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Air dominance? China reveals ‘full power’ J-20A 5th gen fighter; U.S. details its 6th gen

Twelve years after first flying the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation J-20A has been tested with two “full power” WS-15 turbofans, giving it high “supercruise” capability in addition to long range for dominating the First and Second Island Chains.
FPI / July 12, 2023


By Richard Fisher

In the same week China revealed that it had tested (12 years after first flying) a new “full power” variant of its Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC) 5th generation air superiority fighter, the United States Lockheed-Martin Corporation offered a revealing indication of its candidate for the United States Air Force’s 6th generation fighter.

On June 28, a video and images began to appear on Chinese web page of a possible new variant of the CAC J-20 5th generation fighter that is said, for the first time, to be powered by the long-expected 35,000-pound class WS-15 turbofan.

With such performance the WS-15 could be comparable to the U.S. Pratt Whitney F135 turbofan that has powered the U.S. Air Force’s premier 5th generation stealthy, twin-turbofan, two-dimensional thrust vectored air dominance fighter, the Lockheed-Martin F-22A, since entering service in 2005.

Though the J-20 prototype made its official first flight on Jan, 11, 2011 during the visit to China of former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the first 200 or so J-20s produced have been powered by 30-32,000 lbs. class Russian-made Saturn AL-31 or Chinese Shenyang-Liming WS-10A turbofans.

But with the WS-15 the J-20A, as it is called, could “supercruise,” or fly for tactically significant periods at speeds well above Mach 1, that along with its larger size, longer range and 200+ kilometer range PL-15 self-guided air-to-air missiles, would make it the first realistic threat to the dominance of the F-22A.

In development since 2006, in March 2023 a Chinese engine industry official disclosed that the WS-15 had entered production, with a capability of 18.5 tons of thrust (37,000 lbs.).

For top-line air dominance the USAF has preferred to invest in a successor to the F-22A, which it has been doing since 2014, called the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program to develop a 6th Generation air dominance fighter.

While the NGAD program has been among the most secret and guarded in U.S. history, on Sept. 14, 2020, then Assistant Secretary of the Air Force Dr. Will Roper told Defense News that “We’ve already built and test flown a full scale technology demonstrator” of the NGAD fighter.

Then on June 22, the Defense and Aerospace Report podcast of Vago Muradian and J.J. Gertler, citing “sources involved in the [NGAD] program,” said that three technology demonstrator aircraft were tested.

These were likely built by Lockheed-Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman, and two will be selected for a final production decision expected in 2024.

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