J-XX The PLAAF’s Plans for a Stealthy Fifth Generation Fighter

There is very little information available about the J-XX. The existence of the program was first disclosed by US Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) in 1997 when J-XX was described as a 4th generation fighter to enter the service around 2015.

30th Jun 2009


J-XX The PLAAF’s Plans for a Stealthy Fifth Generation Fighter

There is very little information available about the J-XX. The existence of the program was first disclosed by US Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) in 1997 when J-XX was described as a 4th generation fighter to enter the service around 2015. China, however, tends to use Russian parlance, and in Russian parlance J-XX is a fifth generation fighter. Much of the information actually available is speculation - other information confuses the J-10, intended as the PLAAF answer to the latest variants of F-16, with J-XX. J-XX might be designated with J numbers between J-12 and J-14. The project has completed a stage equivalent to the USAF Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) program of the early 1980s. The fighter is thought to be in the early stages of what later led to the F/A-22 Raptor.

What is known with reasonable certainty about J-XX is that it is intended to be the Chinese response to F-22. However, this is probably for public consumption and the type should be seen as a ‘response’ to F-35. This accords with a similar Russian program. This is the Sukhoi T-50 project and it is aimed at being able to counter the F-35 both operationally and in the export theatre. T-50 is not a counter to F-22. It is not likely that J-XX is intended to exceed the capability of  theT-50, nor does this seem possible given the great effort and expense the US had to make to develop the F-22. The only potential ‘spoiler’ behind that assessment is Chinese espionage. This is known to be excellent, extremely well funded and directed, and to have deeply penetrated all aspects of US industry up to and including Chinese acquisition of US nuclear weapons design details. So deeply penetrated is the US by China that anything is possible, including their access to some F-22 material.

Reporting on J-XX is highly varied and contains much speculation. There seems to be general agreement that it is now a twin engined, twin tailed ‘fifth’ generation fighter with advanced stealth characteristics. The fighter is in the 19-21 ton class (empty) and is generally thought to have benefited from extensive Chinese industrial espionage against US industry.

China launched its next generation stealthy fighter aircraft program in the late 1990s. Two major industrial entities are primary in the program, Chengdu Aircraft Design and Research Institute (CADRI or 611 Institute) and the Shenyang Aircraft Industry Company’s Shenyang Aircraft Design Institute (SADI or 601 Institute). There appear to have been three designs offered for the competition, with CADRI and SADI both offering designs for a twin-engine multi-role reduced RCS fighter with internal weapons carriage, thrust vectoring and manoeuvrability comparable to American F/A-22. The third design offered was apparently a J-10 derivative with canards, but this is believed to have been rejected early in the process.

The Shenyang Aircraft Corporation is now probably the primary production contractor, with CADRI being prime on the design of the J-XX. It is believed that each of these design houses offered their own designs, with the competition based on both companies receiving major work from it. CADRI is generally thought to have won the competition.

Development of the aircraft’s subsystems, including the engine and weapon suite for J-XX, has been underway since about 2000. While available images are little more than guesses, concepts and artist’s impressions, they have some common features. The most credible show a twin-engine aircraft bearing a generic resemblance to Lockheed Martin's very low radar cross section (RCS) F/A-22 Raptor multirole fighter. These common features include internal carriage of weapons. However, care must be exercised: it is not known if these illustrations are based on real data, or are based on F-22 because that is a known type.

Chinese military aviation is solidly based on Soviet roots and has a long history of license production of former Soviet types. Since the collapse of the USSR it has developed even deeper ties with Russia's aerospace industry. While many of these are commercial, there is a hidden world of Chinese reverse engineering of Russian technology and of their use of information also obtained by clandestine means. According to Russian reports, in about 2001 the Russian Government decided to develop a new fifth-generation fighter. The Sukhoi, Mikoyan and Yakovlev Design Bureaus partook in a design competition, which Sukhoi won with a project they refer to internally as T-50.

