J-20 Mighty Dragon, China’s first stealth fighter, one of three fifth generation fighters in the world.

Experts assess that the J-20 has many similarities with the first US stealth fighter F-22. As radar-guided missiles from fighters and ground-based launchers threaten aircraft from dozens, or even hundreds of miles away, stealth capabilities are increasingly perceived as necessary for keeping fighter pilots alive on the modern battlefield.

The specifications of the J-20 are still at the level of conjecture. Thus, there are broad estimates of the J-20’s top speed, around Mach 2, and considerable-seeming range from 1,200 to 2,000 miles. It’s broad but relatively shallow weapons bay can accommodate four to six long-range missiles or bombs, though not munitions with especially heavy warheads.

International observers generally concluded the large twin-engine jet possessed high speed and long operational range, but that the Mighty Dragon lacked the maneuverability necessary to prevail in close engagements with enemy fighters. Given the above premises, observers mostly speculate the J-20 would either serve as long-range supersonic strike plane. However, there is also speculation that the J-20 is intended to be a multirole fighter.

The J-20’s radar is said to be AESA. J-20 pilots also are equipped with helmet-mounted sights that allow them to target high-off-boresight PL-10E heat-seeking missiles within a 90-degree angle of the plane’s nose simply by looking at the target. The short-range missiles are stored in small side-bays but can be cunningly rotated outside prior to launch.

Chinese designers have also expressed interest in incorporating vector-thrust engines in the J-20. These have moving exhaust nozzles to assist in pulling off tight maneuvers. The PLAAF recently acquired Su-35 fighters from Russia with vector-thrust engines, and also reportedly tested domestic vector-thrust turbofans on a J-10B two-seat fighter. Few Western fighters incorporate vector-thrust technology, the F-22 being a notable exception.

A 2011 analysis by Australian aviation expert Carlo Kopp concluded that J-20 probably had strong stealth from a frontal aspect, but a larger radar cross section when scanned from the side or rear, a limitation also found in the Russian Su-57 stealth fighter.

As long as the PLAAF has only a few dozen J-20s in service, it may make sense to reserve them for hit-and-run tactics and special deep strikes. But as the article in the Diplomat points out, there’s ample evidence the J-20 may be intended to grow into a capable all-rounder that can hold its own in a dogfight.


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