by Minnie Chan, South China Morning Post
A new and improved engine designed to make China’s J-20 stealth fighter a world-class combat jet should be ready for mass production by the end of the year, military sources have said.
The WS-15 engine features cutting-edge single-crystal turbine blades and has been in development for several years, but Chinese technicians have struggled to get it into mass production.
However, many of the problems – which largely related to blades overheating at top speeds – have been ironed out in ground tests and trial flights, putting the goal of a consistently high quality product in sight, sources told the South China Morning Post.
Beijing is keen to have a stealth aircraft capable of competing with the best in the world as tensions rise in the Asia-Pacific and the United States ramps up deployment of its F-22 and F-35 fighters in the region.
“The WS-15 is expected to be ready for widespread installation in the J-20s by the end of this year,” one of the sources said.
Although some “minor problems” remained, these should be resolved once the engine had been more “extensively run in the aircraft”, the source said.
Beijing-based military expert Zhou Chenming said that China expected the US to deploy between 200 and 300 F-35s – its most advanced stealth fighter – in the Asia-Pacific by 2025, which meant “China needs a similar number of J-20s, or at least 200”.
Twelve F-35s arrived at the US Air Force’s Kadena Air Base in Japan in November, while South Korea said it planned to take delivery of 40 of the fighters this year.
A second military source said that the problems with the WS-15 needed to be resolved before large numbers of the J-20 could be manufactured.
“China currently has about 20 J-20s, which is far from enough,” the source said. “[Having] a home-grown engine is a must for the J-20 to enter mass production, as no other country would be prepared to give China such cutting-edge technology.”
The sources’ claims add weight to an April report by state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) that said Chengdu Aerospace Corporation, which manufactures the J-20, was set to open a fourth production line for the stealth fighter in 2019.
And last month CCTV reported that China’s air force had stepped up its training programme for J-20 pilots.
The People’s Liberation Army said that the J-20 entered combat service on February 9 and had been working alongside other fourth-generation aircraft, such as the J-16 and J-10 fighters and the H-6K strategic bomber. In May it took part in island encirclement drills around Taiwan.
The Post reported in February that the J-20 at that time was fitted with a “stopgap” engine.
One of the military sources said the public could get its first glimpse of the new stealth fighter, complete with its upgraded engine, at the China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition later in the year.
The event, which is held every two years, is set to run from November 5 to 11, in Zhuhai, southern China’s Guangdong province.
This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.