In September 2003, then-President of the People’s Republic of China Jiang Zemin addressed members of the secretive ‘995 Project’. For the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), he said, “the development of weapons and equipment should embark on the exploration of a new generation of systems”, while simultaneously producing weapons, developing new weapons, and starting new research projects. This would, Jiang said, lay “a solid technology foundation for the leapfrog development of weapons and equipment”.
Jiang’s speech is grounded in Marxist theories of scientific rationalism – by following natural rules of research, innovation, and production, the PLA would create a permanent cycle of improving generations of weapons and equipment. Much of Jiang’s thinking has been edged out by Xi Jinping’s attempt to dominate the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with ‘Xi Jinping Thought’, but the idea of developing ‘leapfrog generations’ remains.
China-watchers believe the Central Military Commission of the CCP established the 995 Project shortly after May (the fifth month) of 1999, hence ’99-5’. On May 7, 1999 during NATO’s Operation Allied Force, a US B-2 stealth bomber dropped five JDAM GPS-guided bombs on the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Serbia. While the subsequent US investigation and statement blamed out-of-date target coordinates, the CCP believed it was a deliberate act.
Further, influential members of the CCP believed – in line with US political scientist Graham Allison’s theory of the ‘Thucydides Trap’ – that war was now inevitable between an emerging power (China) and an existing great power (the US). To win this war China would need to improve the quality of its military, rapidly and substantially. The 995 Project would fast-track concept innovation – the exploration of a new generation of weapons. This would enable Jiang’s ‘leapfrog development’. Instead of methodically building, through trial and error, a domestic high-technology arms industry, the PRC would aim for the stars and leapfrog in capability past the West.
This would be achieved via a three-pronged approach. In a 2005 article published in China Military Science, Major-General Sun Hong, now the Assistant Chief of Staff for the PLA Air Force (PLAAF), and Senior Colonel Professor Li Lin of the PLA Armament Command and Technology Academy, explained leapfrog development would be achieved through ‘symmetric’ and ‘asymmetric’ development.
Symmetric development involves the procurement or duplication of existing weapon systems in line with “the general trend of military development in the world.” Asymmetric development required the development of unique weapons and weapon systems “to achieve the purpose of overpowering and defeating the enemy.” Put another way, to “research and develop whatever the adversary apprehends and fears the most.” It is from this concept that the drive for ‘silver bullet’ weapons to overwhelm an enemy became the driving force in PRC weapons development.
But first, the PLAAF would need to reach parity with the West through symmetric development. Decades of underinvestment in air power dating back to the 1970s meant the PLAAF was inconsequential on the modern battlefield. While May 1999 provided the belief system, the second Gulf War would catalyse PLAAF thinking on the importance of air power in winning modern conflicts. The result would be three aircraft that highlighted the PRC’s ability to leapfrog from the past towards the future. These aircraft are referred to in China as the ‘20 Series’.
CHENGDU J-20 MIGHTY DRAGON
The J-20 program, originally ‘XXJ’, is believed to date back to the early 1990s, although the program was not publicly known until 1997. A competition between the Aviation Industry of China’s (AVIC) 611 Institute, known as the Chengdu Aerospace Corporation, and 601 Institute, known as the Shenyang Aerospace Corporation, for the PLAAF’s 5th generation heavy fighter was won by Chengdu.
A J-20 technology demonstrator first flew in January 2011, and the first low-rate initial production (LRIP) aircraft were handed over to the PLAAF Dingxin Flight Test and Training Base by 2016. The J-20 officially entered service with the PLAAF in January 2019.
The CAC J-20 design appears to be optimised for frontal-aspect stealth, and features canards, a tailless delta wing, canted tails for planform alignment, and lateral diverterless supersonic inlets (DSI). Weapons are carried internally in a belly weapons bay and two ‘cheek’ bays behind the air inlets, although up to eight missiles can be carried externally on dual launcher rails. The J-20’s primary armament is the PL-15 long-range air -to-air missile (AAM).
The radar is an AESA model thought to be a more powerful version of the existing Type 1475 radar used in the single-engine J-10C. The radar is supplemented by a nose-mounted infrared search and track system (IRSTS), and what appears to be an electro-optical distributed situational awareness system similar to the EODAS used on the F-35 Lightning II. An advanced formation datalink thought to be based on the F-35 multifunction advanced datalink (MADL) reportedly allows low probability of intercept (LPI) transmissions with other J-20 aircraft and PLA AEW&C aircraft.
