Warplanes: China's First Master Designer


July 5, 2011:  After years of trying to keep it a secret, China has confirmed that one of their aircraft engineers, Yang Wei, is actually one of those extraordinary designers who produces one successful design after another. Born in 1963, he graduated from college at age 19 and finished graduate school three years later. He soon went to work at the Chengdu Aircraft Design Institute, and a decade later was appointed director. So far, he has designed a working fly-by-wire system, as well as the JF-17, J-10B and J-20. He did not design the original J-10, but did design the most successful version, the J-10B, and provided important upgrades for other J-10 models. The new J-20 (a stealth design that is still in development) is less of a surprise now that it's known the Chinese have a genuine ace designer working on it.

Ace aircraft designers are rare, and those that do show up tend to create a number of exceptional designs during a few decades (or much less, if there's a war going on). For example, Russian designer Mikhail Simonov recently died (at age 81). He was responsible for the Su-24 bomber, the Su-25 ground attack plane and the Su-27 fighter. Starting during World War II, for example, one American designer (who was trained in Germany), Edgar Schmued, designed the P-51, followed by the F-86 and F-100 after the war.  In Germany, Willie Messerschmitt designed the Me-109, Me-110 and the first jet fighter (Me-262) plus several others during World War II, and a few after the war.

In China, Yang Wei appears to be the first designer in this tradition. He had nothing to do with the original J-10, the first modern jet fighter designed and built in China. That appears to explain the many problems this aircraft has had. The J-10 was an attempt to create a modern fighter-bomber that could compete with foreign designs. The experiment was not completely successful. Work on the J-10 began over twenty years ago, in an attempt to develop an aircraft that would be comparable to the Russian MiG-29s and Su-27s, and the American F-16. But the first prototype did not fly until 1998. There were continued problems, and it wasn't until 2000 that the basic design flaws were fixed. By 2002, nine prototypes had been built, and flight testing was going forward to find, and fix, hundreds of smaller flaws. It was a great learning experience for Chinese engineers, but it was becoming apparent that the J-10 was not going to be competitive with the Su-27s/30s China was buying from Russia. The J-10 looks something like the American F-16, and weighs about the same (19 tons). Like the F-16, and unlike the Su-27, the J-10 has only one engine. Yang Wei improved the J-10 considerably with his J-10B version.

But it was the JF-17 (also known as FC-1) that made Yang Mei's reputation. The JF-17 was developed by China in cooperation with Pakistan, which originally only wanted to buy 150 of them. All this came about because Pakistan could not get modern fighters from anyone else, and turned to China. At the time, China had nothing comparable to the early model F-16s Pakistan already had. The 13 ton JF-17 is meant to be a low cost alternative to the American F-16. The JF-17 is considered the equal to earlier versions of the F-16, but only 80 percent as effective as more recent F16 models. The JF-17 design is based on a cancelled Russian project, the MiG-33. Originally, Pakistan wanted Western electronics in the JF-17, but because of the risk of Chinese technology theft, and pressure from the United States (who did not want China to steal more Western aviation electronics), the JF-17 uses Chinese and Pakistani electronics.

The JF-17 can carry 3.6 tons of weapons and uses radar guided and heat seeking missiles. It has max speed of nearly 2,000 kilometers an hour, an operating range of 1,300 kilometers and a max altitude of nearly 18,000 meters (55,000 feet). China has not yet decided on whether it will use the FC-1/JF-17 itself. This is apparently because China believes its own J-10 and J-11 (a license built Russian Su-27) are adequate for their needs. The J-10, like the JF-17, did not work out as well as was hoped, but that's another matter.

And then there the impressive new Chinese fighter, the J-20, which made its first flight earlier this year. While the J-20 looks like the American F-22 when viewed head on, it's overall shape, weight and engine power is closer to the American F-15C. In other words, it's about 20 meters (62 feet) long, with a wing span of 13.3 meters (42 feet). J-20 has about the same wing area as the F-15C, which is about 25 percent less than the F-22 (which is a few percent larger than the F-15 in terms of length and wingspan). Worse, for the J-20, is the fact that it's engine power is about the same as the F-15C, while the F-22 has 65 percent more power. With the afterburner turned on, the J-20 has more power than the F-15C, and nearly as much as the F-22. But because the afterburner consumes so much fuel, you can't use it more than a few minutes at a time. The F-22 is still one of only three aircraft (in service) that can supercruise (go faster than the speed of sound without using the afterburner.) In addition to the F-22, the Eurofighter and the Gripen can also supercruise.

The J-20 has some stealthiness when it's coming at you head on. But from any other aspect, the J-20 will light up the radar screen. For this reason, the J-20 is seen as a developmental aircraft, not the prototype of a new model headed for mass production. As such, it is only the fifth stealth fighter to fly, the others being the U.S. F-22 and F-35, plus the Russian T-50 and I.42. The older U.S. F-117 was actually a light bomber, and the B-2 was obviously a heavy bomber. Based on recent Chinese warplane development projects (J-10 in particular), the J-20 has a long development road ahead of it, and will likely change size and shape before it reaches the production design.

While the shape of the J-20 confers a degree of stealthiness (invisibility to radar), even more electronic invisibility comes from special materials covering the aircraft. It's not known how far along the Chinese are in creating, or stealing, these materials. Same with engines. The current J-20 engines are sufficient for early flight tests, but not capable of providing the supercruise, something that would be essential for the J-20. That's because China would most likely use the aircraft singly, or in small groups, to seek out and attack American carriers. As for F-22 class engines, that is being worked on. Two years ago, China announced it was developing the WS-15 engine, a more powerful beast well suited for the J-20. No date was given as to when the WS-15 would be available for use, or whether it would have the same vectoring (ability to move the hot jet exhaust in different directions in order to make the fighter more maneuverable) the F-22 uses.

For the J-20 to be a superior fighter, it would need electronics (including radars and defense systems) on a par with the F-35 and F-22. So far, the Chinese have not caught up with stuff used by current American fighters. But the gap is being closed faster than it was during the Cold War and the Russians were creating, or stealing, their way to military tech equivalence with the West.

Work on the J-20 began in the late 1990s, and the Chinese knew that it could be 25 years or more before they had a competitive stealth fighter-bomber. Development apparently moved a lot faster once Yang Wei got involved. The J-20 is being developed at the Chengdu Aircraft Company (CAC), which builds the J-10 and JF-17. Located in central China, CAC was known to be working on the J-20, and Yang Wei is director of the design institute.

Yang Wei also appears to be a master at adapting stolen or licensed foreign technology to new designs. Both the FC-17 and J-20 are known to have used a lot of foreign technology. Just having access to that stuff does not guarantee success (as shown with the J-10). But if you are really good, as Yang Wei is, you can make the stolen tech into something as good, or better, than it was originally.

The J-20 is an attempt to develop some kind of 5th generation aircraft, complete with stealth. The only other competitor in this area is Russia, where fifth generation fighter developments were halted when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991. Actually, all development work on new fighters, by everyone, slowed down in the 1990s. But work on the F-22, F-35, Eurofighter and Rafale continued, and those aircraft became, in roughly that order, the most advanced fighter aircraft available today. MiG resumed work on the I.42 in the 1990s, but had to stop after a few years because of a lack of money. Sukhoi has never stopped working on its T-50, funded by much higher sales of its Su-27/30 fighters. This fifth generation may come to be called the "last generation," after they are replaced by the second generation of pilotless combat aircraft (counting armed Predators and the like as the first). It's not known if Yang Wei is working on combat UAVs.




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