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J-20s with Russian engines in action at the Zhuhai air show. Photo: Dickson Lee

China’s new J-20 stealth fighter engine a no-show at Zhuhai air show after it fails reliability tests

  • Country’s leading aviation expo was expected to be showcase for purpose-built WS-15 Emei but performance problems force rethink
  • PLA relies on Russia for engines for its most advanced stealth fighter

A purpose-built engine for China’s new generation stealth fighter jet has not gone on display as planned at China’s biggest air show after it failed reliability tests, according to military insiders.

It was widely expected that the performance of the WS-15 Emei engine for the J-20 fighter, known as the Powerful Dragon, would be one of the highlights of the six-day air show in Zhuhai in the southern province of Guangdong, but there was no sign of it when the show opened on Tuesday.

“The performance of the engine is still very unstable, and engineers have failed to find the key reason for the problems, even though its vector power is good enough now,” a military insider said.

Insiders said the WS-15 engine, which has been in development for several years, failed to meet overall reliability targets in long-standing trial runs over the course of hundreds of hours.

The South China Morning Post reported in September that the WS-15, which has single crystal turbine blades, was expected to be ready for mass production by the end of the year ahead of the opening of fourth production line for the Chengdu Aerospace Corporation, the maker of the J-20.

Three J-20s that did appear for a six-minute display at the opening of the air show were still equipped with Russian AL-31 Saturn engines.

One Beijing-based military source said this “indicated the scheduled mass production plan is likely to be affected, even though it’s a matter of urgency for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force to have as many J-20s as possible”.

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The Zhuhai air show is a key platform for the Chinese military to show off its most advanced weapons, an event seen as a way of boosting the PLA’s morale and promoting patriotism in China.


“Now it’s very embarrassing because China now may need to ask for help from the Russians,” the insider said.

“China has friendly relations with Russia right now, but what would Beijing do if the two countries fell out, or if Moscow was at war with another country?

The WS-10 Taihang engine has impressed some military experts at the Zhuhai air show. Photo: Dickson Lee

“All these uncertainties affect the production of AL-31 engines, and therefore the mass production plan for the J-20.”

China rushed the J-20 into service ahead of schedule last year in response to the news that America had started deploying its F-35 stealth fighters in the Asia-Pacific and that South Korea was due to take delivery of 40 of the aircraft this year.

Initially the J-20s were fitted with WS-10B engines, which had been designed for earlier generation J-10 and J-11 fighters.

However, this was a stopgap and the PLA started importing the Russian engines because they were better suited to the J-20’s needs.


Despite of the failure of the WS-15, a modified version of the J-10B powered by WS-10B engines, was on display at Zhuhai, stealing the limelight from the J-20 and impressing some of the military experts present with its superfast manoeuvrability.

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Beijing-based military expert Zhou Chenming said: “The J-10 is finally able to show its real fighting capability after being equipped with the new engines.”


Zhou also said the new engine would help its manufacturer, Chengdu Aerospace Corporation, to sell the fighter jets overseas.

A model of a J-20 on show in Zhuhai. Photo: AP

But although models of the J-20 were on display at the air show, it is not expected that China will be exporting the new generation fighter just yet.


“The J-20 is China’s most advanced stealth fighter jet so far. No other the country would sell its most advanced technology to the outside world,” Beijing-based military expert Li Jie said.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: setback for misfiring jet engine