2012-07-08 — (ft.com and By Kathrin Hille) When, in January 2011, China publicised the first test flight of the stealth fighter it is developing, the fact that the J-20 was advanced enough to get off the ground surprised many in the aviation world.
Since then, the Chengdu-made aircraft has had more practice. According to Chinese state media the first prototype completed its 60th test flight late last year and the second of four prototypes started test flights this year.
In addition, military experts in China say the country is developing a second lighter-weight stealth fighter, the J-60.
Without doubt, these projects are powerful symbols of China’s emerging military might.
“It puts China in the company of very few nations that have the wealth and the determination to develop such a programme,” says Tim Huxley, head of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in Asia.
The only potential rivals for the J-20 are the Lockheed Martin-produced F-22 Raptor and a stealth fighter under joint development by Russia and India.
But, while the January 2011 surprise showed the risk of underestimating China’s military development programmes, experts now say they should not be overestimated either.
The Pentagon has said it expects the J-20 to be operational no sooner than 2018 – in line with an estimate given by the Chinese deputy air force chief in 2009.
Tai Ming Cheung, an expert on the Chinese military’s technological development at the University of California in San Diego, says: “Whether the Pentagon’s estimate that the J-20 will go into service by 2018 is accurate is anyone’s guess, but my sense is that is wildly optimistic.”
Pointing to the gap of more than a decade between the first flight of the US F-22 fighter and its coming into service, he argues the J-20 will have at least a decade of testing and evaluation before it is ready for production.
“Finding the right engines remains a major obstacle. The [domestically made] WS-10 is still plagued by problems, especially of high quality manufacturing, and there appears to be no quick fix in sight,” he says. “The J-20 is a leading priority in the 12th Five Year defence development plan, so will require plenty of funding and high leadership attention.”