Mon, 17 Jan 2022

Hong Kong, November 1 (ANI): The past week has been a hectic one with one prototype after another of new Chinese military aircraft making their cameo appearances. Among them are two fighters, an airborne early warning aircraft and potentially an unmanned aircraft.

The specific events included the first high-speed taxi test of a twin-seat version of the J-20 stealth fighter, the maiden flight of a new naval fighter for use aboard future Chinese aircraft carriers, a further flight of the KJ-600 airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft, and satellite imagery of what could be a tailless design for a new unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV).

This burst of revelations was mostly expected, but their staccato occurrences one straight after the other shows just how ambitious and intensive Chinese military aerospace ambitions really are - and how much progress it is making.

Beginning with the twin-seat J-20 fighter, surreptitious photos and video taken just outside the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation's (CAC) facility caught the aircraft in a high-speed taxi test, which may have occurred on 26 October. An elongated canopy enclosed the two-man cockpit, the chief difference compared to the single-cockpit J-20A of the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF).

The aircraft prototype at the Chengdu-Huangtianba airfield was painted in yellow primer, and no radar was yet fitted in its nose. The twin-seater is yet to take to the air, but notably it is the world's first twin-seat stealth fighter. The new aircraft's actual designation is not yet known - with J-20S, J-20AS or J-20B all being contenders for its nomenclature.

Rumors of this tandem-cockpit variant have been swirling for months, encouraged by an official AVIC promotional video that aired in January to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the J-20's maiden flight. The computer-generated video showed four twin-seat J-20s of the PLAAF flying in formation. There is no doubt that this twin-seat J-20 is destined for the PLAAF, but the more interesting question relates to its future function.

Some analysts suggest it could be used as a trainer aircraft for novice pilots, but Yang Wei, the J-20's chief designer, said at Airshow China 2021 in late September-early October, "Assuming we do have a twin-seat version of the J-20, it would not be a trainer aircraft because it would be developed for the enhancement of the aircraft." What Yang was alluding to is that the J-20 would be developed further to make it more combat worthy, rather than backtrack it towards a mere training platform.

Therefore, specialised combat roles are the most likely purpose of the twin-seat J-20 aircraft. A second crewman in the cockpit can handle the tremendous flow of networked information that this modern fighter can generate and receive. The aircraft could therefore be used for air-to-ground attack, electronic warfare or command-and-control missions, for example.

As an example of the latter, it could even serve as a control aircraft for "loyal wingmen" UCAVs. It is widely known that Chinese industry is seeking to leverage manned-unmanned teaming and artificial intelligence, so it is not difficult to imagine the second crewman directing the flights, weapons and missions of yet-to-be-delivered UCAVs that are accompanying him in his J-20.

As if the appearance of this novel twin-seat J-20 was not enough, Chinese military aircraft aficionados were sent into rapture when just a few days later a photo emerged on 29 October of a stealthy carrier-borne fighter performing its maiden flight in Shenyang.

This new fighter is based on a modified Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC) FC-31 stealth aircraft that first flew in October 2012. Key characteristics observable in the photo of the maiden flight include a launch bar attached to the dual front wheels (this bar attaches to a catapult for launching from an aircraft carrier), a wing-folding mechanism (to minimize the aircraft's footprint on a cramped flight deck or hangar deck) and a chin-mounted electro-optic infrared search and track sensor.

The prototype was finished in turquoise-green primer paint, and the design has twin canted tailfins, wider wings and twin engines. Compared to the original FC-31, the cockpit section has been redesigned and the fuselage is bulkier. It has two internal weapons bays, which keeps the design stealthy since weapons are hidden from radar detection.

This new carrier prototype, with aerodynamic improvements, is clearly based on a new variant of the FC-31 that flew for the first time in December 2016. What is remarkable is that the PLA has two stealth fighters simultaneously either in service or in development. Furthermore, it is noteworthy for being only the world's second stealth-type carrier-borne fighter, the first being the F-35C flown by the US Navy.

Indeed, there are similarities in appearance between the J-31/J-35 and F-35C, though the former is twin engined compared to the latter's single engine. Again, it is too early to confirm the new fighter's nomenclature for when it eventually enters service in the PLA Navy (PLAN), but so far it has variously been called the J-31 or J-35. A mock-up of it was seen earlier this year on a dummy flight deck at the Wuhan land-based test facility in June, so its appearance was expected.

The new J-31/J-35 will supplement the in-service J-15, a Chinese copy of the old Russian Su-33. Nonetheless, manufacture of the heavier J-15 continues, with a fourth production batch having been identified. China is also developing a catapult-capable version of the J-15, indicating that the PLAN will operate a mixed fleet of J-15s and J-31/J-35s from its aircraft carriers.

