Sources say China's J-20 stealth fighter is getting a second seat, and improved, domestically produced jet engines. Credit: Handout.

It looks like China’s J-20 stealth fighter is going it alone.

Normally equipped with imported Russian jet engines, which are known for their low reliability and short service lives, official videos released by its developer and the People’s Liberation Army (PLAAF) Air Force show a two-seat J-20 equipped with a domestically made engine, Global Times reported.

Depicted by computer-generated imagery, four twin-seat J-20 variations were seen flying in formation in a video released by state-owned Aviation Industry Corp of China (AVIC), the developer of the aircraft, on Friday, in celebration of the 10th anniversary on Monday of the original aircraft’s maiden flight.

This is the first time the twin-seat J-20 has been featured in an official promotional source, although media reports had speculated about its existence for years. It will also make the J-20 variation the world’s first twin-seat stealth fighter jet.

By adding another seat to the cockpit, the aircraft could, in exchange for some level of stealth capability and maneuverability, carry a second pilot designated for more complicated tasks such as electronic warfare, command of wingman drones or tactical bombing, a Chinese military analyst told the Global Times.

According to National Interest, the PLAAF was the first foreign customer to import the Su-35, one of Russia’s most advanced air superiority fighters, in a 2015 contract for the procurement of twenty-four units.

But it is reportedly no longer interested in acquiring additional Su-35’s, with sources alleging that China’s domestic aircraft industry has attained similar, if not superior, capabilities with the J-16  strike fighter.

Russia’s AL-31F jet engine comes in slightly different forms, with the differences being mainly in thrust and thrust vectoring. Although powerful, they are known to be unreliable and have short service lives. Credit: File photo.

In a separate video, released by the PLAAF for its pilot recruitment program, Chinese media outlets identified a J-20 that is equipped with domestically developed WS-10C engines (a modified version of its domestically-built WS-10 engine) instead of imported Russian AL-31F engines, Global Times reported.

The AL-31F engine comes in slightly different forms, with the differences being mainly in thrust and thrust vectoring, Defence Blog reported.

Variants with 3-D thrust vectoring enable the aircraft to perform impressive maneuvers as demonstrated at many air shows.

This super-maneuverability allows the fighter to perform exceptionally well in close combat situations. Despite the benefits such an aircraft possesses, the race for generation 5 fighters puts the type and its engine at a disadvantage.

Designed with stealth capability, the WS-10C engines reportedly provide more powerful thrust than the Russian engines previously used on the J-20, since the Chinese engines use full authority digital engine control technology and improved afterburners.

Despite the switch to domestic engines, most military experts say the J-20 is still far inferior to its immediate rival, the USAF’s F-22 Raptor.

The J-20 fuselage, with its double-wing configuration, may be somewhat stealthy, yet it does appear larger and somewhat less maneuverable than a more streamlined F-22 fuselage, National Interest reported.

The F-22 has a 44-ft wingspan and is, at certain high altitudes, able to hit speeds as fast as Mach 2.25. 

Various media reports cite that, by comparison, a J-20 is several meters longer but built with a similar 44-ft wingspan; the reports, from Air Force Technology, say the J-20 can reach speeds of Mach 2.55.

A key F-22 advantage is that it not only can reach those speeds but can sustain them as well.

Also, a slightly shorter, sleeker, and more streamlined fuselage, coupled with potentially unmatched levels of propulsion, thrust, and high-speed maneuverability, could very well give the F-22 a decisive advantage.

Weapons integration, sensor range, EW and targeting are perhaps the most defining attributes likely to help distinguish which aircraft, the J-20 or F-22, would prevail in an air-to-air engagement or out-perform the other in combat.

An ability to see, attack, out-maneuver, and destroy an enemy aircraft at further ranges and with more targeting precision and sensor fidelity would likely prove to perhaps be the most decisive factor in any combat engagement.