China’s J-20 fighter seems to have a new homegrown engine, after years of struggle

The military aerospace sector of the People’s Republic of China has a tendency to achieve technological milestones and remain completely silent about them, despite the usual practice of announcing such developments during major international expositions, with great fanfare. The Paris

This is not just for Western conferences. It seems that AVIC China, the industry aviation corporation of the People’s Republic of China, will adhere to the script in 2023. It is always a joke that there would be a game of hide-and-seek when it comes to news about China Show Air, the largest defense expo in the PRC. However, correspondents attending the expo were still able to freely report on defense matters when it was safe for Western defense journalists in previous years.

At the exhibition hall, AVIC’s booth showcased many models of the company, but the indication was that there might be something afoot. The Chinese delegation had no news about the highly speculated-about and advanced Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter, which is considered the most advanced fifth-generation combat aircraft. This was the situation during the week when the aerospace community gathered at the Paris Air Show.

The advanced homegrown jet fighter, equipped with two WS-15 engines, is ready for prime time after years of delays. The flight testing of the new engine, which is scheduled for 2022, indicates a sign of confidence and maturity. It appears that the jet will be flown with the older WS-15 engine and the newer WS-15 engine, as seen in the video. However, the video has not been released by AVIC, the firm behind the Beijing-based jet manufacturer. Four days after the Paris Air Show, on June 28th, the first public flight of the J-20 with a pair of Xi’an-built WS-15 engines emerged, showcasing the “Emei” engines.

The successful operational status of the WS-15 engine, finally brings a major milestone for Chinese aerospace. The J-20, which was designed to deliver performance payload/range and boost significant performance over the previous engines used by the J-20, should provide a significant boost in performance for the Company Engine Aircraft Liming Shenyang. This makes it more of a concern for the US Navy and other partner nations in the Pacific, as it could potentially encounter combat situations. Additionally, the WS-10 and AL-31FN engines, built by the Russian Lyulka Salyut, have now been replaced by the WS-15 engine, which delivers the desired performance and is used by the PLAAF.

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“But it appears that they are nearing that objective whether we desire it or not,” stated a former intelligence officer from a NATO country who spoke with Breaking Defense. “Nobody wishes for the Chinese to acquire the ability to develop and construct their own aircraft engines,” this would significantly elevate the level of concern regarding their aerial capabilities.

For nearly three decades, AVIC, the Chinese military aircraft programs, has been aiming to rely almost exclusively on engines produced and imported from Russia. However, the development of jet engines, both in general and specifically the WS-15, has eluded the Chinese industry.

The PLAN’s upcoming carrier fighter is anticipated to be the Shenyang FC-31 fighter, which currently incorporates two of the Mikoyan MiG-29’s Klimov/Isotov RD-33 engines, renamed the RD-93 in this particular single-engine setup. The JF-17 fighter aircraft, intended for and jointly produced in Pakistan, initially operates with one of the Salyut/Lyulka AL-31FN engines. Both the J-10, the previous-generation fighter model from the Chengdu design team, and the J-20, are powered by the same engine. Furthermore, prototypes observed in 2014 of the Shenyang FC-31 fighter also employed two of these engines.

This prompted the Chinese in 2010 to request a large number of purchases from Moscow of the 117S/AL-41F-series Saturn/Lyulka jet engines. As the Chinese realized that the WS-15 program would not be ready for the initial production batches of the aircraft, it appears to be for the J-20 program.

The Sukhoi Su-35S and the first batches of the Su-57, a 5th generation aircraft, are currently equipped with this upgraded model, which was previously referred to as a “thorough modernization” of the AL-31F-series engine by the Saturn design team in Russia, according to Breaking Defense.

The PLAAF received the deal for 24 Su-35S aircraft, which cost over $2 billion, and it was eventually signed in November 2015. The purchase of the Su-35S export model, which was the sole means to acquire the engine’s design and technology, involved lengthy negotiations that extended for an additional five years. However, Moscow declined the Chinese’s request.

