An undated file photo shows a J-20 stealth fighter Credit: Reuters/Alamy
China’s long-awaited J-20 stealth fighter aircraft arrived … sort of.
In a post on the state outlet Xinhua news agency, the Chinese government announced that the fighter jet made against the capabilities of the American F-22 Raptor is in service with the People’s Liberation Army with “extensive combat capabilities.”
The J-20, like the F-22 Raptor, makes use of a specially shaped shell and advanced materials for reducing the radar signature, making it difficult for enemies to detect by conventional means.
The advanced aircraft has long been the subject of intense speculation, with details about the design and the technology trickling in dribs and drabs. [Supersonic! The 11 Fastest Military Airplanes]
While the J-20 is operational, it doesn’t yet have the capabilities to be in compliance with the American colleagues, the South China Morning Post, a major Hong Kong newspaper reported. Two military sources told the Post that the J-20 in service are not equipped with WS-15 engines are built to fly.
According to the Post’s reporting, a WS-15 engine exploded in 2015 during a ground test, with mention of quality control problems with the single-crystal turbine blades, which are needed for the powerful turbofan engine.
The operational J-20s, the Post reported, are instead fitted with a less powerful, modified WS-10B engines, designed for the previous generation of Chinese fighters, the J-10s and J-11. And even with improvements for use in the J-20, they are not strong enough to get the J-20s “supercruise” as U.S. stealth fighters.
As Popular science reported in September 2017, “supercruise” is the ability of an aircraft to accelerate to supersonic speeds without unstealthily dumping extra fuel to burn in the engine jet pipe — that is, without engaging afterburners, which is a more easily detectible radar signature.
According to the Post, the J-20 weapons array makes it the most effective jet fighter in the Chinese arsenal for preventing the surfaces of a stealth-enabled superpower like the US, but the J-20 probably not in mass production until the WS-15 is ready. And that would be for another eight years.
Only two other countries, the U.S. and Russia building “fifth-generation fighters”, such as the J-20. The US has the F-22 Raptor and the uber-expensive, slow-to-arrive F-35. Russia flies the Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA stealth fighter. India and Japan also have the fifth-generation fighters in development.
The exact definition of “fifth generation” is a bit vague. But the public documents from China Power, a U.s. project aimed at the investigation of the Chinese power, and Lockheed Martin, which builds the American fighters, suggesting that the fifth-generation aircraft are stealthy even when switched on, you can cruise at supersonic speeds and involve advanced computing, sensors and electronics.
Originally published on Live Science.