunk their air force quite a bit already when J-6s were put out of commission and will probably shrink a little more when J-7s retire. However, China has a very large airspace and cannot shrink past a certain point. As a result, PLAAF will likely be made up of a combination of the very hi (J-20), the middle (J-10s, J-11B+), the lo (early flankers variants, J-7/8s) and non-fighter jets (JH-7A, AWACs, K-8, L-15, Y-8/9...) by 2020-2025. Over the next 10 years, J-7 and J-8 regiments will slowly retire out of service. At the moment, J-7s are replaced by J-10s while J-8s are replaced by flankers and newer variants of J-8s. Flankers are likely to remain in service with PLAAF for a long time, because they will be very useful in the roles of fighter-bomber and strike aircraft even after the proliferation of stealth aircraft. If XAC does not develop a replacement for JH-7, then J-11BS could eventually be used to replace JH-7 regiments. Some people have wondered about the role of J-10 in PLAAF after J-20's induction. Some have even questioned the need for J-10B or future variants of J-10s. I think that J-10B or a future variant of J-10 will form a hi-lo combination with J-20 as the backbone of PLAAF's air superiority fighter jets. Some of the technologies tested on J-10B can then also be used on J-10A to improve its performance. Either way, I think J-10s will continue to replace J-7 regiments around the country and become the work horse of PLAAF. It is important to watch out the engine situation of J-10s. I'm hoping that WS-10 series will soon become reliable enough to be used on J-10s. Aside from J-10s and J-11s, it seems that PLAAF also wants to use a cheaper 4th generation option to replace some of the remote J-7 regiments. After all, you don't really need J-10s to protect the airspace against Kazakhstan or Mongolia.
That seems to be where JF-17s come into play. From what I'm gathering on Chinese bbs, it seems that PLAAF wants an ultra cheap option under $15 million to replace some of the J-7 regiments. You may think it is crazy that PLAAF regards the $25-30 million price tag of a J-10 to be too expensive, but that is the case. If PLAAF does pick JF-17 (or a new cheap 4th generation) design, it will not be as fancy as the one prepared for PAF. It would have to be using a domestic engine like WS-13 to lower the cost. It would probably not be required to have more than 7 hard points or have any significant multi-role capability. Its radar will probably be similar to KLJ-7 and not required to have greater concurrent engagement capability. Basically, you can think of it as a low cost, bare bone JF-17 that can fire BVR weapons and have reasonable range. At this point, we will have to wait for pictures from CFTE to see when or if this cheap 4th generation fighter jet theory will come to fruition. Either way, I think PLAAF will continue to stay within its budget and not go after too many expensive options and retain quantity to counter all of its perceived threats.
J-20's first flight is a significant turning point in the history of PLAAF and Chinese aviation industry. It shows the progress that Chinese military aviation industry has made in the past 15 years. It really shows that CAC has turned out a young and energized generation of engineers capable of designing advanced military aircraft. We will likely see continued progress of J-20, J-10, JF-17 and different UAVs from CAC in the coming years. We should also not overlook the many challenges, like engine and stealth technology, that China faces in its development. J-20's unveiling does not mean China has caught up with the west, but rather it has learnt a lot from everyone and has gained a lot from cooperating with everyone. And the Chinese aviation industry can only grow from continuing to cooperate with Western companies in C919 and other aircraft programs.