The Red Falcon Air Demonstration Team of the People's Liberation Army Air Force conducts an aerial performance at the opening ceremony of the 13th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition, or Airshow China 2021, in Zhuhai, South China's Guangdong Province. Credit: Xinhua photo.

If there was any doubt that China’s J-20 stealth aircraft is a capable match for its US counterpart, the F-22 Raptor, those doubts were blown away this week at Airshow China 2021, Global Times reported.

As thousands of guests, visitors and journalists looked on under strict epidemic prevention measures, two J-20 Mighty Dragons made their debut with domestically built, Chinese jet engines.

Officially called the 13th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province, the week-long event kicked off with a performance of six J-10 fighter jets of the Red Falcon People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force Aerobatics team, followed by two J-20 fighters that suddenly appeared from the clouds.

Due to the cloudy weather conditions, the aircraft were only able to perform what is referred to as a low-altitude show, but that seemed to excite the gathered crowd even more, as the jets darted over their heads with thrilling, 100-metre fly-bys, before spiralling back into the clouds.

Following the J-20s, a JL-10 advanced trainer jet put up an outstanding performance, including challenging maneuvers like the dramatic tail slide.

Aircraft including K-8 trainer jets from the PLA Air Force Aviation University’s Red Eagle Aerobatics Team and the Wing Loong II armed reconnaissance drone also performed.

This is also the first time a large drone has made a flight performance at the Airshow China, indicating Chinese drone’s reliability, analysts said.

China’s most advanced J-20 stealth fighter jets powered by domestic engines, made their debut at the opening ceremony of the China Airshow 2021 in the host city Zhuhai, South China’s Guangdong Province. Photo: Cui Meng/Global Times.

Senior Colonel Li Jikuan, commander of the J-20s’ flight performance, said at a press conference that the aerobatic moves that the J-20 made showed the outstanding performance of the aircraft at low altitude and high speed.

“This is the first time the J-20 has performed in public after it was fitted with domestically built engines,” Li added. 

Song Zhonping, a Chinese military expert and TV commentator, told the Global Times that switching to Chinese engines means this will significantly contribute to the mass production and the performance boost of the aircraft.

The added thrust will also help the J-20 in combat maneuvering and in supersonic cruise mode, Song said.

With serrated nozzles, the new engines will improve the J-20’s stealth capability, since such a design can reflect radar waves to some tight angles, reducing the detection range of hostile radar systems.

The Chengdu J-20, which has only emerged in the last five years or so, is much newer than an F-22 Raptor stealth fighter, according to The National Interest.

A key advantage of the F-22 jet is that not only can it hit extremely high speeds, but it can also sustain them as well. 

But with the introduction of a domestically built engine — likely the WS-10C, which replaces the Russian AL-31F — the playing field may have just changed.

Concept art of the HT-1E ship-borne universal vertical launch system in action Photo: Courtesy of CASIC.

Weapons integration, sensor range, electronic warfare, and targeting are also defining attributes that help distinguish which aircraft has the advantage.

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

But, in the words of one of the greatest fighter pilots of all time, Chuck Yeager:

“I have flown in just about everything, with all kinds of pilots in all parts of the world – British, French, Pakistani, Iranian, Japanese, Chinese – and there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between any of them except for one unchanging, certain fact: the best, most skillful pilot has the most experience.”

In other words, it’s not the metal surrounding the pilot, or the fancy bells and whistles in the cockpit, it’s the man or woman in that seat, that makes the difference.

In other Airshow China news:

  • The Chinese army’s new-generation service rifle, the QBZ191 5.8mm automatic rifle, and two new rifles in the 191 series, made its debut. The new weapons are designed and manufactured by the China North Industries Group Corporation Limited (NORINCO). The designer of the weapons said that these rifles have already received a great deal of positive feedback from PLA soldiers.
  • China revealed its first type of made-for-export ship-borne vertical launch system. One of the most attractive features is its capability to hold quad-pack launch cells that can load up to four missiles instead of just one. Suitable for all types of seagoing vessels, the HT-1E universal vertical launch system is the first of its kind cleared for export in China, the maker of the system, China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation, said.
  • China will reveal new progress on its next-generation aircraft carrier-based fighter jet this year, the maker of the aircraft said. “When the aircraft is ready, people will get to see it,” said Sun Cong, chief designer of the J-15, China’s first-generation aircraft carrier-based fighter jet. “This year, people should be able to see good news on the next-generation aircraft carrier-based fighter jet,” said Sun, who is also the chief designer of the FC-31, China’s second stealth fighter jet.
  • For the first time, China’s J-16D electronic warfare aircraft revealed its jamming pods and missiles in its first public appearance at the Airshow China. The aircraft is equipped with four jamming pods under its wings and air inlets, as well as two missiles under its belly, in addition to the two electronic warfare pods on the wingtips, giving it a comprehensive combat capability.

  • Other debuts include the unveiling of a rocket for crewed space flight capable of carrying a 25-ton payload to lunar orbit and the CH-6 drone, according to AP. Powered by two turbofan engines, the CH-6 is aimed at “high-end arms and dual-use markets.” The China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology planned to unveil a “next-generation manned carrier rocket and a heavy-lift launch vehicle.” It said the 2,000-ton, three-stage rocket would “support China’s manned lunar probes.”
  • Details on the latest variant of the JH-7 fighter bomber, designated the JH-7A2, were also revealed. The JH-7A2 fighter bomber features improved surface attack capability by carrying extra surface attack weapons, including stand-off air-to-surface missiles, laser-guided bombs and munitions dispensers.

Sources: Global Times, Associated Press, The National Interest, Jane’s Information Services

Visitors try China’s new QBZ-191 series rifles at the exhibition hall of the China North Industries Group Corporation Limited on Thursday. The weapons made their debut at the 13th Airshow China in Zhuhai, South China’s Guangdong Province. Photo: Yang Sheng/Global Times.