During the conversation, the representatives stated, “It relies on the customer,” without providing specific details. For each plane, certain customers will acquire two additional engines, while others will opt for four, and customers with ample financial resources will purchase eight spare engines per aircraft. Breaking Defense interviewed Sukhoi representatives after the deliveries commenced and inquired about the quantity of spare engines the PLAAF would receive. The suggestion was that the Chinese had chosen the latter alternative.

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The defense procurement planners of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) came to the conclusion that the inability of the industry’s jet fighter engines to have an effective and reliable design was addressed at this time. In August 2016, it was announced that the AeroEngine Corporation of China (AECC) would form a new company worth $7.5 billion, employing 96,000 personnel and consolidating various jet engine component units within AVIC, creating a standalone entity.

In 2015, a comparable unsuccessful trial was replicated when a WS-15 detonated during a trial run on a terrestrial station right before the exhibition. The organization was getting ready to showcase the engine at Air Show China 2018, two years after AECC’s establishment, only to call off its participation. The organization undertook multiple ambitious ventures, of which WS-15 was merely one, but encountered challenges in the initial stages.

However, progress persisted, reaching its peak with the recent flight test – a significant achievement for China’s military propulsion systems.

The Significance of the J-20’s Upgraded Engine

The commencement of flight testing with a twin-engine fighter, evaluating a new engine design in standard procedure, was hindered by a malfunctioning engine in the other aircraft engine, an outdated model in one compartment and a fresh engine in another compartment. The aircraft, equipped with two WS-15 engines, took its maiden flight on June 28 as the J-20B.

The English-language Hong Kong South China Morning Post reported that a Chinese military think-tank researcher described the significance of this WS-15 test flight, stating that after 12 years since the J-20’s first flight in 2011, the Chinese air force finally received the engine it had been eagerly anticipating.

The J-20, which can supercruise, has enough capability for the WS-10C to operate at a level of 9.5 or higher. The WS-10B, rated at nearly 9.0, is an enhanced version of the WS-10 engine model, which had a thrust-to-weight ratio of 7.5. The performance of the J-20 has gradually improved with the successive use of various Chinese-built engines in different production batches.

The former PLA instructor, Zhongping Song, who also spoke to SCMP, stated that the WS-15 engine, designed by Americans for endurance, has not yet achieved its desired performance. The thrust-to-weight ratio of the WS-15 engine from Emei is supposedly 10 times greater than that of the F-22A’s F119 engine, placing it close to its performance level.

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He clarified, “There remains a disparity between WS-15 and the F119 engines.” “The WS-15 has achieved experimental triumph, but it is premature for it to commence large-scale manufacturing. Further tests and enhancements are still required.” The engines observed in the photos released of the flight on June 28 seem to be missing the thrust vectoring control module, which is required according to the operational specifications of the aircraft.

With the passage of time, those deficiencies will likely fade away unless the shipment of advanced, 5-axis and 7-axis machine tools to the People’s Republic of China is reduced. Nevertheless, it is highly probable that the engine’s dependability, mean time between failures (MTBF), and other characteristics are inferior compared to any design from the western countries.

Despite their efforts to reopen dialogue, major defense contractors claimed that they have had almost no interaction with the US Government or its contractors. They now claim that they do not want Ukraine’s expertise in engine design to fall into Beijing’s hands. The US Government has complained in the past that the Ivchenko/Progress design bureau and the Motor Sich firm, co-located in Ukraine, have had constant contact with Chinese ownership over the issue of not selling to them. This year, officials from Ukraine’s aeroengine firm complained about this constant contact at the Le Bourget Airshow.

Instead of achieving a major media victory at Le Bourget, the Chinese chose to wait until now to make the announcement, which raises the question of their motive.

A retired military intelligence officer from the West and an experienced analyst of China expressed, “It appears to be common sense for Western companies to want to maximize publicity by using an event like Le Bourget to showcase one of their most advanced and newest programs. However, it seems that Chinese companies never come clean about what they have planned.”

They, the most important of all, are taking charge of the narrative by announcing their chosen date for fulfilling the traditional Chinese objectives, while eagerly waiting for other announcements to wrap up the entire global stage.

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