The advances in the aerospace field of the People’s Republic of China are palpable in many areas, one of the most outstanding being the military. This is evidenced by the various developments promoted and carried out that provide the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) with great capabilities. This has been reflected in the introduction of fifth generation fighters such as the Chengdu J-20 and the future Shenyang J-31/J-35, as well as, with a lower profile, the new generation fighters that will rival the NGAD program of the United States. The following is a brief review of the state of progress of the aforementioned programs and projects of the Asian Giant.

Fifth-Generation Fighters J-20 and J-31

China, alongside the US and Russia, is a manufacturer of fifth-generation fighters used primarily for air superiority by the PLA Air Force (PLAAF). As of current reports, China maintains a fleet of approximately two hundred J-20 units, with more in production. Significant efforts include upgrading the original Russian Saturn AL-31 engine to the indigenous Xian WS-10, and future plans for the more efficient WS-15 engine. Despite advancements, recent sightings still show J-20s equipped with WS-10 engines, indicating ongoing development and production adjustments.

Originally powered by a Russian-origin Saturn AL-31 engine, which equipped the first production batches, Chengdu quickly began the process of replacing this powerplant with the locally developed and manufactured Xian WS-10. However, the Chinese company’s most ambitious plans lie in the adoption of the new, more efficient WS-15 engine. The latest reports recorded in 2023 indicated that test flights of the first aircraft had begun, giving rise to a new version of China’s fifth-generation fighter called the “J-20A”. However, despite the announced advances, new aircraft leaving the production plant have been observed still carrying the WS-10 engine.

Regarding the latter, the latest estimates of specialists who closely follow the current state of China’s aerospace development, have mentioned some revisions to the figures and production rates, indicating that the Shenyang facility has already managed to reach the figure of 300 airframes manufactured, counting both those actually delivered to the PLAAF, as well as those in various stages of completion and assembly.

Finally, regarding the J-20, it has been noted that several improvements besides the engine are being introduced in the J-20A, providing it with capabilities similar to those of the U.S. F-35 once it receives the TR-3 upgrade and Block IV modernization. Among these would be the introduction of new materials that would reduce both its radar signature and thermal signature to cope with increasingly sophisticated air defense systems and air-to-air missiles.

The other major breakthrough in China’s aerospace industry is the development of the Shenyang J-35 and FC-31, which, based on the same platform, would seek to meet the requirements of the Navy and the People’s Liberation Army Air Force. In the first case, to provide Chinese aircraft carriers with a true fifth-generation stealth fighter; while, in the second case, to emulate the USAF F-22/F-35 pairing, with the combination of the J-20 and the FC-31, the latter being lighter and more versatile than the former.

It should also be mentioned that the FC-31, like the F-35, would be oriented, unlike the J-20 and F-22, to the export market in order to equip potential allies of China, being Pakistan one of the countries that has expressed its interest. It should be recalled that this country has an important alliance with China, which is reflected in the development of the JF-17 Thunder fighter and in the incorporation of the J-10C in record time.

H-20 Bomber

Another major development project of the People’s Republic of China is the construction of a new strategic stealth bomber. Dubbed the H-20, it would have certain design similarities with the U.S. Air Force’s B-2 Spirit and B-21 Raider bombers. However, to date, no further details have emerged as to its progress. Various specialists have indicated their doubts about the PLA authorities’ willingness to proceed with the project. However, the Chinese regime is famous for its secrecy in matters of national security, as the development and construction of future aircraft carriers beyond the Fujian has shown. At the moment, no further information is known about this ambitious program.

Sixth-Generation Fighters

Still shrouded in secrecy, the development of sixth-generation fighters is undoubtedly the next big bet of the People’s Republic of China. Referred to as J-XD, it is intended to be the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s answer to the U.S. NGAD program. However, this designation has been popularly awarded by various specialists who have echoed this development.

Little is known about this development, other than to presume that it bears similarities with the NGAD, making use of new propulsion, design and stealth technologies, seeking to operate in a multi-domain manner in various fields of operations. It is also not unreasonable to think that it could be the control platform for various swarms of drones emerging from the various Loyal Wingman UAVs currently under development.

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