Saturday, January 15, 2011

J-20 had its first flight, what now?

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.


HMS said...

Next step: Mature subsystems, finish the flight test and "race" F35 & PAK.FA to the finish line.

If all three "5th gen" aircraft reach IOT&E about the same time (2015-2020), the market will get VERY interesting.

Lei said...

I'm wondering if the JF-17 would really be a cost effective solution. One of the aspects of air force downsizing and cost cutting is the reduction of models being fielded in order to reduce long term maintenance costs. Though the fixed cost of a J-10 may be higher than a JF-17, the JF-17 may not be acquired if the cost of maintaining the JF-17 outweighs the cost of acquiring more J-10.

Feng said...

I think the idea is that they want to develop an option that is not only cheap to purchase but also cheap to maintain and operate. I'd imagine small planes in general should be cheaper to operate. Again, this is just what I'm reading.

jxz said...

I think Lei's point is that it is perhaps cheaper to minimize the types of airplanes that the PLAAF has to maintain, thus reducing the cost of parts inventory and mechanics training, lowering the overall cost. Think Southwest Airlines, they only order 737s to keep their fleet lean and mean. It would make sense to at least field a cheaper model that shares a lot of common parts with J-10.

Feng said...

sure, I agree that having more types of aircraft increases cost, but operating 3 or 4 different types of aircraft is nothing new for PLAAF. And if they can see that the operation cost overall is significantly cheaper, then they will field a cheaper 4th gen design.

Steven said...

The entire WP-14 project was canceled? That could prove to be a problem down the line for the JL-9 and any sort of upgrade it may recieve. Is the WS-12 project canceled to? I've heard some older mixed rumours about its fate but nothing definitive

Feng said...

I don't know about WS-12. It seems like we have not heard any news on it recently, so I can only assume that it is no longer active.

Qasim said...

Wonderful and insightful analysis, as always!

The JF-17 Thunder appears to be performing quiet remarkably in the PAF. The Airforce has traditionally been a user of various western aircraft and even now fields jets like mirages and a combination of old and new F-16s (judging by the official and semi-official chatter it seems to be gearing up to acquire 106 F-16, 72 upgraded MLU obtained through EDA and 36 new block 52 variants). Naturally, there was some interest in testing how the JFT(as the JF-17 "Thunder" is colloquilly referred to in Pak) compared to the F-16s already in service.

And the JFT has remarkably compared quiet well well. The JFT out-performs the older F-16 quiet well in a number of areas, and according to a former AF Chief, was only marginally behind latest-generation F-16s("80-85% performance-wise" were his exact words if I'm remembering correctly). It's manouvering is still better, and the radar cross-section still smaller than the F-16. Admittedly the F-16 is not the most advanced western jet by a long shot, but it is in frontline service in dozens of western airforces and likely to remain for a decade and possibly two, and future versions of the JFT are expected to surpass the F-16 Block-52. It is this advancement in the Chinese Aerospace industry capabilities that surprised people when the JFT visited Farnborrough 2010, with everyone from the Turks to the Saudi Airforce officials inspecting the aircraft(Saudis operate F-15s and Eurofighters and their base head sat in and was surprised by the clean, modern glass cockpit and design).

So it would be a fairly nice aircraft for the PLAAF if it chooses to field it. It seems likely, because earlier in the last decade China stated that it may field 250 FC-1s(possibly inducted as J-9s), and even as recently as 2009 news came out that China had conducted flight trials on the aircraft with WS-13 engines, and also that the aircraft had successfully cleared PLAAF's design appraisal. So it seems quiet in the realm of possibility that the aircraft would be inducted. It's performance is rather remarkable various areas, for example, PAF was originally planning on installing a western radar on the first batch of JFT aircraft(like it does, installing Italian Fiar/Griffo radars on Chinese origin J-7/F-7PG that it flies) but the Chinese KLJ-7 radar outperformed equivalent European contemporaries in it's class, and newer improved Chinese radar and avionics seem to be in the pipeline as well(The PAF has all but openly decided to stick with an improved Chinese avionics package for a second batch of JFTs)

Feng, could you please post some more information in this regard if possible, how has the Guizhou WS-13 progressed, how does it compare, and general news about the avionics package(radar, jammer), etc. The engine's own history and origin seems very shrouded in mystery, and some Russian and western online sources seem to misrepresent it as just a copy of the RD-33 used on the MiG-29 and the JF-17 that China recieved, but it appears that the Taishan has a much older and quiet facinating history of it's own.