The Russian project has since met its milestones and the first T-50 prototype is scheduled to fly during August 2009. Systems development has been done aboard a small number of modified Su-27 series aircraft, with supercruise engines, advanced avionics and advanced radar having been tested in flight. The head of the Sukhoi Design Bureau, Mr Mikhail Pogosyan, has confirmed first flight of T-50 in Russian media. He has also confirmed that a two-seat version and a carrier version are also under consideration. During mid 2008, Russian officials confirmed that construction of the first three T-50 prototypes was underway at Sukhoi’s Komsomolsk-na-Amur factory (KNAAPO). It was also stated that testing and evaluation of the T-50 would cover the period 2001-2014 and that initial production would not occur until about 2015, assuming all went well with the trials program.

The Tikhomirov Institute of Instrument Design developed the Irbis radar for the Su-35BM Flanker. There are unconfirmed reports that this radar is be the basis for the T-50 radar, and that the Su-35BM avionics is the development basis for the T-50’s avionics suite. Little confirmed information is available on T-50 although it is known to be a fighter in the 20 ton (empty) and circa 30 ton (maximum take off weight) classes and to bear a general resemblance to the F-22. It is known that the prototypes and first production spiral will have the 117S (upgraded AL-31) turbofan engines built by the Russian company Saturn. This implies the obvious, the T-50 is based on the Sukhoi Design Bureau’s experience with the Flanker series. As a result, the T-50 is a heavy fighter with a takeoff weight of over 30 metric tons and will have the same dimensions as the well-known Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker.

Why this is important to the Chinese program is that China has a close relationship with Sukhoi due to its Flanker fleet and license production of the type. Therefore, the Russian timeline and development path, which clearly leverages off Sukhoi’s expertise in developing the numerous Flanker family, is likely to bear a close similarity to the Chinese development path for J-XX. As Russia has already discussed export of T-50 with India, it may well be seen by China as a potential backup for J-XX or it may provide technology and information feeding into that project. Whichever is true, J-XX will certainly utilise the expertise provided to the Chinese aviation industry by license building Flanker.

Therefore, it is certain that J-XX will contain considerable Russian design input, both indirectly from Chinese involvement in Flanker production, and directly from Sukhoi. Unconfirmed reports state that - along with India - China has been offered joint development and production of T-50.

 

A wind tunnel model resembling an F-22 was shown in a promotional video at the 2002 Zhuhai Airshow. A prototype thrust-vectoring nozzle was on display at the 2002 Zhuhai Airshow. It is not known if this was related to the J-XX project, but this is at least possible. Other hints as to its systems have been noticed. The J-XX will use the fly by wire system. This has been developed by SADI aboard its J-8IIACT technology demonstrator. Russian assistance in software support has been widely reported but is not confirmed, as the reports seem to track back to a single Russian source.

J-XX has finished its theoretical definition stage and is probably still in its program definition stage. If this is so, then various technologies are still being examined according to their ability to meet defined operational requirements. Therefore, China is probably well aware of the gaps in its capability, and is probably in the process of seeking from Russia.

Speculation the J-XX may enter service as early as 2015 can confidently be dismissed. China’s aviation base is not quite as developed as that of Russia and the very earliest that T-50 might achieve IOC is 2015. Designing, testing and then producing a fighter of this type demands extensive and complex investment, technology integration and development across materials science, advanced avionics, high-performance jet engine, avionics, software and RCS technology. None of this is easy, and it has to be supported by very advanced computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacture (CAD/CAM) processes, the whole then coordinated through highly sophisticated project management techniques. Very few countries possess such capabilities and developing them is the work of a generation. It is scarcely credible that China could develop this capability at the first attempt, and do so in the same time as the more experienced Russian industry.
Variants

In early 2009 the head of the PLA(N), Admiral Wu Shengli stated that the PLA(N) was interested in supercruise capable fighter to operate from ‘large combat surface ships’. This probably flags PLA(N) interest in a carrier-based variant of J-XX as no other suitable supercruise capable fighter is known to under development in China. Chinese media also suggests that a two-seat attack version is possible, perhaps as a replacement for the F-7 Flounder.

The actual nature of J-XX is far less relevant than what the project to develop such an aircraft says about the Chinese attitudes. The most important thing about J-XX is that is serves notice: China aims to be a major player in aviation development and to build the industrial base of a great power. Irrespective of the success of J-XX or its nature, in designing and building such an aircraft China will equal the European powers in aviation industry capability, as they have to combine to produce fighters of this nature. China will not quite have reached Russia with J-XX, but she will be very close.

That marks a milestone of very great significance.

APDR at a glance