Will China Develop a Sixth Generation Tailless Derivative of its J-20 Stealth Fighter? New Images Give Hints

The Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) released footage on January 31 of a tailless fighter jet concept widely speculated by Chinese sources to be associated with the country’s sixth generation fighter development efforts. China and the United States are currently in a neck to neck race to field the world’s first and most capable sixth generation fighters, with senior U.S. Air Force officials having repeatedly warned that China could be the first to induct such an aircraft into service. The two countries are the only ones fielding indigenous fifth generation fighters at squadron level strength, with China producing the heavyweight twin engine J-20 and developing the medium weight FC-31, while the U.S. produces the much lighter single engine F-35.

Tailless airframes are expected to be a key defining feature of sixth generation fighters, and the aircraft images shown by ACIV notably closely resembled the J-20 but with a diamond delta wing design and without tail fins or frontal canards. This has raised the possibility that the J-20 could be used as a basis for developing a sixth generation fighter loosely derived from it. Other sixth generation features, most notably drone control capabilities and directed energy weapons, are thought to currently be under development for the J-20 and could be integrated onto both airframes in the current configuration, and stealthier tailless delta wing derivatives should they materialise. 

Adapting a fifth generation fighter into a tailless airframe for improved stealth capabilities was notably considered in the United States for its own equivalent to the J-20, the F-22, resulting in the X-44 manta program. The design used thrust vectoring to provide yaw, pitch and roll control and thus compensate for a lack of tail and rudder surfaces, although it never came close to a prototype stage. The Manta had begun development in the mid 1990s but was terminated in 2000, more than half a decade before the baseline F-22 had even entered service. The F-22 never progressed to any variants beyond the basic F-22A single seat fighter, with production terminated early due to wide ranging issues with the aircraft. The first F-22s are scheduled to be retired later in 2023, after completing just a short fraction of their service lives.

A J-20 derivative analogous to the X-44, albeit with sixth generation avionics and sensors, could serve as a stopgap until a clean sheet sixth generation fighter design is developed, or else provide a lower end and cheaper alternative to such a fighter. With America’s own sixth generation fighter expected to cost several hundred million dollars per airframe, and well over a billion dollars over each aircraft’s lifetime, a sixth generation J-20 derivative could provide a much more cost effective means of achieving sixth generation level stealth capabilities. It could see production transitioned to it from current baseline J-20s much more easily, and potentially have significant commonalities in maintenance. While there is little doubt that sixth generation fighter development is a priority for the defence sectors of China as well as the United States, both the nature of AVIC’s images and how closely the design in question is related to the J-20 remain uncertain.