China showed off its Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter in public for the first time on Tuesday, opening the country’s biggest meeting of aircraft makers and buyers with a show of its military might.
Airshow China, in the southern city of Zhuhai, features an array of home-grown military technology including assault vehicles, anti-aircraft missile systems, drones and combats jets, and offers Beijing an opportunity to demonstrate its ambitions in civil aerospace.
Two J-20 jets, Zhuhai’s headline act, swept over dignitaries and hundreds of spectators and industry executives during the show’s opening ceremony in a flypast that barely exceeded a minute, generating a deafening roar that was met with gasps and applause and set off car alarms in a parking lot at the site.
The fighters were not announced on the schedule and appeared in the sky just after a colourful aerobatics show by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force. With no fanfare but an abrupt announcement by the master of ceremonies, the dark, powerful jets rumbled side by side over the spectators. Soon after, one blasted vertically into the sky and the jets were gone.
“It is clearly a big step forward in Chinese combat capability,” said Bradley Perrett of Aviation Week, a veteran China watcher.
Experts say China has been refining designs for the J-20, first glimpsed by plane-spotters in 2010, in the hope of narrowing a military technology gap with the US. President Xi Jinping has pushed to toughen the armed forces as China takes a more assertive stance in Asia, particularly in the South China and East China Seas.
China is also set to overtake the US as the world’s top aviation market in the next decade.
After arriving as a pair at low-level, one of the J-20s quickly disappeared over the horizon, leaving the other to perform a series of turns, revealing its delta wing shape against bright sub-tropical haze.
But analysts said the brief and relatively cautious J-20 routine – the pilots did not open weapon bay doors, or perform low-speed passes – answered few questions.
“I think we learned very little. We learned it is very loud. But we can’t tell what type of engine it has, or very much about the mobility,” said Greg Waldron, Asia managing editor of FlightGlobal. “Most importantly, we didn’t learn much about its radar cross-section.”
A key question is whether the new Chinese fighter can match the radar-evading properties of the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor air-to-air combat jet, or the latest strike jet in the US arsenal, Lockheed’s F-35. The F-22 Raptor, developed for the US Air Force, is the J-20’s closest lookalike.
But the mere display of such a newly developed aircraft was a revealing signal, others said.
“It’s a change of tactics for the Chinese to publicly show off weapons that aren’t in full squadron service yet, and demonstrates a lot of confidence in the capability, and also a lot of pride,” said Sam Roggeveen, a senior fellow at Sydney-based Lowy Institute.
It was China’s second successive display of a new stealth jet at the biennial Zhuhai show, following the 2014 debut of the J-31 or FC-31.
The long-range J-20, armed with air-to-air missiles, performed its first test flight in 2011 and has been the object of feverish attention by China’s aviation buffs. At least six prototypes have been produced, according to an annual report on the Chinese military issued by the Pentagon.
The Pentagon says the FC-31 is intended for export as a competitor to the US F-35. The FC-31 first flew in 2012 and China is the only country apart from the US to have two concurrent stealth aircraft development programmes.
While the J-20’s stealth capabilities remain a secret, the Pentagon said China views the technology as key to its transformation from a “predominantly territorial air force to one capable of conducting both offensive and defensive operations”.
Air force leaders “believe stealth aircraft provide an offensive operational advantage that denies an adversary the time to mobilise and to conduct defensive operations”, said the Pentagon report, which estimated the two Chinese planes could enter service as early as 2018 and would “significantly improve China’s existing fleet of fourth-generation aircraft...to support regional air superiority and strike operations”.
C919 passenger jet absent
It remained unclear whether or how the J-20 would be displayed at the airshow after the flypast.
Aircraft that are officially scheduled to be on display alongside the latest Chinese weapon systems, radar and drones include the Xian Y-20 strategic airlifter, with a maximum takeoff weight of around 200 tonnes, and what organisers say is the largest amphibious plane now in production – the AG600.
The flying boat is officially promoted as a fire-fighting or search and rescue plane. But analysts note the AG600 – first unveiled 10 days after a Hague tribunal ruled against China’s claim to parts of the South China Sea in July – is well suited to resupplying military outposts in the disputed area.
Also featured is the CH-5 unmanned aerial vehicle, China’s largest combat drone, which made its first flight last year and appears to be based on the US MQ-9 Reaper.
Notably absent from the airshow schedule is the 150-seat COMAC C919 passenger jet. Designed to compete with Europe’s Airbus Group and Boeing Co of the US, the rivals who dominate the global supply of airliners, the much-delayed C919 is now running three years behind original plans.
COMAC said at the show that China Eastern Airlines will be the launch customer for the C919, which may take its first test flight later this year or early 2017, and that it had clinched 23 new orders for the jet, taking total firm orders to 517.