Chinese Jet Fighters: JH-7, J-10, & J-20

v1.0.0 / 01 sep 15 / greg goebel

* The Chinese Communist regime established by Mao Zedong began its existence heavily dependent on Soviet-made weapon systems, particularly combat aircraft, obtaining such machines directly from the USSR, and then building them on their own. Gradually the Chinese aircraft industry matured, with the Chinese turning out enhanced derivatives of Soviet designs -- and now, in the post-Mao era, completely Chinese-designed aircraft.

Of course such Chinese designs include fighter aircraft, including the Xian "JH-7 Flying Leopard" strike fighter; the "J-10 Lively Dragon" multirole fighter; and the "J-20 Mighty Dragon" stealth fighter prototype. This document provides a history and description of the JH-7, J-10, and J-20.

Chengdu J-10



* The Chinese were very enthusiastic about the Soviet Mikoyan MiG-19 supersonic fighter, the Chinese Shenyang aircraft organization building it as the "Jianjiji / Jian (Fighter) Type 6" or "J-6". Indeed, although the Soviets saw the MiG-19 as an interim type and did not pursue advanced variants, the Chinese took the design much further by designing a two-seat advanced trainer, the "Jianjiji Jiaolianji (Fighter Trainer) Type 6" or "JJ-6", and a considerably revised attack derivative of the J-6, the Nanchang "Qianjiji (Attack) Type 5" or "Q-5".

The Q-5 became an important strike asset for both the Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and the People's Liberation Army Naval Air Force (PLANAF). However, its only real virtues were sturdiness and low cost; it couldn't carry a heavy warload and lacked range. Following armed squabbles with the Vietnamese in the South China Sea in 1974 that revealed deficiencies in Chinese combat capabilities, work began on a much improved strike fighter -- a two-seat aircraft with a hefty warload and long range. In 1976, a request for proposals (RFP) was sent out to Chinese aircraft design organizations; in 1977, the proposal submitted by the Xian Aircraft Factory was accepted for further development. At the outset it was seen effectively as a pure bomber, with the aircraft to be designated "Hongzhaji / Hong (Bomber) Type 7" or "H-7".

The PLAAF and the PLANAF had different requirements, and so Xian engineers designed two different variants -- one with side-by-side seating for the PLAAF, the other with tandem seating for the PLANAF. However, at that time China was only just emerging from the turmoil of the disastrous Cultural Revolution, initiated by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Chairman Mao Zedong in 1966, which had done much to reduce the country to chaos for a decade. Getting things done was difficult enough, and the Xian design was also of Chinese origin, not a derivative of a Soviet type, presenting a challenge to the inexperienced Chinese aviation industry. Developing two different variants was simply too much, and the program went nowhere in any hurry.

By the early 1980s, it was apparent that both variants could not be implemented, and PLAAF interest in the H-7 gradually faded out. However, the Chinese military took careful notice of the 1982 Falklands War between Britain and Argentina, paying considerable attention to the Argentine use of French-made Exocet antiship missiles against British vessels. Chinese maritime war planning was revised to focus on antiship missiles, and that implied obtaining an air platform that could carry and launch them. Accordingly, the PLANAF pushed development of the H-7, the concept being revised to a multirole configuration and accordingly redesignated "Jian Hong (Fighter Bomber) Type 7" or "JH-7".

* The development program then got out of its holding pattern and began to move forward. Subsystems for the JH-7 were evaluated on various trials aircraft such as the H-5 torpedo bomber -- a Chinese copy of the Soviet Il-28 Beagle bomber -- and the JJ-6 advanced trainer, while tests were performed of the Chinese-made WS-6 afterburning bypass turbojet, expected to be the powerplant for the JH-7. However, Chinese engine development was also inexperienced and the WS-6 would never go into production; the British Rolls-Royce Spey Mark 202 engine was selected instead, with development to be performed on Speys acquired from the UK and, in principle, production to use Chinese-built copies. The Spey wasn't a particularly modern engine, but it was known to be reliable, and it specifications were an adequate fit for the mission.

It appears that five JH-7 prototypes were built, the first flight being on 14 December 1988. Development continued to be protracted, with the JH-7 not being formally accepted into service until 1998, though it appears it was in PLANAF squadron service by 1994. It was followed by a "JH-7A", essentially the mature production version of the JH-7, which entered service in 2004. The earlier-production JH-7s were apparently given partial upgrades to bring them closer to JH-7A spec.

