The Chinese Chengdu J-20 "Black Eagle" is a 5th Generation fighter design exhibiting stealth characteristics not unlike the American Lockheed F-22 Raptor. The Chinese military industry has long held a reliance on outside help, particularly from the Soviets/Russians, to make her a force to be reckoned with in the modern world. As such, most of their Cold War-era inventory was made up largely of Soviet fighter and bomber designs. While this was something of an effective measure for the time, is also doubled as a vital learning experience for Chinese engineers who worked on reengineering various weapon systems and airframes - even some that were illegally copied to begin with. This ended up producing some adequate indigenous offerings but it has not been until recently that the Chinese military began producing indigenous military aircraft of note. Backed by a large influx of cash from its burgeoning economy, China has begun a process of modernization that include the development of a 5th Generation stealth-minded fighter. The Chengdu and Shenyang aviation firms - both having garnered decades of experience with Soviet/Russian designs - are two of the top performers for the Chinese military for aircraft concerns. That, along with suspected Chinese cyberespionage of Western information, are thought to be the driving force for the development of the new J-20.
In fact, according to a BBC report dated January 24th, 2011, Balkan military sources state that the technology behind the new J-20 may have actually been based on the downed Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk "stealth fighter" lost to a Serbian surface-to-air missile during the Bosnian-Kosovo air war in 1999. The incident resulted the first and only time that an F-117 was downed by enemy fire in a hostile environment. The thinking is that some of the debris may have fallen into the hands of Chinese operatives active in the country. The Chinese and Serbian governments thought to have maintained a close relationship at the time of the war so the exchange of technologies seems plausible. The idea of the modernization-crazy Chinese taking the F-117 debris, studying them and reverse-engineering them to understand the technology and concepts is a viable initial source for the technology utilized in the new J-20 platform. Portions of the same F-117 - the left wing assembly, ejection seat used by the pilot to escape, the onboard radio system and the canopy were claimed by the Belgrade Aviation Museum and went on display. The whereabouts of the other surviving portions of the aircraft went unknown, presumably collected by a handful of farmers in the area and subsequently sold to "interested" parties like the Chinese. Of course all of this remains speculation but it does play well into the scenario of what the appearance of the J-20 means today. One can assume it is based on the 1970s technology utilized to jumpstart the American stealth program mixed in with modern engineering learned by Chinese engineers to the procurement across decades of Russian technology.
The Chengdu J-20 attempts to cover what has been proven in other fighter designs to date (both 4th and 5th Generation types) and is the culmination of the latest in Chinese supercruise capabilities, airframe maneuverability, STOL (Short Take-Off and Landing) qualities and stealth technology. Stealth design philosophies of the J-20 revolve around much of what makes the American F-22 Raptor stand out in a crowd. Conscious attempts have been made to ensure that the new Chinese aircraft can compete successfully with the best that the major superpowers have to offer including use of strategic angles to deflect radar emissions, radar absorbing materials to retard the aircraft's radar signature and an internal weapons bay to promote a less faceted radar target. The J-20 is believed to be on par with the American F-22 and F-35 fighters and the upcoming Russian Sukhoi T-50/PAK FA currently in development - joining an elite group of modern fighters to say the least. Should she enter service within the next decade, the Chinese will take yet another step towards being seen as a legitimate world superpower and major military player - particularly in a region where their influence is well known. While the US intelligence community originally estimated that the Chinese would not have a competent stealth-minded aircraft until 2020 or later, the Chinese are expecting their J-20 to be operational beginning in 2018, perhaps even as early as 2017. At any rate, the arrival of the J-20 will drive the modernization of the Chinese military even further - a fact that has many persons in Washington, the Pacific and throughout Asia quietly worried.
The Chinese undertook a variety of aircraft development programs throughout the 1990s to which the West utilized such designation markers as "J-XX", "J-X" and "XXJ" to delineate these different endeavors. At their core, the programs sought to fulfill a requirement for a new indigenous Chinese 5th Generation fighter platform to be rated on par with any other such aircraft in the world. The end-product of the J-XX program became the J-20 "Black Eagle", a collaborative effort between the Chinese firms of Chengdu Aircraft Corporation and Shenyang Aircraft Corporation. Two airframes were completed by November of 2010 with these prototypes designated internally as "S/N 2001" and "S/N 2002". These are expected to serve as test flight and stationary stress test examples respectively. Construction of the airframe is said to center on heavy use of advanced composites for maintaining inherent stealth characteristics but also make for a substantially cheaper product to manufacturer on a large scale when compared to her global counterparts. However, some have questioned the availability of such advanced composites in quantity for the Chinese, leading some to believe that these components might be imported into the country.
