The J-20 project has made some significant progress in the past 2 years with the roll out of prototypes 2011 to 2017 to accelerate the flights testing and development of the J-20 aircraft. With the roll out of 2101, what appears to J-20’s first LRIP aircraft, it’s possible that the first batch of J-20s will get delivered to FTTC this year to start the process of expanding flight envelope, testing/evaluating new weapon systems, developing new training procedures and combat tactics for a new aircraft. If FTTC evaluation proceeds well, J-20 may be certified and start entering into service next year. It looks like the project is proceeding a couple of years faster than the original expectations. For this entry, I want to look at how the progress of J-20 vs progress of other fighter jet projects affects regional balance of air power.
To start off, the most obvious threat to PLAAF comes from the vast number of F-35s that will be deployed in the APAC region by America and its allies. Due to defense cutbacks by many Western countries, key American allies in APAC region should not have to wait too long to get their F-35s. If J-20 enters service in the next 2 years, it will enter service extremely underpowered since WS-15 is not yet ready. As a result, I think the initial J-20s will have to carry limited fuel and payload in order to achieve desired flight performance. Until WS-15 does become certified with J-20 sometimes next decade, there are certain missions involving longer range and greater payload that J-20 just cannot perform. USAF and USN’s will have overwhelming qualitative and quantitative advantage in the region against PLAAF in the short term. Even after J-20 enters service in larger numbers later with WS-15, I think USAF and USN’s F-35s will still have both qualitative and quantitative advantage in the region. J-20 probably will have certain advantages over F-35 in flight performance, power and payload, but will definitely be at large disadvantage in stealth, sensors, weapon system and the ability to operate in a network centric environment. Reading Chinese sources, I have often gotten the impression that PLAAF regards F-35 as its biggest threat (even more than F-22) due to F-35’s technical and numerical advantage over what China might field. I don’t think anything from the past couple of years have really changed that.
I think a more interesting case is to compare J-20 to the PAK-FA project. I have often compared the 2 projects in the recent years, because they have started about the same time and went with similar platforms that seem to be natural evolution from flankers. In J-20, China seemed to put more emphasis on overall stealth and range. The Russians seemed to put greater emphasis on maneuverability. From the beginning, I had always thought the PAK-FA development would finish first due to Russia’s previous R&D into 5th generation fighter jet, the earlier first flight of PAK-FA and original pronouncement of 2016 IOC. As mentioned several times before, this has been turned upside down in the last 2 years as PAK-FA have been plagued with problems whereas J-20 is proceeding without any obvious setbacks. Without comparing the capabilities of the 2 aircraft, it seems more likely now for j-20 to join service before PAK-FA does. Another part to look at is the new engine options for the two aircraft, since both will first enter service with underpowered AL-31 or WS-10 variants. PAK-FA will later use izdeliye 30, whereas J-20 will use WS-15. The former is expected to start flight trials in 2017 and join service around 2020 and the latter has similar timelines. With China’s previous problems in mass production of a new turbofan engine, WS-15 entry may drag on a couple of years longer, but entry into service for both engines are pretty close. That means it will probably take early 2020s before the appropriately powered version of both J-20 and PAK-FA go into service. Looking at the progress of the 2 programs at the current time, it seems like J-20 is far more likely to join service on time since most of its subsystems (other than engine) are ready, whereas PAK-FA has been delayed in both its flight testing (by fire on the 5th prototype) and subsystems (like radar). So, China will get operational J-20s before Russia does with PAK-FA. Although the 2 countries are currently friendly, China considered Russia to be its greatest enemy as recently as late 80s. I think it’s quite important for China to not rely on Russia weaponry for security reasons. It’s important to note China has been Russia’s student since the 50s. It would be a tremendous boost for Chinese pride to be ahead of Russia in military aviation. The other part of J-20 vs PAK-FA comparison is India’s involvement. India will receive production PAK-FA several years after Russia. India was part of PAK-FA development since the beginning when it proudly pronounced that Russia was only willing to partner with India (rather than China) in its 5th generation fighter jet project. Since then, India has regularly complained about its involvement in the project as PAK-FA falls behind schedule. India also complains about the cost and technical capabilities of PAK-FA. As a whole, it seems like India is not getting the aircraft it wants or the development experience it wants or the timeline it was hoping for. All of this has added up to a nightmare scenario where China will receive a possibly more advanced 5th generation aircraft several years before India does. The best aircraft India can field at that time will be Rafael. It’s also possible that China’s second 5th generation project, J-31, will be in service very soon after PAK-FA goes into service with India. If China exports J-31 to Pakistan after a couple of years, then India will have very few years of advantage over Pakistan in 5th generation fighter jet. So while India originally had hoped for getting PAK-FA several years before China gets J-20, it may now be trapped in a situation of 2 hostile neighbours with 5th generation aircraft. There have not been much mentions of MCA in the past year. Looking at how long LCA has been in development, I can only assume that means MCA is much further away from completion.
The only other next generation development projects are Korea’s KFX project and Japan’s ATD-X/F-3 project. Since both countries only have one recent fighter jet project experience (Korea with T-50 and Japan with F-2), it’s unclear how long the development will take or how capable the aircraft will be. In both cases, I would imagine they would seek for as much American help as they can. These two countries are looking to establish long-term viable domestic military aircraft makers through these projects. However, I don’t think it’s America’s interest to create possible competitors that may take away future exports. In both cases, I think they will probably create semi-stealthy designs that are comparable in performance to the eurocanards. As shown in PAK-FA and J-20 project, creating 5th generation aircraft will all aspect stealth is extremely difficult. America was able to do so, because it had decades of experience in stealth. Looking at Japan’s previous venture, F-2 was over-budget and under delivered in performance. Japan has not worked on any fighter jet programs since. Korea has only developed an advanced trainer in T-50. It seems to be a huge challenge to go from that to 5th generation fighter jet. Both countries are expected to field F-35 when very few APAC countries have 5th generation aircraft. Unless they try to throw away that advantage for the sake of national pride, they seem both well positioned for the future. J-20’s success may push both countries to be more invested in F-35 project, since they cannot afford to wait on their domestic programs.
Overall, I think the progress of J-20 does change the geopolitical calculations in the region. Countries that field PAK-FA like Russia and India are now at a disadvantage. If the J-31 project can move forward quickly in the next 5 years, it could have some real export potentials in countries that had been importing Russian fighter jet. F-35 program is in full production mode, so I don’t think much has changed in countries that will be fielding F-35.