Xian JH-7

Over a hundred JH-7/7A strike fighters have been built to date; it has been offered for export sales as the "FBC-1 Flying Leopard", but there have been no export users. It was assigned the NATO codename of "Flounder", though it is often, at least informally, known by the "Flying Leopard" name.



* The JH-7A proved to be somewhat muscular-looking combat jet made mostly of aircraft aluminum alloys, featuring a slab-sided fuselage; all-swept flight surfaces with a high wing; twin engines fed by dee-style inlets on the sides of the fuselage behind the cockpit; and tandem seating. Each wing has a sweepback of 45 degrees at quarter-chord, with a small "leading edge root extension" featuring greater sweep. The wing arrangement is simple, with ailerons and large one-piece flaps, but no leading-edge control surfaces; the wings have a strong anhedral droop. The tailfin has a prominent forward fillet, and the tailplanes are "all moving". There are twin fixed ventral fins under the tail -- the JH-7 only had one ventral fin -- and airbrakes top and bottom just forward of the engine exhausts, for a total of four airbrakes.

Each of the engines provides 54.51 kN (5,550 kgp / 12,250 lbf) dry thrust and 91.29 kN (9,300 kgp / 20,515 lbf) afterburning thrust. The dee-type inlets are of fixed configuration, with splitter plates to avoid ingestion of stagnant "boundary layer" air, and two prominent auxiliary doors on the side of each engine nacelle, forward of the wing.

Xian JH-7

Originally the powerplants were Spey Mark 202s obtained from Rolls-Royce in Britain, with the plan being to produce them in China, but copying the Spey proved difficult and additional Speys had to be purchased to support the JH-7 program -- most of the engines being refurbished units from retired British Phantom fighters. The locally-produced version, the WS-9, was not introduced until after the turn of the century; that was an embarrassment, but manufacturing the Spey did prove a significant learning experience for the Chinese jet engine industry.

All landing gear has twin wheels, clearly for operation off of rough airstrips, the nose gear retracting backward and the main gear retracting up and forward into the fuselage. On the approach, with gear down, the JH-7A has an unmistakeable resemblance to an Anglo-French two-seat SEPECAT Jaguar strike fighter, the resemblance not being so strong from other angles. The Jaguar was obviously seen as a model of the sort of aircraft the Chinese wanted to build, though it would be absurd to call the Flying Leopard a "copy" of the Jaguar in any significant way. It could be thought of as a "Jaguar on steroids", the JH-7A having an empty weight about twice that of the Jaguar.

JH-7 versus Jaguar

The two aircrew sit on zero-zero (zero-altitude zero-speed) ejection seats, under individual rear-hinged clamshell canopies. The seats are offset to give the back-seater a better forward view. Avionics of the JH-7A are state-of-the-art for Chinese technology, featuring:

   XIAN JH-7A:
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________
   spec                    metric              english
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________

   wingspan                12.7 meters         41 feet 8 inches
   wing area               52.3 sq_meters      563 sq_feet   
   length                  22.325 meters       73 feet 3 inches
   height                  6.575 meters        21 feet 7 inches

   empty weight            14,500 kilograms    31,900 pounds
   MTO weight              28,475 kilograms    62,775 pounds

   max speed at altitude   1,210 KPH           750 MPH / 655 KT
   service ceiling         15,600 meters       51,180 feet
   combat radius           1,650 kilometers    1,025 MI / 890 NMI
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________

The JH-7A has internal armament, in the form of a two-barreled Type 23-III "teeter-totter" cannon, a variant of the Soviet GSh-23 cannon, on the lower right side of the fuselage, roughly near the wing leading edge -- a position that no doubt reduced problems with engine gun gas ingestion. All stores are carried externally. Stores attachments include:

The JH-7A can carry AAMs, typically a short-range AAM on each wingtip station and a larger AAM on each outboard wing pylon. Possible AAM armaments include:

Offensive weapons include iron bombs, cluster munitions, guided bombs, unguided rocket pods, antiship missiles, and anti-radar missiles. Total external warload is given as a hefty 8 tonnes (8.8 tons). It can also be configured for the electronic warfare (EW) role, carrying jamming pods on its underwing pylons.

JH-7 external stores

While a capable aircraft and certainly a big step forward for the Chinese aircraft industry, the Flying Leopard is a design rooted in the 1960s and 1970s, technologically a contemporary of the Jaguar, and well behind the times for the 21st century. Although it may receive upgrades to keep it in service, China has moved on to more sophisticated aircraft, and it's hard to say how long the JH-7 will stay in service.