Feng said...

Well, when it comes to turbofan engines, it is a very new thing for Chinese aeroengine industry. As I aid, they had a lot of problems with WS-10, especially the production. At this point, they have to be testing out WS-13 on several JF-17s to see if they have problems. In the long term, the biggest issues is whether or not they can produce like 100 or 200 of them a year reliably. There is a huge different between producing 10 vs producing 100. We will have to see. I'm not worried about the design that much. It claimed to be newer and better design than RD-33 series. But, the question now is whether or not Guiyang can mass produce these things. If they can, it'd be a big step up for AVIC1.

And as I said, until they can produce WS-13 locally, it's unlikely they will procure JF-17.

John said...

I read on the Internet that Russian always tailor made maintenance equipment for each fighter model, it makes the maintenance very costly and inefficient. China used off-shelf parts and integrated them into common equipment to maintain multiple models of fighters; it cut down the maintenance cost drastically and increased efficiency. Russian was shocked when they saw the new way of doing maintenance by the Chinese. If that is the case, then the maintenance cost for the JF-17 might not be a burden to affect the considerations of military factors.

Unknown said...

J20 is not a fighter. It's purpose is to post a major threat to US Air Carrier Groups in second islands chain. It is longer range and carry more payload than what PLA AF has now.

Feng said...

J-20 is in the same weight class as Su-27 according to the guestimates based on photo measurements. In fact, it is believed to be shorter than Su-27. I don't see why it would not be a fighter. Although, it does have a lot of room as a long range strike aircraft.

Bret said...

I really enjoyed this post. Although, I do disagree on their avionic capabilities, and question their domestically produced radars (I haven't seen an efficient Chinese AESA). You provided good analysis regarding the engines, and big picture.

Feng said...

there is a strong view from outside that China is really behind in avionics. I think that's quite an outdated belief. But again, we will have to wait a couple of years for J-10B to join service to see if I'm right or not =)

Qasim said...

Even the JF-17's avionics seemed surprising to visitors at the Farnborrough 2010 airshow, and the J-10 is more advanced. But avionics is a broad-ranged term and it seems like you only meant radars.

The KLJ-7 radar on the JFT seems more advanced than the 90's era F-16A's AGP-66, but it's obviously not AESA level stuff. Images of the J-10B do highly suggest, that the aircraft would have an AESA radar, and the next generation(often called JF-17 Block 2 or JF-17NG) would likely start in late 2011 or 2012 and there were rumours about the possibility of having an AESA even on this.

Feng could probably provide more information about specific radar programmes, under development in NRIET or elsewhere. Some public stuff came out about various radar models at the recent Zuhai show?

Feng said...

that's why I used avionics instead of radar. I was clearly referring to more than just the radar. It's clear if you take a look at J-10B that it has a lot of new stuff not present on J-10A. Just wait, Also, you have to think about capability vs cost. Do you really need AESA radar for every fighter. That's what I've been trying to emphasize here. You have to make the best with your given budget and a lot of times you have to go with good enough rather than having 100% of your requirements filled. That's why I say that JF-17 or whatever equivalent fighter for PLAAF will probably have much lower requirements for hard points, multi-role capability and avionics than PAF JF-17s. But that remains to be seen.

obrescia said...

Great Blog!

As of yet, we have not been overly impressed with stealth fighters. When combined with available historical evidence, stealth fighter (fighter) technology does not stand up to (inductive/deductive) critical analysis, particularly against a modern multi-sensored aerial opponent with DFRM and helmet-sighting (unobstructed fields of view for missile seeker heads ) – for which no stealth fighter in existence today - has been tested/evaluated/pitted against - in any authentic manner.

Complete analysis here:

- Olaf Brescia