China’s next-gen J-20 stealth fighter jettisons Russian engine in favour of home-grown technology

Minnie Chan
·4-min read

China will cease using the Russian engine currently fitted on China’s new generation J-20 stealth fighter jet, replacing it with an upgraded home-grown engine.

A military insider told the South China Morning Post Chinese aircraft engineers found their domestically built WS-10C, the modified version of the WS-10 engine, to be as good as the Russian AL-31F engines.

“It’s impossible for China to rely on the Russian engine, because Russia asked China to purchase more Su-35 fighter jets in exchange for the AL-31F engine deals,” the insider, who requested anonymity, said.

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“The key problem is – except for its longer combat range advantage – the radar, navigation system and other electronic components on the Su-35s are inferior to Chinese aircraft like the J-16 strike fighter.”

China was the first overseas customer to buy Su-35 aircraft. The PLA spent US$2.5 billion buying 24 Sukhoi Su-35 heavyweight single-seat multi-role fighters, receiving the final shipment in late 2018.

A photo taken by military enthusiasts circulating online late last year showed a J-20 fighter prototype with twin engines but with a new serial number “2021” and not powered by a Russian engine.

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The online photo indicated China had produced a new batch of J-20 second-generation prototypes for flight tests, according to a report published on the War Industry Black Technology WeChat account by Shenzhen-based Quantum Defence Cloud, a military background company.

The military insider confirmed that the new J-20 prototype was powered by two WS-10C engines, but said the modified engine had remained a stopgap choice for the J-20.

A photo taken by a military enthusiast and circulated online shows a prototype J-20 with a new serial number 2021. Photo: Weibo
A photo taken by a military enthusiast and circulated online shows a prototype J-20 with a new serial number 2021. Photo: Weibo

“The use of WS-10C to replace Russian engines was caused by the failure of WS-15 to pass its final evaluation in 2019,” the insider said.

“The air force is not happy with the final results, demanding that engine technicians modify it until it meets all standards, for example matching the F119 engine used by the Americans’ F-22 Raptor.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected modification work on the WS-15 in the past year, the insider said.

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A modified version of the J-20B entered mass production in June last year after Chengdu Aerospace Corporation (CAC), the developer of the J-20, set up a fourth production line in 2019. Each line has the capacity to make about one J-20 a month.

Top: The Russian AL-31F engine. Bottom: The Chinese WS-10C engine. Photo: Weibo
Top: The Russian AL-31F engine. Bottom: The Chinese WS-10C engine. Photo: Weibo

But these mass-produced J-20 will still be fitted with Russian engines because testing the WS-10C will take at least a year, according to the insider.

Early in its deployment to the Chinese air force from 2017, the J-20 used the WS-10B, a variant of the WS-10, as a stopgap engine. The WS-10B is a modified version of the WS-10 Taihang engine, which was designed for the country’s fourth-generation J-10 and J-11 fighters.

Chinese engineers have been developing high-thrust turbofan WS-15 engines for the J-20 since 2006, but that work has fallen behind. Problems include an engine explosion during a ground running test in 2015.

Amid increasing security challenges posed by the United States since President Donald Trump came to office in 2017, Beijing decided to rush the country’s first stealth J-20 fighter jet into service ahead of schedule in 2017, because the Pentagon started deploying its fifth generation F-35s all-weather stealth multirole fighter to the Asia Pacific that year.

Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Tong said postponing the final launch of the WS-15 might affect China’s long-term aircraft development.

“The J-20 needs to shorten its transitional period and apply the WS-15 as quickly as possible because the US is expected to deliver their sixth generation aircraft in about a decade,” Wong said.

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