The initial J-20 prototype aircraft appeared to have been fitted with the Russian AL-31F engine, the power output of which doesn’t allow supercruise – a characteristic of Western 5th generation aircraft. From 2017, images began to appear of ‘J-20A’ aircraft fitted with Chinese-made WS-10C engines. While these engines are believed to underperform the Russian AL-31F, they remove the PLA’s reliance on Russian engine makers for advanced propulsion systems. It is speculated that an improved WS-15 engine will be fitted to further J-20 aircraft, moving the series into either the J-20B or J-20C designator.
When the J-20 was officially revealed at the Zhuhai Airshow in 2016, some aviation and defence analysts were dismissive of the aircraft as a too-heavy attempt to copy the F-22. But firstly, this ignores the fact that J-20 is not an air superiority fighter like the F-22, nor a multirole strike fighter like the F-35.
Rather, it is a long-range extension of the PLA’s land-based air defence system. It is designed to shoot first, then disengage from the fight. Secondly, the J-20 is a leapfrog in fewer than 20 years for the PLA from Korean and Vietnam-war era technology with 3rd generation aircraft such as the J-7, J-8, and JH-7A, to a 5th generation fighter aircraft.
XI’AN Y-20 KUNPENG / ROC
The Y-20 multirole heavy transport aircraft program began around 2003 with a study group established to develop ‘large-scale transport aircraft technology’. The aircraft project, including associated engines, is believed to have begun in 2007 after it was listed in the CCP 12th Five Year Plan. It is unclear if the design was put to competition – this seems unlikely as AVIC Xi’an Aircraft Company (XAC) has experience with large aircraft construction dating back to production of the H-6 bomber in 1961.
The first Y-20 flight occurred in January 2013 and, by the end of that year, that aircraft with the serial 21001 was seen at the China Flight Test Establishment (CFTE) with serial number 781, signifying it had moved from factory testing to flight trials with the PLAAF. The Y-20 entered official service with the PLAAF in July 2016 and at least 13 Y-20A variant aircraft are now in service.
The Y-20 bears more than a passing resemblance to the Boeing C-17A, featuring a high wing, sweptback all-moving tailplane, and four-engine configuration. The design is believed to have had inputs from the Antonov bureau in Ukraine, with the nose section similar to the An-70 transport aircraft.
To reduce design risk, Xi’an probably used Ukrainian D-30 KP2 turbofans for the initial batch of Y-20A aircraft. Contracts for a total of 463 D-30 engines were signed in 2009, 2011, and 2016 for fitment to Y-20, H-6K and IL-76/78 (as spares), although the allocation of engines to aircraft type is unknown. The Chinese-built WS-20 engine, with slightly more power than the D-30, is reportedly now being installed on new-build Y-20 aircraft, and the maiden flight of a ‘Y-20B’ with WS-20 engines may have occurred at the end of 2020.
The Y-20 series will probably include an air-to-air refueller (AAR) version, the Y-20U. The PLAAF has relied for decades on the antiquated H-6U, which has limited offload and performance, and three Il-78 MIDAS tankers purchased from Russia. A prototype Y-20 tanker variant reportedly flew in December 2018. There is also a rumoured large AEW&C variant in development based on the Russian IL-76 MAINRING to replace the
While a commercial transport version of the Y-20, the Y-20F-100, was shown at Airshow China in 2016 and 2018, there have been no confirmed sales of this variant. It is possible that XAC will use the expertise and knowledge gained in construction of the Y-20 – particularly in the introduction of the WS-20 engine, digital fly-by-wire controls, and improved wing design (over the Il-76) – to fast-track development of the H-20 strategic bomber. Based on comments from PLA officials, XAC and the AVIC First Aircraft Institute (FAI, also known as the 603 Aircraft Design Institute) are believed to have been working on a strategic bomber program since the early 2000s.
The ‘China Medium Helicopter’ was originally conceived in the early 1990s, but was reportedly shelved while the Z-10 attack helicopter and specialist variants of the Z-8/Z-18 helicopters were developed. The design is similar to Sikorsky’s S-70/H-60 Black Hawk series, and the Z-20 is occasionally referred to as the ‘Copy Hawk’, however the rotor system and power plant are different to the H-60.
The first prototype flew in 2013, and deliveries to the PLA Army began in 2019. There are believed to be seven Z-20 aircraft in service with PLA Army Aviation, with four prototypes still undergoing testing at CFTE. It is unclear if the indigenous WZ-10 turboshaft engine is fitted to current-build Z-20 airframes, or the Pratt & Whitney Canada (P&WC) PT6C engine fitted to the Z-10.
