By Kris Osborn, President, Center for Military Modernization
(Washington D.C.) Does having new, domestically produced engines make the Chinese J-20 5th-generation stealth fighter measurably improve the aircraft’s performance and mission scope?
That is the claim made by Chinese experts quoted in a Communist-party backed newspaper called the Global Times. The paper asserts that the new J-20 WS-10 engines improve the operational performance of the jet to include better handling in extreme environments such as high-altitudes, hard cold weather and high humidity.
A Chinese aviation engineer quoted in the paper said the “domestic engines unleashed the potential of the J-20, since the old engines were not customized for the aircraft, and it had to make compromises in its performance.”
The improvements to the J-20 were not limited to just the engineers but also included some redesigns of the airframe, structure, pipelines, electric circuits and subsystems, the report said.
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“The switch to domestically made WS-10 engines from imported ones has made mass production possible…. other systems on the J-20, including the avionics system, radar system and weapons systems, were already domestically developed,” a report in the Global Times from last year states.
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The pace of a J-20 production ramp up could be significant, given China’s known ability to mass-produce with its industrial base. This is something quite likely on the radar at the Pentagon because, regardless of whether a J-20 can rival an F-35, the number of 5th-generation aircraft in China’s fleet is of great significance. The more J-20s China has, the more the PLA Air Force could pose a threat. However multiple news reports say China does not, at least at the moment, operate a large number of J-20s.
The scope and pace of a J-20 production ramp up may not yet be clear, however the intent and industrial capacity both seem to be there. Given the consensus that Sun Tzu’s “mass matters” principle is still quite relevant and important in modern warfare, China would need much larger numbers of J-20s to truly compete for air superiority both globally and also in a purely regional sense.
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Should the J-20 be unable to compete with a US F-35 when it comes to sensor range, targeting precision and multi-role air dominance, then having larger numbers of the aircraft might not necessarily make too much of a difference.
For example, should long-range, high-fidelity F-35 sensors see J-20s before they are themselves detected, then a single F-35 could be positioned to destroy an entire formation of J-20s.
Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.