Laser Weapons and Drone Command Centre Expected New Features for China’s J-20 Stealth Fighter

The Chengdu J-20 fifth generation stealth fighter is currently one of just two aircraft of its generation in production and fielded at squadron level strength, and has served in the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force since March 2017. The fighter has continued to be modernised extensively since then, benefitting from integration of new WS-10C engines and with a twin seat variant, thought to be called J-20S, seeing its first flight in October 2021. The aircraft is expected to remain in production for several decades, in contrast to its American counterpart the F-22 which saw orders to terminate production given less than four years after it entered service, with new features intended for the aircraft being widely speculated. While the J-20 is expected to comfortably have superiority over fourth generation fighters in the event of a conflict, which make up the very large majority of those operated by potential adversaries, and has significantly more sophisticated avionics than the F-22 which lacks basic features such as helmet mounted sights or modern data links, the aircraft’s upgrades will likely account for the possible need to go head to head with enemy F-35s and upcoming sixth generation fighters. The need to counter them has led some to speculate that the J-20 could eventually be considered a ‘5+ generation’ fighter since, much like the F-35, its advantages over baseline fifth generation designs such as the F-22 are becoming increasingly significant. 

Experts cited by China’s Global Times state media outlet have predicted some of the new technologies which the J-20 could integrate to improve its performance. Among the features expected are directed-energy weapons - most likely lasers- as well as new variants of the fighter designed for airborne early warning (AEW) and to operate as drone controllers. Chinese military expert Wang Mingliang, for one, predicted that energy weapons could be an important feature on the fighter in future. "I believe our industrial departments can turn some of our ideas into reality, including those from the current trend of aviation main battle equipment," he said in an interview with state media outlet CCTV. Chinese defence manufacturers have publicly displayed laser defence systems in the past, the technologies from which could potentially influence a future laser defence system for the J-20. The integration of new WS-15 engines, which were first seen in flight testing in January 2022, could be an important stepping stone to integrating such weapons by providing considerably more power to the aircraft.

While variants of the J-20 for drone control and airborne early warning have long been speculated, the first flight of a twin seat variant of the fighter could serve as an important stepping stone to such a capability, with the twin seat variant expected to serve as the basis for these future programs. The WS-15 engine could again be a key facilitator as the larger sensor suite on an AEW variant would likely require significantly more power. Airborne early warning aircraft act as effective airborne command posts and force multipliers, using their sensors to detect threats and targets further away than fighters can, coordinate operations and even direct anti aircraft missiles in flight. While China already fields one of the world's most formidable AEW fleet, the J-20 could be the world's first such aircraft with stealth capabilities which will be an important addition to the survivability of a traditionally vulnerable kind of platform.

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