The Z-20 is intended to replace the PLA’s fleet of Russian-built Mi-17 and Mi-171 transport helicopters. The Mi-17 was originally procured in 1991 after the US Government blocked further sales of the Sikorsky S-70.
A maritime anti-surface warfare (ASW) variant Z-20F, similar to the Sikorsky MH-60R, is also in development. This airframe would replace the older Z-9C ASW variant (a license-built version of the French Dauphin), and Russian Ka-28 HELIX helicopters in PLA Navy service.
The Z-20 is clearly designed to remove the PLA’s reliance on foreign design and manufacture of multi-role helicopters. While a utility helicopter does not have the immediate prestige of a stealth fighter, the Z-20 has the potential to serve as a domestic technology baseline for a range of follow-on projects, such as marinised engines and network-based weapons like long-range guided missiles.
THE ‘NEXT 20?’
The suffix -20 was probably chosen by the PLA for these three aircraft to reinforce the idea of generational change. These were not simply the next generation in a sequence of development but represented a leapfrog in capability. In the same way the F-35 was not designated F-19 or F-25, the ‘20-series’ highlights the beginning of a new generation.
To this end, there is speculation that at least two more aircraft will be part of the 20-Series – the JH-20 ‘tactical bomber’ to replace the ageing JH-7A, and the H-20 long-range strategic bomber.
The JH-20 could be a development of the CAC J-20, extended by using the J-20 airframe to build a two-seat low observable, long-range strike aircraft. The J-20 chief designer, Yang Wei, is now an executive Vice President of AVIC. In 2018 Yang said the J-20 would undergo “serial development”, including a type with “a new domestic engine” (likely the J-20B or J-20C with WS-15), a two-seat type, and a carrier-based type.
At the same time, internet images began to circulate of a delta-wing ‘JH-20’ strike variant, as well as official AVIC videos showing a CGI two-seat J-20. Chengdu reportedly developed a supersonic stealth fighter bomber concept in the early 2000s similar to the Russian Sukhoi Su-34 Fullback, but no further details on the project were revealed. Internet speculation has centred on a possible ‘H-18’ bomber, although there is no official Chinese record of an H-18 program.
The H-20 long-range strategic bomber seems to have been under development at XAC since around 2003. The aircraft has been ‘teased’ in promotional videos for AVIC and the PLAAF, and appears to have a similar flying-wing configuration to the Northrop Grumman B-2/B-21. The H-20 is possibly linked to the Y-20 program at XAC and draws upon on the engineering lessons from Y-20 for heavy aircraft construction. Depending on the progress of the WS-20 engine, the H-20 – if it is intended to fly in the next five years – may initially use the Ukrainian D-30KP-2 engine.
It is possible the H-20 is designed to fulfil China’s nuclear deterrence mission as the PLA is almost completely reliant on land-based ICBMs. The venerable XAC H-6 now has an air-to-air refuellable version, the H-6N, but the slow speed and large radar cross-section of that aircraft makes it unlikely to survive any long-range strike mission across the Pacific Ocean.
Jiang Zemin’s speech to the ‘Central Leading Group of the 995 Project’ in 2003 is the only public record of the existence of the 995 Project. In 2003, this was the ninth meeting of the Group, suggesting the Project began in the second half of 1999, just months after the Belgrade embassy bombing. The PLA has probably been working on the 20 Series for nearly two decades.
In the case of the J-20, a radical new design was introduced to service in just 15 years and is subject to ongoing upgrades and improvements.
This achievement by the PLA cannot be understated. Likewise, the efficiency of ‘symmetric development’ – duplicating what is proven to work – is a robust approach. While the Y-20 and Z-20 duplicate key elements of the C-17A Globemaster III and H-60 Black Hawk, they are imitations of proven, successful designs.
AVIC and the PLA are still reliant on Russian and Ukrainian technology, especially in engine design and construction. While it appears the WS-15 program may have advanced, the development of high-bypass turbofans may delay the finalisation of the 20 Series.
It is unclear to what extent AVIC relies on other nations’ aerospace expertise for the development of subsystems such as materials, surfacing, control systems, and development of complex fluid dynamics testing. What is certain is the next few years will reveal new programs from the 20 Series, underlining the PRC’s aggressive military expansion and growth.
This story first appeared in the January-February 2021 issue of ADBR.