The first prototype for China’s J-20 stealth fighter appeared in blurry photos in December 2010. Almost exactly four years later, the sixth J-20 has taken flight, just three weeks after the fifth.
Beijing is building J-20s at an accelerating rate. And with six of the huge, twin-engine planes in the air for testing, China is well on its way to finalizing the J-20’s design—and getting the new fighter ready for front-line service.
After debuting in photos that circulated online, the first J-20—nose number 2001—took off for its inaugural flight on Jan. 11, 2011. The second J-20, sporting the nose number 2002, took off more than a year later in May 2012.
Number 2011 was the third J-20. It flew for the first time in March 2014. The following July, nose number 2012—the fourth J-20—launched from the factory airfield in Chengdu.
It took 18 months for Chengdu’s engineers to get 2002 into the air alongside 2001. Just four months passed between 2012’s appearance and the debut of the fifth prototype, nose number 2013.
And 19 days later, 2015—the sixth and possible final J-20 prototype—pierced the hazy air over Chengdu. The prototypes have gathered at Yanliang air base in Xian, China’s main warplane test center.
Maybe there will be a seventh and even eighth prototype. After all, America built eight F-22 prototypes and tested them for eight years before the first of 187 production F-22s were officially ready for combat.
But it’s worth pointing out that China’s previous front-line fighter, the J-10B, entered full-scale production in 2012 after Chengdu built and tested just four prototypes starting in 2008. In October, Chinese media said the J-10B would be war-ready “soon,” according to Jane’s, a military intelligence firm.
The Pentagon has claimed the J-20 could enter squadron service in 2018, seven years after the first prototype began flying. That’s consistent with the F-22’s development and the J-10B’s. And if so, full-scale production will need to begin soon in order for Chengdu’s workers to finish adequate numbers of J-20s to line the tarmac a little over three years from now.
To be sure, the J-20 appears to have reached an evolutionary end-point. The third J-20—with the nose number 2011—boasted big improvements compared to its two predecessors, including a housing for an infrared sensor, engine nozzles optimized for avoiding radar detection and what appeared to be a new stealth coating for its skin.
Since then, the design has stabilized. The latest prototype is similar to the year-old 2011 except for slightly different tail planes.
That said, Beijing is working on a custom motor for the J-20 to replace the prototypes’ Russian-made AL-31Fs. The new WS-15 is still in development.
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