* During the Mao years, the PLAAF focused on the J-6 fighter and the more modern "J-7" fighter, which started life as a Chinese-built Mikoyan MiG-21. The Chinese would considerably enhance the J-7 design, leading to the "JF-17 / FC-1" lightweight fighter" and the "FTC-2000 / FL-9" fighter trainer. The Chinese also developed a heavy interceptor, the "F-8", which started life more or less as a scaled-up twin-engine J-7 / MiG-21. From the 1990s, the PLAAF began to acquire more modern and formidable fighters, focusing on derivatives of the Russian Sukhoi Su-27, built in China as the "J-11", as twin-engine heavy fighter / fighter-bomber assets. The PLAAF was also supporting in parallel the development of a smaller single-engine fighter, seeking a design of Chinese origin.

Work on the single-engine fighter began in 1983 as "Project 10", with an RFP released specifying a jet fighter comparable to those possessed by potential adversaries -- such as the F-16, F/A-18, Mirage 2000, MiG-29. The major Chinese aircraft organizations responded with proposals, with the Chengdu organization's proposal selected for further development in 1984. Development was protracted, with engine development problems apparently being a significant cause of delays, but the first prototype of the "J-10A Meng Long (Vigorous / Energetic / Lively Dragon)" was, according to official records, rolled out in 1997, with the first flight on 23 March 1998, test pilot Le Qiangjia at the controls.

Estimates of the number of prototypes run to about a half-dozen, with these machines inelegantly taking to the air in yellow primer paint. Following the end of initial trials in early 2003, a number of aircraft were provided to a PLAAF operational conversion unit, with the J-10A then entering PLAAF line service in 2004. In the meantime, work had been proceeding on a two-seat version, the "J-10S", with the initial prototype performing its first flight in late 2003 and the variant introduced to service in 2006.

J-10 versus Typhoon

* As it emerged, the J-10 is an attractive canard-delta machine, with a configurational -- though not detail -- similarity to the European Typhoon advanced fighter. It has:

Each wing features an inboard and outboard control surface on the trailing edge of the wing -- usually referred to as "elevons" for "elevator-ailerons", but the distinction between flaps, elevators, and ailerons can get confusing in a canard delta machine. The wing also has a drooping leading-edge flap on the outer two-thirds of its span. The inboard section of the wing has an anhedral droop while the outboard section is flat, giving the wing a slight "inverted gull" configuration.

Chengdu J-10A

The powerplant is the Russian AL-31FN afterburning bypass turbojet, providing 79.54 kN (8,100 kgp / 17,860 lbf) dry thrust and 122.6 kN (12,500 kgp / 27,560 lbf) afterburning thrust. It seems difficulties with Chinese development of an adequate powerplant almost killed the J-10 program, with acquisition of the Russian powerplant keeping it alive. The Chinese are now pushing forward on engine development to get rid of their dependency on foreign technology.

   _____________________   _________________   _______________________
   spec                    metric              english
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________

   wingspan                9.75 meters         32 feet
   wing area               33.1 sq_meters      356.3 sq_feet   
   length                  15.49 meters        50 feet 10 inches
   height                  5.43 meters         17 feet 10 inches

   empty weight            9,750 kilograms     21,495 pounds
   MTO weight              19,275 kilograms    42,500 pounds

   max speed at altitude   Mach 2.2
   service ceiling         18,000 meters       59,400 feet
   combat radius           550 kilometers      340 MI / 300 NMI
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________

Avionics configuration is unclear, evident features being a glass cockpit with HUD and HOTAS controls, plus a planar-array multimode radar and a defensive countermeasures system. The aircraft is dynamically unstable, with a digital fly-by-wire system to keep it in the air.

The J-10 has a twin-barrel Type 23 23-millimeter cannon on the belly, offset to the left. There's a centerline pylon, primarily for a belly tank, and pairs of small pylons fore and aft of the centerline store on the belly. Each wing has three stores pylons, the innermost being "wet" for an external tank.

Typical armament configurations seen on the J-10 strongly suggest it is seen as an air superiority / control asset. It can carry the PL-5 and PL-8 heat-seeking AAMs -- photos suggest the PL-8 is the preferred store -- as well as the PL-11 Aspide / Sparrow derivative, and the newer PL-12 -- also a preferred store, along the lines of the US AIM-120 AMRAAM and featuring an active radar seeker. A full warload includes a PL-8 on each outer pylon, for a total of two; a PL-12 on each midwing pylon and on the four fuselage "corner" pylons, for a total of six; and an external tank on each inner pylon and on the centerline pylon, for a total of three.

