China is nearing the use of an indigenous powerplant for the Chengdu J-20 fighter aircraft, although mass production of key engine technologies is a challenge.
A report in the official China Daily newspaper quotes an official of Aero Engine Corporation of China, Chen Xiangbao, as saying that “it will not take a long time for our fifth generation combat plane to have China-made engines.” His comments on progress are somewhat contradictory, however.
Chen says China has produced single-crystal turbine blades and powder metallurgy superalloy turbine disks. Both technologies allow fighter engines to operate at extreme temperatures.
He adds that mass production is still an issue, and that “quality is not very satisfactory.”
The J-20 is shrouded in secrecy, as are China’s efforts to develop modern fighter engines. It is well known that Beijing perceives the lack of aircraft engine know-how as a major issue.
“The road to success is filled with setbacks and failures,” says Chen. “Each of the world’s engine powers has walked this road.”
Early versions of the J-20, which first flew in late 2010, are apparently powered by an unknown version of the Russian-produced Saturn AL-31F.
The J-20 indigenous powerplant to which Chen refers could be the WS-15, a 30,000lb (133kN) thrust engine in development since the 1990s, and about which little is known.
Chinese state media recently reported that the J-20 has entered People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) service in small numbers. The type made its public debut last year at Airshow China in Zhuhai.
The display saw two aircraft fly down the runway at several hundred feet and perform a vertical split. One aircraft then departed, while its partner performed a few high-g turns followed by a high-speed climb out to conclude the performance.
The aircraft was agile enough for its large size, but stayed within a fairly basic envelope. Neither aircraft conducted a low-speed, high angle of attack pass, nor opened its weapons bays.
Little is known about the J-20’s sensor suite, datalink capabilities, and payload.
The jet’s large size and lack of thrust vectoring, however, suggest it lacks the manoeuvrability of US fifth generation fighter, the Lockheed Martin F-22. This has led some observers to speculate that one mission is the long-range, high-speed interdiction of pivotal enemy support assets, such as air-to-air refuelling tankers and airborne early warning & control (AEW&C) aircraft.