The J-20 is of a conventional layout as fighters go - though it is worth mentioning that the size of the J-20 is greater than that of the American F-22 or Russian Sukhoi T-50/PAK FA development. Taken as a whole, the J-20 appears to be the body of the experimental, delta-wing Mikoyan Project 1.44 aircraft with the nose section of a Lockheed F-22 Raptor. The fuselage is noticeably long and wide presumably for the use of large amounts of internal fuel stores, advanced avionics capacities and large internal weapons bays. The cockpit is held well forward in the design and the engines are fitted in the rear. Canards are set along the forward portion of the fuselage and serve to provide improved vortex lift for the airframe body. Likewise, the use of the anhedral set main wing assemblies works in conjunction with these canards to help improve lift. The main wing assemblies, each sporting anhedral, are delta in arrangement and the vertical fins on the tail noticeably canted outwards. The vertical tail fins and forward canards are all-moving surfaces, hinged at internal joints, and help in providing for an agile airframe. There are two small ventral fins near the trailing edge of the main wings, outboard of either engine. The engines are buried deep within the middle and aft portions of the fuselage, aspirated by a set of inward slanted intake openings to either side of the cockpit. The intakes are preceded by a bulbous chine mount that is contoured rather elegantly to either cockpit side. From the first few initial photographs of the J-20, the engines seem to exhaust through a pair of conventional nozzles so no thrust vectoring is apparent in the prototypes. Stealth plays an important role in the design of the J-20 so plasma technology is used in the various exposed moving joints of the vertical tail fins and forward canards. The undercarriage is wholly conventional and made up of a tricycle landing gear arrangement featuring a single-wheeled nose leg and a pair of single-wheeled main landing gear legs. The nose leg retracts forward under and aft of the cockpit floor while the main legs retract forward into the sides of the fuselage. Of note here is the "saw-tooth" edges of the landing gear doors - consistent with the stealth design philosophy of the F-22 Raptor.
Internally, the J-20 will sport the latest in Chinese fly-by-wire technology and advanced fire control and engine management features. The pilot will most likely control the aircraft through a traditional HOTAS (Hands on Throttle and Stick) arrangement and have access to a single, wide-angle, full-color "glass" cockpit liquid crystal display ala the Lockheed F-35 Lightning II. In conjunction with the LCD may be a helmet-mounted sight system for the pilot. A wide-angle HUD (Head-Up Display) will provide pertinent performance and mission information to the pilot above the instrument panel.
While sources vary on the exact powerplant types to be used in the J-20, it is suspected that the Russians will deliver Saturn 117S (AL-31) series engines rated at approximately 32,000lbs of thrust to the Chinese. This may be an interim solution due to delays in the development of indigenous thrust-vectoring engine. Chinese sources state the indigenous engine design effort to be the WS-10 or WS-17 series turbofan powerplant outputting at about 30,000lbs of thrust. These will incorporated thrust-vectoring nozzles for significantly improved maneuverability and supercruise capability.
It is only natural to compare the Chinese J-20 with the established American F-22 Raptor. While there are some visual similarities to the casual observer, further inspection quickly dispels the thinking that the J-20 is an exact copy of the American fighter. The J-20 makes use of a large-area delta wing design without traditional tail surfaces whereas the F-22 make use of a diamond-type wing arrangement with horizontal tail surfaces aft of the main wing assemblies. The J-20 also features ventral fins and forward canards, two design elements not utilized by any other 5th Generation stealth-minded fighter for they tend to compromise stealth characteristics. The J-20 is significantly larger than her American competitor and longer from nose to tail, leading most to assume that the J-20 design is focused on range and an expanded weapons capability needed to cover the vast Chinese airspace. The J-20's supercruise capability is largely unknown though general thinking is that the F-22 would have the advantage in this field due to its size and proven capabilities. The J-20 does share a similar nose design and also sports a similar single-piece canopy consistent with the F-22. Presumably, the radar array is housed in the nose cone though it may be a borrowed system from the Russian Sukhoi Su-30MKK as Chinese radar technology is generally thought to be lacking when compared to those available to the Russians and the Americans.
The J-20 completed a much publicized taxiing trial on January 6th, 2011 at the Chengdu Aircraft Design Institute airfield within the Sichuan Province (Southwestern China). Taxiing trials are often the forerunner to a complete flight cycle test perhaps upcoming in 2011. At this pace, and barring any significant delays, the J-20 will certainly achieve operational service by the end of the decade.
Some Western news sources have dismissed the appearance of the available J-20 photographs as a nothing more than propaganda by the Chinese authorities to showcase a mockup fighter design and not a true working prototype. However, amateur footage clearly shows the prototype J-20 taxiing under its own power, looking every bit like a functional prototype the Chinese authorities are claiming. As the media in China is state-run, the release of the photographs was most likely a planned event to influence political thinking in the region - a region where the United States has, for decades, flexed their muscle.
If the 2017-2018 operational year holds, the J-20 could be in line to replace the outgoing Su-27Sk "Flanker-B", Su-30MKK "Flanker-G" and (possibly) Su-30MK2 "Flanker-G) multirole aircraft of Russian origin. A first batch order of several hundred aircraft could be expected.
As an aside, the Chinese classify the J-20 as a 4th Generation fighter design which, in Western nomenclature, is equal to a 5th Generation aircraft such as the F-22 and F-35. As of this writing, the F-22 is the only operational 5th Generation fighter in the world.
NOTE: Performance specs on this page regarding the J-20 are estimates based on similar aircraft types and size along with the supposed engines to be utilized in the final production variant. We will update these values as more information becomes available in the coming years.