The People’s Liberation Army has achieved new operational capability with its latest fifth-generation fighter aircraft, the J-20 Mighty Dragon. Recently, the aircraft was spotted without a Luneberg lens- revealing the aircraft’s true stealth potential.
The aircraft flew in this new configuration during the Qingming festival on Sunday, paying tribute to their fallen comrades during the Korean War from 1950-1953. One of the celebrated Chinese pilots who flew during the war, Sun Shenglu, was from the Wang Hai Air Group, a unit that is now operating the most advanced equipment in the Chinese arsenal.
The Wang Hai Air Group is affiliated with the PLA’s Eastern Theatre Command. Sun Teng, a J-20 fighter pilot, told the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV that “[the] air force pilots in the new age will inherit the spirit of ‘aerial bayonet fighting,’ train to prepare for combat, be ready at all times for combat, and resolutely safeguard national sovereignty and dignity”.
The command announced in 2019 that the Wang Hai Air Group is equipped with the fifth generation fighter jet. The CCTV footage also showed the Chinese pilots conducting aerial manoeuvres in their latest airplane, and interestingly some of the frames showed that the J-20s were flying without their Luneberg Lens onboard, according to the experts analysing the images for GlobalTimes. Even, the lines over the aircraft’s side missile bay appeared different from the previous J-20 models.
The Luneberg Lens is used to make radar reflectors, by metallizing parts of its surface. Radiation from a distant radar transmitter is focussed onto the underside of the metallization on the opposite side of the lens; here it is reflected, and focussed back onto the radar station.These radar reflectors are attached to stealth military aircraft in order to make them ‘visible’ during training operations, or to conceal their true radar signature.
According to the military observers, the this is one of the only few times the aircraft is spotted without the reflector attached. In most previous reports on the J-20, the stealth aircraft shown carried this radar reflector under its belly, GlobalTimes reported.
The J-20 ‘Mighty Dragon’ is the premiere Chinese stealth aircraft that took its first flight in 2011, ten years ago. It is a single-seat, twinjet, all-weather, reportedly stealth, fifth-generation fighter aircraft developed by China’s Chengdu Aerospace Corporation for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). The J-20 is designed as an air superiority fighter with precision strike capability and descends from the J-XX program started in the 1990s.
Accepted into service in 2017, it was the world’s third operational fifth generation fighter after the F-22 and the F-35, even before the Russians. One important design feature of the J-20 is high instability, which requires sustained pitch authority at a high angle of attack, in which a conventional tail-plane would lose effectiveness due to stalling.
The main weapon bay is capable of housing both short and long-range air-to-air missiles (AAM; PL-9, PL-12C/D & PL-15 – PL-21) while the two smaller lateral weapon bays behind the air inlets are intended for short-range AAMs (PL-10). These side bays allow closure of the bay doors prior to firing the missile, thus allowing the missile to be fired in the shortest time possible as well as enhancing stealth.
The J-20 is reported to lack an internal autocannon or rotary cannon, suggesting the aircraft is not intended to be used in short range dogfight engagements with other aircraft but engage them with from long standoff ranges with missiles such as the PL-15 and PL-21. The aircraft also has four external hardpoints for mounting auxiliary fuel tanks to extend the ferry range.