On September 23, the first pictures of a new version of China’s J-20 fifth-generation fighter were released. These pictures show some of the biggest changes to the plane’s design since the Air Force started getting them in 2016.
In the past six years, the J-20 has gotten a lot better. For example, it now has improved WS-10C engines that let it supercruise, and a two-seat version is being made that will serve as an airborne command post and a force multiplier for other aircraft.
The latest version is expected to have the WS-15 engine, which is said to be the most powerful engine ever put on a twin-engine fighter and will change the way the plane flies and how long it can stay in the air.
The new airframe, with the serial number 2051, has a lot of changes to its design. One of these is a much flatter, low-profile canopy, which is expected to improve the airframe’s stealth and aerodynamics in a big way.
This allows for a better blend into the J-20’s raised spine and mirrors similar changes made on China’s other fifth-generation fighter program, the FC-31, which is being developed for the Navy and for export.
The J-20 is one of only two fifth-generation fighters in production and in squadron strength in the world today, along with the American F-35, and is built on a far bigger scale than any other twin-engine fighter class.
The aircraft has seen its production scale increase rapidly since the mid-2030s, with production currently estimated at around 35 airframes per year – a figure expected to increase further as facilities expand. The fighter reportedly flew with the WS-15 engine in January 2022 after transitioning to the WS-10B in production in mid-2019.
Its airframe and avionics will likely continue to improve well into the 2030s as several hundred more airframes are made.
Over 200 J-20s are currently thought to be in service. However, the aircraft is still significantly outnumbered by the F-35s fleets of the U.S. and its allies partly because the F-35 is a much smaller single-engine aircraft designed to be fielded in larger numbers.
In this way, the F-35 program is similar to its direct predecessors, the fourth-generation F-16 and F-18. The heavyweight J-20, on the other hand, is more like the F-15 in that it is a high-end elite aircraft.
Improvements to the J-20 come as the United States continues to invest heavily in improving the F-35 and as both China and the U.S. have emerged effectively in a league of their own in developing next-generation combat aircraft with both competing necks to neck to field the most capable sixth generation fighters from around 2030.