First Look at an All New Chinese Fifth Generation Fighter: A Delta Wing J-10 Successor or a Wingman Drone?

A satellite image from Lintao Airbase in China’s Gansu Province has provided a first look at what appears to be a new class of fifth generation fighter, with the appearance of eight stealth airframes on the runway prompting widespread speculation as to what they could be. The aircraft are visibly different from China’s J-20, which is today one of just two fifth generation fighters both in production and fielded at squadron level strength worldwide alongside the American F-35. As the J-20 is a heavyweight twin engine fighter, the possibility of a lighter single engine counterpart being produced as a lower end counterpart with more modest operational costs has long been speculated. The new aircraft has a near perfect cropped delta wing, in contrast to the cranked wing of the J-20 which has a significantly wider fuselage. 

Another possibility is that the new aircraft represent an unmanned design which could potentially serve as a ‘loyal wingman’ to future Chinese fighter units, including for sixth generation fighters currently under development as well as the twin seat J-20AS designed to control such aircraft. A number of Chinese drones have been designed to accompany its fighters most notably the Dark Sword, with the synergy between manned and unmanned designs also being at the core of American sixth generation programs and of its plans to modernise its F-35s. While there has been some speculation that the new aircraft are prototypes, the appearance of eight airframes simultaneously indicates that whatever the program is it may already be past that stage. The possibility has also been raised that the aircraft may not be intended for combat at all, and could be full scale models intended for a film or other purpose which would explain their remote location. This would mirror how the fictional American 'Darkstar' hypersonic fighter created for the film Top Gun Maverick was similarly seen at military facilities from the air and mistaken by some analysts for part of a real weapons program. 

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