Presumably the J-10 will be able to carry the leading-edge PL-21, a very long range AAM featuring rocket-ramjet propulsion, along the lines of the MBDA Meteor BVRAAM. For some time, it was difficult to see that the J-10 had an air-to-ground capability, beyond unguided rocket pods -- a fairly easy store to handle, since they can be aimed by a gunsight -- but in 2013, one was photographed with a targeting pod on an under-intake pylon, indicating an ability to carry and target smart munitions.

Chengdu J-10S

The J-10S two-seater is generally similar to the single-seater, except of course for the tandem-seat cockpit, as well as a noticeable dorsal spine. It appears that the initial use of the two-seater was for conversion training, but it has obvious potential as a multirole aircraft -- indeed, had it been intended primarily as a trainer, it would have had a designation along the lines of "JJ-10". A photo of a J-10S is available showing it kitted up with targeting pods on the forward fuselage pylons, as well as air-to-surface stores. The two-seat configuration of the J-10S makes it better suited to the attack role, with a weapons system operator in the back seat targeting and directing weapons. However, it's unclear just how well developed this "Strike Dragon" configuration really is.

* Several hundred J-10s are now in PLAAF service, with the type notably being used as the mount for the PLAAF "August 1" flight-demonstration team, having replaced the J-7 / MiG-21 in that role from 2009. These six machines are painted in spiffy blue-white-red colors and carry smoke generators to "wow the crowd". Incidentally, the significance of the date is that it is the formal birthday of the PLAAF. It appears that the PLANAF also operates the type, with the single-seater for the PLANAF being the "J-10AH", and the two-seater being the "J-10SH". An improved "J-10B" is now being introduced, with:

The J-10B has also been tested with the Shenyang-Limbing WS-10A bypass turbojet, suggesting the Chinese engine industry is now close to supplying advanced engines at least competitive with Russian technology. There is talk of an "FC-20" variant for the export market.



* In the late 1990s, the PLAAF initiated programs to develop a "fifth generation" fighter to compete with the US Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and other emerging equivalents. A decade later, after evaluating candidate designs from the Shenyang and Chengdu organizations, the PLAAF selected the Chengdu design for further development. By 2010 two prototypes of the Chengdu "J-20 Mighty Dragon" had been rolled out, with the initial flight of the type on 11 January 2011, test pilot Li Gang at the controls. It was assigned the NATO codename of "Black Eagle", clearly in honor of the black colors of the prototypes. A second prototype took to the air in May 2012, followed by a third of refined configuration, with many tweaky airframe changes, in March 2014, and then a similar fourth prototype in July 2014. Two further prototypes appeared in late 2015.

Not much has been officially announced on the J-20, and so all that can be said about it is conjectural, based on imagery released of the aircraft -- though there's been considerable imagery released, providing a good set of clues. The configuration of the J-20 is straightforward, being a twin-engine canard-configuration aircraft featuring blended contours, with twin tailfins and matching fixed ventral fins. The demonstrators probably have significant titanium elements, but modest use of composites, the Chinese being judged as lagging in the moment in development of composite aircraft structures.

Chengdu J-20

The wing arrangement is like that of the J-10, with twin control surfaces on the trailing edge of the wing and a full-span drooping leading-edge flap. The tailfins and canards are of "all-moving" configuration; the ventral fins are fixed. The J-20 has tricycle landing gear, all gear assemblies having single wheels, the nose gear retracting forward, the main gear tucking up and forward into the sides of the fuselage; the gear doors have sawtooth "stealthy" edges. Twin cruciform drag chutes can be deployed to reduce landing roll. The cockpit has a single-piece canopy that hinges up from the rear. The refined third prototype featured alterations to flight surfaces, revised landing gear door configuration and canopy, plus additional "warts" on the aircraft for combat avionics systems.

It appears that one of the demonstrators was initially fitted with Russian-built AL-31FN afterburning bypass turbojets, as used by the J-10, while the other was fitted with Chinese WS-10A engines. With such engines, it is arguable if the J-20 is capable of non-afterburning supersonic cruise. The production powerplant is envisioned as the more powerful WS-10G with thrust-vectoring nozzles.

