HomeIndustryTwin Seat J-20 Completes Maiden Trial Run

Twin Seat J-20 Completes Maiden Trial Run

In another achievement by the Chinese aerospace industry, a twin seat  J-20 fighter aircraft has successfully commenced a trial run at the flight test centre of Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group (CAIG), situated in Sichuan province. The aircraft was photographed by spotters and eventually uploaded on social media platforms.

While official confirmation awaits, it is yet another breakthrough in the development cycle of the platform as China now officially possesses the world’s first example of a stealth warplane with twin seater variant, unlike its other counterparts across the globe.

The aircraft, unofficially referred as J-20S, is seen here coated in anti-corrosion Zinc-Chromate primer paint and was clicked while it was aligned on the runway. The new canopy frame is a highlight of the airframe that is extended to offer accommodation for two pilots. A radome is also not yet integrated on the aircraft, indicating that flight tests are still pending, details on schedule of which are not available in public domain yet. The external airframe appears to be the same as the single seat J-20A. Therefore, it is expected to retain the capabilities of the original variant additionally expanding the range of combat operations aided by additional operators.

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The sudden appearance of a twin seat J-20 does not come as a surprise. The concept has been widely promoted on several occasions like exhibitions and promo videos. In January 2021, in a promo video released by AVIC on the occasion of the 10 year anniversary of J-20’s first flight, a Computer Generated Image (CGI) of a tandem twin seat configuration was displayed, enabling the audience to expect such aircraft in development. The latest image confirms the existence of such a platform which resembles the design showcased in the graphic visuals.

Why do jets need a twin seat sub-variant?

The modern warfare scenario focuses on full scale deployment of fifth generation tactics, which are to detect, track, suppress or neutralize threats at standoff ranges without involving in direct combat. Electronic Warfare and Beyond Visual Range (BVR) combat ability are some of the applications within this domain. It also allows less involvement of human assets to avail precise results with a comparatively low margin of error. The sudden hike in combat missions involving Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) is one of the prime implementations of such a process that drastically reduces the chance of human error as well as risk of loss of a friendly unit. While these examples reflect the requirement of mature battle systems, a wide range of apparatus associated with the modern day battle environment still require human involvement to perform primary tasks for accomplishing dedicated objectives with a uniform and well-coordinated format. Fighter jets with GIBS are no exceptions.

Guy In Back Seat (GIBS), or Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) , or WSO (Weapon Systems Officer), or Navigator, any person flying onboard the aircraft alongside the pilot, tends to perform a variety of roles during a sortie. In the past, due to complex procedures in  flying, targeting and communications, availability of another operator entirely focusing on roles other than flying was a necessity. Multiple examples of successful twin seat fighter aircraft, like F-4 “Phantom II”, F-14 “Tomcat”, own a rich combat record scored during multiple conflicts they took part in. This precisely reflects how significant the role of the GIBS holds in terms of offering additional situational awareness, as well as in combat. With the advent of more matured fighter control and targeting solutions, a fourth-generation multirole aircraft can easily perform both air-to-air and air-to-ground operations, executing both an offensive and defensive role. 

However, a notational twin seat variant of the same platform is equally significant to further expand the capabilities as mentioned earlier. A majority of fourth generation aircraft produced today are generally single seat aircraft but with a provision for twin seat units based on the same airframe. The primary objective of such airframes is to provide “conversion training” for new generation pilots who passed the simulator round. With an instructor in the back seat, the concept introduces the cadet with challenges other than flight controls that are necessary to experience in order to have a complete understanding of aircraft. While it fulfills the role of a trainer for a vast portion of its service period, it still retains the complete combat capability of the single seat variant. It is upto the operator whether they prefer to deploy the unit in combat or not. A dedicated strike unit, however, is specifically designed to undertake combat sorties more often than a conversion trainer. For example, Mirage 2000D is a strike aircraft derived from Mirage 2000C, while Mirage 2000N is classified under nuclear strike aircraft derived from Mirage 2000D. The basic difference in terms of operation can be described in the sense that while a conversion trainer can fly with even one seat occupied, it is compulsory to have both pilots onboard in a strike fighter as each one have their own set of roles to perform in a mission.

J-20S: Trainer or Strike fighter?

Being a fifth-generation warplane with stealth characteristics, the counterparts of the J-20 in the west are F-22 “Raptor” and F-35 “Lightning II”; as well as Su-57 “Felon” in Russia. None of these are currently available in twin seat configuration and entirely dependent on one pilot to perform all the operations in-flight. The current active units of J-20A are also exclusively manned by a single pilot. But as the new concept has finally come into existence, the fact cannot be turned down how it drastically improves the capability of the platform in context of asymmetrical warfare. Newer technologies now offer deployment of high-end drones in swarms from multiple platforms, which also include airborne release solutions. When deployed, the second pilot can take full control over the drone operations via datalink and guide them towards the target while the launch aircraft (or “mothership”) will remain at standoff distance, safe from hostile retaliation. 

Suppression Of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD) or Destruction Of Enemy Air Defences (DEAD) is another vital element of modern operations where the priority is to neutralize enemy anti-air systems including radars, surface to air missiles, etc.. It is highly necessary to understand that such actions need to be taken with pre-emptive measures to avoid friendly losses when a mission needs to be carried out inside hostile territory. Whether it is about temporary deception or about full-fledged destruction of hostile anti-air installations, measures need to be taken at standoff range. An Anti-Radiation Missile (ARM), that specializes in detecting, tracking and homing on radiation sources like radar is a great option to entirely destroy the installation. Electronic Warfare is another solution that can be employed in both offensive and defensive terms to either protect self or entire formation of friendly aircraft. Dedicated EW aircraft like E/A-18G “Growler’ also feature the twin seat attribute where the back seater is responsible for operating EW systems. Therefore, J-20S performing EW roles is also plausible to speculate.

The future

With production still in progress and more orders in line for Chengdu Aerospace, the J-20 is likely to enhance its capabilities with time by fixing the issues it is facing at present, just like every other fighter in its initial operational stage. One of the infamous issues is it lack of supercruise capability, defined as the ability to sustain supersonic flight for long durations, specially due to immature WS-10C turbofan engines which will be replaced with WS-15 turbofan engines expected provide greater thrust-to-weight ratio as well as Thrust Vector Control (TVC). However, it still possesses much of the fifth-generation characteristics like Very Low Observable (VLO) attribute, or stealth design and Low Probability Of Intercept Radar (the details of which are still classified). Another platform is also under development under the name of FC-31 that is likely under final stages of development and will see service complementing the J-20. Therefore, the next generation of People Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) combat aircraft fleet will feature top of the line aircraft including an indigenous Flanker series as well as fifth generation fighter family, eventually allowing the Chinese airpower to expand its influence around the globe .

TFV NewsDesk
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