The PLAN is investing heavily in aircraft carriers. Its first Type 001 carrier was a refurbished Soviet-era vessel, while the second Type 002 is a direct copy built in China and already in service as Shandong. These two carriers feature a ski ramp on the bow to help fighters get in the air.

The third carrier will be distinctly different, since the Type 003 utilizes a catapult to launch aircraft. In fact, China will use an electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) rather than a steam catapult on the Type 003. It is this carrier and follow-on ones that the new J-31/J-35 is specifically designed for.

This project is important for SAC and for the PLAN, for the PLAAF had rejected the FC-31 in favor of the J-20. It also failed to attract any export interest. Reworking a conventional fighter for naval operations is a complex venture, for it requires aerodynamic changes, airframe strengthening to absorb the stresses of carrier launches/landings, flight control changes, more corrosion-resistant components, folding wings, an arrester hook for landings, and different angles of attack for take-off and landing.

Given that it is nearly a decade since the FC-31 first flew, SAC has had plenty of time to experiment and to improve its design for carrier operations. It is unclear how long it will take for the J-31/J-35 to enter operational service, but it will certainly take some considerable amount of time.

Moving on to the third piece of news, a KJ-600 AEW aircraft prototype from the Xian Aircraft Industrial Corporation (XAC) was spotted in flight, with pictures beginning to circulate on 29 October. The gray-colored KJ-600 was flying from Xian-Yangliang Airport, and is one of two prototypes.

A mock-up of the KJ-600, a Chinese facsimile of the American E-2D Hawkeye, was first seen several years ago. Then, last year, the first KJ-600 prototype achieved its maiden flight on 29 August 2020. The KJ-600 is also destined for the PLAN, designed to fly from aircraft carriers to provide Chinese fighters and ships with a long-range picture of enemy and friendly forces by using a high-powered, circular radar mounted atop the aircraft. The KJ-600 could not fly from China's first two carriers, as the AEW platform is too ungainly to launch from the ski ramp. They will then only be used on the larger Type 003 carrier onwards via their three EMALS.

The KJ-600's radar will likely be an active electronically scanned array type on a rotating disk, rather than the three-sided fixed configuration utilized on the PLAAF's KJ-500 AEW aircraft. A rotating type enhances the number of installed transmit/receive modules, thanks to a 15% wider radar face.

Estimated dimensions for the KJ-600 based on satellite imagery are a length of about 17.8m, a wingspan of 25.1m, and a radome that has a diameter of 7.5m. Incidentally, recent satellite imagery to emerge of the XAC aircraft production facility revealed two Y-20B heavy transport aircraft, this variant being differentiated by its domestically built WS20 engines. This pair of aircraft was seen parked near other Y-20A transports and Y-20U tankers that await delivery to the PLAAF.

In the fourth piece of news, satellite imagery dating from late October showed a variety of new aircraft at Chengdu's flight test airfield: five J-20s, 18 J-10s, a couple of drones and, significantly, a very rare airframe. The latter is thought to have appeared there earlier this year, parked beside a standalone hangar on the northeast side of the facility.

The airframe has a diamond-shaped delta planform (its wingspan is comparable to that of a J-20) with a relatively thin nose. Importantly, however, is its tailless design. One main advantage of having no tail is improved low-observability against a wide range of radar types, since the radar cross-section is reduced. A tailless design also enhances high-speed dashes and improves sustained cruise, though this comes at the cost of stability and maneuverability.

So, what was this "aircraft" doing there at CAC? It is unlikely to be China's next-generation fighter, for that would never be left parked carelessly in full view of hostile satellites! However, it could represent a potential UAV design from CAC.

As mentioned in the description of missions for the twin-seat J-20, a crewman could be charged with managing a fleet of such drones that fly ahead of or in formation with manned fighters. Countries like Australia and the USA are investing in such "loyal wingman", and China doubtlessly is too.

What was spotted in the satellite image might just be a mock-up of such a tailless unmanned aircraft. Or it could even be a discarded design. However, it does gel with what we know of China's developmental aims. China's replacement for the J-20 will presumably be a tailless design, with various sixth-generation concepts under consideration. China is understood to have already tested four out of eight planforms for this project.

The US Air Force is developing such a tailless sixth-generation fighter under the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, and the US Navy has a similar initiative with its F/A-XX project. This frenetic burst or revelations from China is certainly not the end. For example, watchers are eagerly anticipating news of China's secretive H-20 stealth bomber to dribble out in coming months and years too. (ANI)

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