Why the PLA’s J-20 jet-fighter has been so hard to spot
It was expected China would produce up to three of the stealth planes every month, but only a handful so far exist
China’s advanced multirole J-20 jets have been hard to find since they entered into service with the People’s Liberation Army Air Force almost one year ago, and it isn’t just because they are super stealth fighters.
Embarassingly, the country’s leading aerospace plant is struggling to meet orders for the plane that was trumpeted as China’s answer to the US F-22 and the Russian T-50 PAK FA, with only a handful having so far been produced due to undisclosed manufacturing glitches.
Hong Kong-based Kanwa Defence Review, citing sources within the PLAAF, as well as recent satellite imagery, said it was likely to be some time before any more fighters exited the Chengdu Aerospace Corp factory in western Sichuan province, even as orders piled up.
All the PLAAF can do in the meantime is maintain and service the existing J-20 inside two hangars at the Dingxin airbase in the northwestern province of Gansu, the publication noted.
The J-20 was hailed by China as a technological marvel when it was first unveiled officially in 2016, able to transform the PLA from “a predominantly territorial air force to one capable of conducting both offensive and defensive operations”. It was expected that up to three of the highly-manoeavrable fighters would be produced each month.
Two totally sealed hangars erected at Dingxin were reportedly intended to house the J-20s which, unlike the US F-22, must be kept at a constant temperature and in a humidity-controlled environment during downtime to preserve their delicate stealth coating. The room temperature needs to be kept at 22 degrees Celsius (71.6 Fahrenheit).
The fact that only two hangers can be seen in satellite photos may be further evidence of the J-20’s supply crunch at the Chengdu plant.
It appears Dingxin has been earmarked as the base for the new generation of fighters, which may have also a role as bombers and spy planes, for both the air force and navy. Xinhua and the PLA Daily have hinted the initial batch of J-20s is undergoing combat drills to mimic dogfights with the F-22 Raptor, the plane China used as its model.
Whether the J-20 will match up to such lofty standards as a genuine fifth-generation fighter is still being debated, with some observers convinced the Chinese plane is at best a 4.5-generation effort because it is powered by only a subsonic engine: either the Russian-made Saturn AL-31 or China’s homemade WS-10A Taihang. The jet’s medium-sized fans could be a drag on its speed and will thus affect its air superiority.
China has developed its own turbofan engine, the WS-15, under the codename of Emei, but tests are continuing to ascertain its durability. The engine would theoretically be capable of turning the J-20 into a truly supersonic fighter.
However, military commentator Andrei Chang pointed out in the Kanwa Defence Review article that the J-20’s hull would need to be retrofitted to accommodate the bigger thrust-weight ratio of the Emei engine, and any modification to the airframe would require meticulous test flights before the planes could go into full deployment.
It is not expected that the engine will be ready until 2019, by which time the PLA was supposed to be graduating to an upgraded stealth fighter, the J-20B. Perhaps it has decided to hold fire on the current model, which might explain why the Chengdu factory is marking time.