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Chinese engineers have struggled to develop a suitable engine for the J-20. Photo: Xinhua

China’s ‘Mighty Dragon’ stealth fighter stretches its wings over a wider area

  • The country’s most advanced fighter, also known as the J-20, is patrolling the South China Sea as well as the East China Sea, the manufacturer has confirmed
  • A press conference also heard that the planes had a ‘Chinese heart’ – or home built engine – a reference to a problem that has long limited their performance
Chinese J-20 stealth fighters have been making regular patrols over the East and South China Seas, the developers have said – the first official confirmation that the country’s most advanced warplane is operating over such a wide area.
The statement also said the planes, also known as Mighty Dragons, were now powered by home-made engines – a reference to a long-standing problem that has hindered its performance.

01:19

China’s PLA Air Force aims to improve pilot training on J-20 fighter jets

China’s PLA Air Force aims to improve pilot training on J-20 fighter jets

“The J-20 has switched to a ‘Chinese heart’ and it has become a training routine to conduct combat patrols in the East China Sea and alert patrols in the South China Sea,” Ren Yukun, a senior official from the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), told a press conference on Tuesday.

“Combat patrols” require a high level of combat readiness, whereas “alert patrols” are mainly for early warning and surveillance.

The PLA has not disclosed the number of J-20s to enter service since they were introduced in 2017, but it is widely estimated to be more than 150 jets.

The Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group, the developer of the J-20 and a AVIC subsidiary, set up a fourth production line in 2019 and began mass production in 2020. Each line has the capacity to make about one J-20 a month.

Ren’s comment was the first confirmation the fighters have been deployed to the Southern Theatre Command although it had previously been reported that they had been operating under the Eastern Command, which is responsible for potential flashpoints such as the Taiwan Strait and the disputed Diaoyu Islands, which are known as the Senkakus in Japan.

Close calls for China’s J-20 before stealth fighter’s deployment, Avic says

US Pacific Air Forces Commander Kenneth S Wilsbach last month told an online conference about a close encounter between J-20s and the most advanced American fighter, the F-35, over the East China Sea.

Ren’s reference to operating with a “Chinese heart” is a common industry term for the switch to domestically produced engines.

The earliest were powered by Russian AL-31F engines and by Chinese WS-10Bs, which were designed for a less advanced fighter. Neither allowed the Mighty Dragon to perform to its full capacity, limiting its manoeuvrability and stealth capability at supersonic speeds.

Work to produce a high-thrust turbofan engine that would allow it to perform at its maximum capacity repeatedly fell behind schedule. The model, known as the WS-15, failed its final evaluation in 2019.

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Mighty Dragon: China’s upgraded J-20 stealth fighter

Mighty Dragon: China’s upgraded J-20 stealth fighter

Instead, engineers have been fitting planes with WS-10C engines, an upgraded version of the original WS-10.

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