Skip to content Skip to footer

China’s New Fighters Emerge

Last week, photos emerged of two new fighters from China’s burgeoning aerospace industry: the twin-seat variant of the Chengdu J-20, and, potentially, the carrier-borne J-XY (or J-35).

If the images are conclusive, they would signify two significant advances for China. First, the approaching availability of a twin-seat, stealthy combat aircraft. Second, a homegrown carrier-borne multirole fighter tailored for the specific needs of the People’s Army Liberation Navy (PLAN).

Twin-Seat J-20

The Chengdu J-20 was the first of China’s next-generation fighter aircraft (NGFA) out of the gate. The J-20 technology demonstrator flew in 2012. China officially debuted the J-20 at the 2016 Zhuhai Air Show. By 2018, reports had emerged of operational People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) units receiving J-20 aircraft. Based on information from Chinese defence observers, it seems that the J-20 is not yet a mainstay asset like the J-10, J-11 or J-16-series of fighters, but it is percolating into a growing number of units.

The growing adoption of the J-20 could be driving the development of a twin-engine variant. Interestingly, one does need a twin-seater for training. To-date, NGFA users around the world (entirely F-35 users) have been content with simulators. With this variant of the J-20, China will be the first with a twin-seat NGFA.

However, it would be unwise to assume that training could be the sole role of the twin-seat J-20. Rather, the PLAAF could be looking at a wider array of mission scenarios. In fact, the PLAAF uses twin-seat variants of its Flanker-series – i.e., J-11BS and J-16 – for strike and electronic attack (EA) missions. It is possible that the twin-seat J-20 could potentially take on similar roles in the future.

It is worth noting that the J-20 seems to be in a size and weight class as the Flanker-series. It uses the WS-10-series turbofan engines, for example. The J-20’s range and payload are not known. However, even if the J-20’s payload and/or range are lower than that of the Flanker-series, it could still be one of the larger stealthy aircraft flying in the world. Though it would start with a focus on air-to-air, the J-20 could evolve into a strike and special mission (e.g., EA) aircraft in the coming years.

Alternatively, the twin-seat J-20 could open the door to new air combat concepts. Like the United States, China is heavily focusing on incorporating drones, sensor-fusion, and automation into its air missions. The twin-seater could facilitate the design and application of those concepts into more tangible outcomes. It could support testing and development, or potentially, support actual frontline operations.

Interestingly, China is treading on the path of being among the first to deploy such systems. It would be a country that is shaping what the future could look like and, in turn, defining the best practices. Ironically, it might put the rest of the world in the less familiar situation of potentially emulating the Chinese.


Recently, a photo of an apparent FC-31 variant emerged online. Chinese defence observers suggest that the variant in question is the J-XY/J-35, the forthcoming carrier-borne fighter for the PLAN. The FC-31 is a demonstrator for a twin-engine, medium-weight multi-role fighter with stealthy design elements, such as an internal weapons bay and low radar cross-section (RCS) attributes, among others.

The Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) had pitched the FC-31 as a stealthy multirole fighter for the export market. However, the FC-31 did not catch a co-development/funding partner as intended. But AVIC’s Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC) continued developing the platform on its own budget.

Eventually, the PLAN and, potentially, PLAAF adopted the FC-31, but with additional changes. In the case of the PLAN, the FC-31 would evolve into a larger fighter for carrier operations. Compared to the original FC-31, the J-XY/J-35 seems to have an enlarged airframe (notably a larger nose radome) and a potentially revised canopy/cockpit area. However, if the aircraft is meant for carrier operations, it will have many less apparent design changes too. For example, it would have a reinforced airframe to sustain hard landings, and – as the images suggest – foldable wings and special gear-equipment (like a launch bar).

Reportedly, AVIC/SAC is developing a land-based variant for the PLAAF. It may be designated the J-21 or J-31. It is not known how SAC will develop this variant. It will not incorporate the carrier-specific elements of the ‘J-35’, but the same enlarged airframe, revised canopy/front-fuselage area, and engines could carry through in the land-based variant. The land-based variant may also form the basis of the export fighter.

It will be interesting to see how China manages the J-21/J-31. The idea behind it could be to build a next-generation mainstay fighter for the PLAAF. However, would the PLAAF demand it as heavily as it had the J-10-series? Until very recently, the J-10B/C production line was entirely committed to supporting PLAAF orders. The technology gap between the J-10B/C and the PLAAF’s legacy fighters (e.g., J-7) is arguably far greater than the gap between the J-10B/C and the J-21/J-31. Yes, the latter is stealthy, but both aircraft benefit from largely comparable internal subsystems and weapon configuration options, albeit in the early stages or versions of the J-21/J-31. The gap will widen over the long-term.

In addition, if the J-21/J-31 is available for export from the start, the Chinese will have the sole ITAR-free NGFA on the market. The Chinese would have a clear competitive edge and, potentially, a chance to totally eclipse the Russians in their own key markets (e.g., Algeria, Egypt, and Iraq). It would not make any sense for Beijing to ignore the market potential as it would garner both major commercial and political gains. It will also have a significant head-start over Russia’s Project Checkmate offering.

China could heavily invest in full-scale J-21/J-31 production for both domestic and export needs. In other words, the J-21/J-31 could potentially be the most extensively manufactured fighter in the world, second only to perhaps the F-35. Obviously, it would depend on how early the Chinese can secure major orders. Early orders from its main buyer, Pakistan, would jolt such an investment, but the chances of equally large (or bigger) purchases from Algeria, Egypt, Iraq and others would be key to driving the commercial growth of China’s defence aerospace industry.

The world is now reaching the prospect where countries that are not key U.S. allies or Western states can acquire relatively sophisticated, game-changing military equipment. Between new long-range surface-to-air missiles (SAM) like the HQ-9BE to a vast line-up of armed drones to now stealthy fighters, Beijing is not holding anything back from the market. If Beijing can match the demand and facilitate transactions with financing programs, it will both grow its industry and instigate significant shifts in security dynamics in South Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and potentially even Sub-Saraha Africa.

Show CommentsClose Comments

Leave a comment