   _____________________   _________________   _______________________
   spec                    metric              english
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________

   wingspan                12.88 meters        42 feet 3 inches
   wing area               59 sq_meters        630 sq_feet   
   length                  21.26 meters        69 feet 6 inches
   height                  4.45 meters         14 feet 7 inches

   empty weight            17,000 kilograms    37,480 pounds
   MTO weight              36,285 kilograms    80,000 pounds

   max speed at altitude   2,100 KPH           1,305 MPH / 1,135 KT
   service ceiling         18,000 meters       59,400 feet
   range                   3,400 kilometers    2,115 MI / 1,840 NMI
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________

As far as other basic elements of the aircraft, when not actually specified they could be assumed: zero-zero ejection seat; glass cockpit with wide-screen color flat-panel displays, HUD, helmet-mounted sight, and HOTAS controls; a flight processor system and multiplex digital fly-by-wire system; plus modern countermeasures kit. The J-20 is believed to be designed to carry a multimode active-array radar of Chinese manufacture, but being a demonstrator, it's unclear just how much operational kit has been crammed into it. There are also windows on the fuselage that have been judged to be for a "distributed aperture" threat-warning system.

The J-20 is intended to be fitted with an internal cannon, presumably a single 30 millimeter rapid-firing weapon. There's a large weapons bay in the belly -- for long-range AAMs such as the PL-12 or PL-21, or offensive stores -- flanked by a small weapon bay -- for a short-range AAM, such as the new PL-10, an agile weapon along the lines of the British ASRAAM or US AIM-9X, cued by a helmet-mounted sight. The aircraft features eight hardpoints for external stores carriage.

Chengdu J-20

There's some puzzling over the specific role intended for the J-20; while seemingly well-suited as a stealthy strike asset, the carriage of long-range AAMs suggests it may also be seen as a long-range interceptor to neutralize enemy air assets. PLAAF brass have claimed a next-generation fighter, meaning the production version of the J-20, should enter service in the 2017:2019 timeframe; US intelligence believes that forecast is likely accurate. The Chinese have made it clear they have no intention of exporting the type.

* Conjectures about the J-20 are all over the map, some claiming it is substantially bigger than the US F-22A, while estimates of the J-20's empty weight show it to be smaller. Obviously, all conjectures have to be taken with a grain of salt: even if some of the commentators know what they're talking about, it's difficult to sort them out from those who don't. There have been suggestions that much of the technology was stolen -- possibly -- and that the J-20 is too far ahead of Chinese technological capabilities to be practical to produce -- we'll see. Certainly it can be said that, given the expense of fifth generation fighters, it may never serve in large numbers even if it does reach production. However, even if the J-20 never proceeds beyond a demonstrator, no doubt it will prove a useful learning exercise for China's aircraft industry.



* To amplify the puzzles posed by the J-20, in the summer of 2012, the Chinese unveiled another stealth demonstrator, the Shenyang "J-31", the designation being tentative. It was characterized a "lightweight fighter", of stealthy configuration, with twin engines and twin tailfins like the J-20, but with all-moving tailplanes instead of canards, having some resemblance to a US F-35 fighter, but with twin engines.

The J-31 is said to be powered by twin Klimov RD-93 afterburning bypass turbojets with about 83.4 kN (8,500 kgp / 18,740 lbf) thrust. Photos of the demonstrator and models suggest it is intended for carrier operations, or at least could have a version supporting carrier operations, with twin-wheel nosegear to handle carrier smackdowns and an arresting hook. Models show it to have four stores pylons under each wing and dual side-by-side internal weapons bays in the fuselage. It may be targeted to the export market. A model of an export "FC-31" has also been displayed, featuring a number of refinements.

Shenyang J-31

There have also been announcements that Chengdu is developing an advanced vertical-takeoff & landing (VTOL) fighter, an announcement having been made that the organization is developing an engine for a VTOL machine. There have long been rumors that the Chinese might be developing a derivative of the Russian Yakovlev Yak-41 -- a VTOL fighter developed before the collapse of the USSR -- though notional designs released so far suggest an aircraft along the lines of the US Lockheed Martin F-35B, but with canard foreplanes. Other rumors suggest the designation of the machine is "J-18", but for now, all we can do is wait and see.

* As concerns copyrights and permissions for this document, all illustrations and images credited to me are public domain. I reserve all rights to my writings. However, if anyone does want to make use of my writings, just contact me, and we can chat about it. I'm lenient in giving permissions, usually on the basis of being properly credited.

* Sources include:

The online Wikipedia and several volumes of JANE'S ALL THE WORLD'S AIRCRAFT were also mined for details.

* Revision history:

   v1.0.0 / 01 sep 15