by DAVID AXE
Sixteen months after the dramatic public debut of China’s first stealth-fighter prototype, a second copy has apparently entered testing. The additional J-20, apparently nicknamed “Annihilator” by the Chinese air force, could accelerate development of the heavy warplane.
The apparent second J-20 was photographed by amateur plane-spotters at the military airfield in Chengdu, in central China, in recent days. The new jet wears the nose marking “2002.” Its predecessor was marked “2001.”
J-20 “2002” is apparently externally nearly identical to “2001,” although some observers have noted what they claim is an additional antenna on the newer aircraft that could signify additional communications equipment.
The appearance of “2002,” which apparently has not yet flown, follows speculation that 2001 is actually two aircraft wearing identical markings. Photographs have depicted a J-20 marked with “2001” operating with two different engine types: apparently the Russian-made AL-31 and the Chinese WS-10, itself a derivative of the AL-31. It’s possible there’s just one 2001 and it has experienced at least one engine change, in the same way that some Western fighters such as the F-15 are compatible with more than one engine type.
If “2001” is two aircraft each uniquely fitted with separate engine types, it’s not clear why the Chinese air force would insist on subterfuge to mask the true number of J-20 test models. It’s widely believed that the Chinese military deliberately shows off the J-20s to amateur photographers in order to impress foreign audiences. None of the scores of published photos of the Annihilator have shown two copies of the plane in a single frame.
The few photographs of “2002” do not clearly depict the engine nozzles, so it’s not clear if the new plane is fitted with AL-31s or WS-10s. AL-31s seem more likely, as China has reportedly experienced problems building reliable fighter engines on its own and continues to import Russian-made models.
In any event, the J-20 is years from achieving operational status, if indeed it ever enter service. Stealth aircraft can require thousands of hours of development flying; in its first year the J-20 reportedly racked up an estimated 60 flights, each probably an hour or so in duration. The addition of a second J-20 could double the testing rate, but even with several airframes full development could take five years or more.
The Pentagon has projected that the J-20 will enter service around 2020, approximately the same time as the U.S. F-35. America’s previous stealth aircraft include the F-22 (2005), the B-2 (1997) and the F-117 (1983). China is reportedly developing at least one more stealth fighter design, though it has yet to appear in public. Japan and Russia are also working on radar-evading fighter demonstrators.
The Chinese air force is hedging its bets. The non-stealth J-10 and J-11 — clones of the Israeli Lavi and Russian Su-27 — are still in production, and Beijing recently entered talks with Russia in hopes of purchasing Su-35s, themselves also derivatives of the Su-27.