On September 23 the first images of a new variant of China’s J-20 fifth generation fighter were unveiled showing some of the most significant changes to the design since the aircraft first began to be delivered to the Air Force in 2016. The J-20 has seen its capabilities improve considerably over the past six years, with some of the improvements including integration of enhanced WS-10C engines allowing for supercruise, and the development of a twin seat variant which is expected to serve as an airborne command post and force multiplier for accompanying aircraft. The latest variant is expected to integrate the WS-15 engine, which will reportedly be the most powerful ever integrated onto a twin engine fighter and revolutionise the aircraft’s flight performance and endurance. Notable changes to the design seen on the new airframe – serial number 2051 – include a much flatter low profile canopy which is expected to significant improve the airframe’s stealth capabilities and aerodynamics. This allows for a better blend into the J-20’s raised spine, and mirrors similar changes made on China’s other fifth generation fighter program the FC-31 which is being developed for the Navy and for export.
The J-20 is one of just two fifth generation fighters in the world today both in production and fielded at squadron level strength, alongside the American F-35, and is produced on a much larger scale than any other twin engine fighter class. The aircraft has seen its production scale increase rapidly since the mid 2030s with production currently estimated at around 35 airframes per year – a figure expected to increase further as facilities expand. The fighter reportedly first flew with the WS-15 engine in January 2022, after transitioning to the WS-10B in production in mid 2019, and is expected to continue to see wide ranging improvements to both its airframe and its avionics likely into the 2030s over a production run of several hundred more airframes. Over 200 J-20s are currently thought to be in service, although the aircraft is still significantly outnumbered by the F-35s fleets of the U.S. and its allies in part because the F-35 is a much smaller single engine aircraft designed to be fielded in larger numbers. The F-35 program closely mirrors its direct predecessors the fourth generation F-16 and F-18 in this respect, while the heavyweight J-20 is more comparable to the F-15 as a higher end elite aircraft. Improvements to the J-20 come as the United States continues to invest heavily in improving the F-35, and as both China and the U.S. have emerged effectively in a league fo their own in developing next generation combat aircraft with both competing neck to neck to field the most capable sixth generation fighters from around 2030.