There's aircraft designers, and then there's ace designers. There are thousands of engineers around the world producing planes, but ace designers only come along once every few decades.
The United States had Kelly Johnson, the designer of the SR-71 Blackbird. Germany's Willy Messerschmitt produced a line of famous fighter planes. The Soviet Union's Mikhail Simonov created the muscular Su-27 fighter-bomber to compete with America's F-15 Eagle.
Each of these aces were highly skilled, but they also owed much of their success to circumstance. They came along when their respective governments invested millions — or billions — of dollars into transforming brainpower into cutting-edge combat aircraft.
This intersection of engineering genius and lavish spending appears to have produced an ace designer in China. In recent years, an obscure engineer named Yang Wei has rapidly risen to the leadership of the Chengdu Aircraft Design Institute — a major warplane manufacturer responsible for quickly churning out Beijing's top warplanes.
Yang is principally responsible for two fighter jets that we know about. One of these is the J-20, China's first stealth fighter. He also headed the development of the JF-17 Thunder, a modern and evolutionary improvement of the early MiGs developed by the Soviet Union a half-century ago.
What we know about Yang is that he was born in 1963, and enrolled at the Northwestern Polytechnical University in 1978 at the age of 15. He completed two degrees and became a control systems engineer at Chengdu.
In a 2011 profile, the state-owned journal Science and Technology Daily described Yang as the brains behind China's 1980s innovations in electronic fly-by-wire controls. The journal credited him with implementing "all-digital simulation" tests for aircraft, "breaking the blockade of foreign technology."
This is overstated, but there's no doubt Yang is highly influential. By the age of 35, he rose to Chengdu's leadership and worked on the J-10, one of China's most numerous warplane types. The J-10 was a tricky aircraft to build and was beset by numerous design flaws, including a notable failure in its fuel system in the late 1990s. But Yang's solutions later worked their way into the JF-17; a practice known as "parallel development," according to the journal.
In other words, what Yang seems to have done is establish an alternative philosophy to Western fighter design — illustrated by the stealthy, but expensive and problem-prone F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. China now builds fighters cheaply, quickly, and simply. This is not to say Yang's fighters are perfect or even fundamentally new.
Case in point is the Chengdu J-20. As a stealth fighter, this twin-engine, delta wing aircraft could be stealthier — at least from behind. Which probably means it's not principally an air-to-air dogfighter. But there's an ongoing debate about that. No one except its designers know what it's supposed to do.
One school of thought has the J-20 acting as a long-range sniper, speeding directly toward U.S. reconnaissance planes and tankers … and shooting them out of the sky. Without those support assets in the air, America's ability to wage war in the western Pacific drops dramatically.
The J-20 is stealthy from the front — see its angular features. But it's also big at 62 feet long (about 19 meters). That befits more of a ground-attack role with some self-defense capabilities, which would also require a stealthy shape principally at the front.
Even then, it has its problems. Tiny canards, like little extra limbs, protrude from the forward half of the fuselage to add more aerodynamic stability. This appears to be an afterthought, as the canards reduce stealth, which means China still has work to do to make a near-undetectable aircraft comparable to American designs — perhaps even Russian ones as well.
Another problem is that it's underpowered considering its size and the fact that it wields twin AL-31F engines. Those engines are Russian and just a bit too weak for an aircraft that must balance speed and agility, which the J-20 appears to strive to do. Then there's the electronics and fire-control systems, both areas where Chinese innovations are lacking.
But it does represent a major leap for Chinese stealth airframe design — which had heretofore been unable to produce a fighter of this kind at all. The Pentagon, for its part, drastically underestimated the timeline; it didn't expect a stealth fighter until later this decade at the earliest. China revealed it to the world in January 2011.
Chengdu has produced six prototypes. The designers are also taking J-20 and evolving it. The plane's engine nozzles, one of the big giveaways to radar sweeps from behind, have been partially concealed on later prototypes. And Chengdu has apparently modeled its electro-optical targeting arrangement after the F-35. Other features, such as the front, resemble the U.S. F-22. That's perhaps helped by data theft from America's stealth fighter programs.
Plus, the J-20 will likely have an advantage over the F-35 in terms of speed and maneuverability owing to its large, delta wing design. What the J-20 lacks is a bigger, reliable engine. Particularly one that's not made in Russia. And, of course, the sensors to see targets at long range.
"The J-20's size, range, and stealth could also make it a formidable long-range strike platform, particularly if bomb-carrying planes were mated with air-to-air missile-armed J-20s as part of a strike package to hit high-value targets in the vicinity of the first and second island chains", China military analysts Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson noted in a 2011 paper (as PDF).
Now step back for a moment. This is not a game-changing warplane. But in a little more than a decade, China went from having no stealth warplanes to entering the select club of countries in the fifth-generation fighter business. That's no small feat.
We can expect, owing to Yang's design philosophy, that whatever the J-20 becomes will not be radically different from what we've seen already.
The JF-17 Thunder is a very interesting plane, if you like modern takes on classic Soviet-era fighters. You should.
The lineage is one the most interesting things about it. An upgrade of China's J-7 — itself a copy of the workhorse MiG-21 — the Thunder is indicative Chengdu's evolutionary approach to fighter design. The JF-17 traces its basic framework all the way back to the 1950s. Plus, at $25 million per unit, it's a bargain compared to a $200 million F-35.
Chengdu designed this multi-role fighter — which can dogfight and attack targets on the ground — for export to the Pakistani air force.
The Thunder is roughly equivalent to the American F-16 Fighting Falcon, which is also in service with the Pakistani air force, but which cost twice as much per unit. The Thunder is not a stealth fighter. Far from it. But if an F-16 can beat an F-35 in a dogfight, then so can a JF-17.
This isn't your grandfather's MiG-by-another-name. For one, it has improved wings for greater maneuverability and a powerful Russian RD-93 turbofan engine. Another key difference is the shape of the nose. If you look at a MiG-21 or J-7, each has a rounded, inward-protruding engine air intake. This made sense when these fighters came about in the 1950s and 1960s, respectively, as both types had limited fire-control radars.
But as Chinese radar technology advanced, Chengdu moved the Thunder's air intake into its fuselage, freeing up room for the Chinese-made KLJ-7 radar — which has capabilities for both air-to-air and air-to-ground strikes.
Then there's the weapons. The fighter can carry quite a lot of weapons; about 3.6 tons worth. It's capable of firing beyond-visual range missiles and the Chinese-made C-802A anti-ship missiles — designed to hit American aircraft carriers from 180 kilometers away. In Pakistani hands, the Indian Navy should worry.
Pakistan is the only current user, but the Thunder has emerged as Islamabad's go-to fighter since it became operational in 2007. Part of this is political, as there's a limited base of customers for jointly developed Chinese and Pakistani fighter planes.
There are reports Myanmar and Sri Lanka have ordered Thunders from Pakistan, but as with most arms sales, we'll believe it when we see it. A more serious problem is that the plane's engine is Russian, which complicates the logistical supply chain. Any user who wants their fighters maintained must maintain good relations with the Kremlin.
For China's aviation industry, the continued reliance on foreign parts — and particularly engines — is one of its biggest liabilities. Beijing's ace fighter designer might never overcome that.
From drones to AKs, high technology to low politics, War is Boring explores how and why we fight above, on, and below an angry world. Sign up for its daily email update here or subscribe to its RSS Feed here.