China’s 6th Generation and Upcoming Combat Aircraft: 2024 Update (2024)

In previous articles, I have documented the progression of combat aircraft in China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), as well as conveyed projections and estimates of near-term outcomes. Various established aircraft have reached milestones in recent years, and some future expected projects are likely to make their presence felt in coming years into the second half of the decade.

However, PLA secrecy remains unique among the major military forces of the world, and this has only intensified in the last half decade as geopolitical tensions have escalated. In this article, I will aim to summarize known indicators and make estimates for various upcoming projects.

J-XD: Naming the Next-Generation Fighter

The PLA’s sixth-generation manned fighter, or next-generation manned fighter, is considered to be an established program of record that is under active development and expected to emerge in some form during this decade. However, before discussion of this project can commence, a stand-in title for it is necessary, as there is no current consensus name from the Chinese language PLA watching community. I will use “J-XD” to refer to this project, until such a time that a consensus name emerges to replace it.

J-XD is a concise name which can be seen as a pinyin acronym. “XD” can represent either “xīn dài” (新代 meaning new generation), or “xià dài” (下代 next generation), both of which are reasonable titles. J-XD also avoids using a numbered system that may introduce confusion as to whether the aircraft is “sixth-generation” or “fifth-generation,” given the Chinese military nomenclature seems to use both the domestic Chinese generation system and the Western generation system at times. Utilizing a name that includes “NGAD” (Next Generation Air Dominance, the U.S. Air Force’s name for their sixth-generation project) is somewhat inappropriate given the use of English words in an acronym for a Chinese project. Furthermore, J-XD has the additional benefit of paying homage to the stand-in name for J-20 (known in the 2000s as “J-XX”).

Current indicators for the J-XD remain largely unchanged from the last few years. It is generally accepted that various demonstrator test beds (potentially subscale) have been flown, and a more stealthy, tailless flying wing/flying arrowhead airframe is considered one of the likely configurations it may adopt.

The J-XD is virtually guaranteed to incorporate new generation subsystems and technologies in propulsion, sensors, computing and networking, and is likely to operate alongside future unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) or collaborative combat aircraft (CCAs). A selection of papers exploring airframe testing, engine development, and aerospace engineering efforts that have relevance to J-XD development are also accessible with the right search terms. Meanwhile, generic next-generation fighter representations have been shown both by state aircraft manufacturers and at defense expos.

Unsurprisingly, more granular rumors or estimates regarding the subsystems, weapons, and characteristics of the J-XD remain elusive even among the PLA watching community; however, it is widely accepted that the J-XD ranks among the most important upcoming projects for the PLA. In context of this, U.S. Air Force senior officers have reasonably alluded to viewing Chinese sixth-generation efforts as an underway competitor.

Current Fifth-Generation Efforts

However, before the J-XD emerges, there are still a number of active and vigorous fifth-generation fighter types in active development and production for the PLA. The fates of these fighters will also relate to the outcome and trajectory of the J-XD, in terms of the procurement scale and timeline of each respective type.

The J-20 family is the primary PLA fifth-generation fighter family, and has seen increases in both production scale and technological upgrades in recent years. However nomenclature once again needs to be discussed. At present, “J-20” is the name of the baseline variant in production powered by WS-10 engines (and by Al-31 engines in the first batch); this fighter is externally identified by its non-beaked nose as well as the lack of a dorsal hump behind the canopy.

“J-20A” is the name of the improved variant in development (and possibly early production) that is intended to be powered by more capable WS-15 engines (but may enter initial production with WS-10 engines). Multiple prototypes of the J-20A exist and can be identified by a slightly beaked nose and a dorsal hump behind the canopy.

Unfortunately, some “general knowledge” websites such as Wikipedia list the J-20 and J-20A as “J-20A” and “J-20B,” respectively, which are not appropriate consensus names for the respective variants. This serves to create confusion.

Estimates from think tanks and professional military institutes, suggest that around 200 J-20s have been produced as of the end of 2023 or early 2024. In context of rumors from the Chinese language PLA watching community, these estimates appear somewhat out of date. Indeed, estimates from the PLA watching community estimate that the 200-airframe milestone was reached some time in late 2022 or early 2023.

Furthermore, it is thought that at some point in 2022 to 2023, the annual production rate of J-20s from Chengdu had grown to approach three digits (i.e.: 100 airframes a year). This would give China the ability to annually equip three frontline PLA Air Force brigades, which also tracks with the number of new J-20 units being converted in recent years.

At the time of writing in mid-2024, I cautiously estimate that the J-20 fleet size may approach 300 airframes. It must be noted that future J-20 production rates may change (either increase or decrease) as the program proceeds. PLA secrecy and the difficult nature of attaining consistent high-quality satellite imagery means any “concrete” estimate of the J-20 fleet size is likely to be meaningfully behind from facts on the ground at any given time, though may serve as a useful “minimum floor” estimate.

The new J-20A variant remains in development, though unverified rumors suggest it may be on the cusp of early production. Major elements to confirm for the J-20A include whether initial production batches are powered by WS-10 or WS-15 engines (with the J-20A prototype serial 2052 powered by WS-15s flying in mid-2023), as well as how production of the J-20A and J-20 will cross with one another. J-20A advancements must also be watched, as the variant is not merely a J-20 with more powerful engines, but is rumored and expected to include an overhaul of software, avionics and sensor suites (even more so than inter-batch advancements for existing J-20s), material and structural advancements with corresponding signature reduction benefits, as well as significant power and thermal management advances. All of these enhancement will enhance future growth potential and a wider variety of upgrades and payloads. Among global peers, perhaps the most intuitive comparison for the J-20A is the TR3 variant and Block 4 upgrade for the F-35 family.

Of note, the twin seat “J-20S” (also known as the “J-20AS” or “J-20B”) is currently thought to be a technology demonstrator related to the J-20A variant to enhance and accelerate developmental efforts. However, the emergence of a production variant of the twin seat “J-20S” cannot be excluded in the future.

The J-35/XY and FC-31 derived family of fighters are the other major Chinese fifth-generation program. The carrier-borne J-35/XY has been flying in the form of prototypes since 2021, and mockups have been visible aboard both the catapult equipped CV-18 Fujian (which recently began its sea trials), as well as the CV-16 Liaoning, which may precede flight testing aboard the respective carriers. The presence of a J-35 mockup aboard the Liaoning is significant, as it indicates the fighter is compatible with the PLA Navy’s ski jump carriers (the Liaoning and CV-17 Shandong), which can significantly bolster the capability and future relevance of both ships.

Presently, the J-35 is expected to proceed with carrier flight testing in the near-term future, with initial production possibly to commence within the next couple of years at the earliest. There may also be indicators that a “J-31” developed from the FC-31 demonstrator intended for PLA use (or potentially for an export customer) may have also recently flown; however, this is yet to be confirmed. It is unclear how a notional “J-31” may fit in context of PLA procurement of J-20 family aircraft that is occurring at relatively large scale, not to mention the future J-XD and expectant UCAVs/CCAs.

H-20’s Status Unclear

Compared to fighter efforts like the J-XD, J-20 and J-35, the status of the much rumored and anticipated H-20 stealth bomber has become much less clear in recent years. While there remain occasional official remarks alluding to the development of the H-20, there have been some uncertain rumors in recent months that the H-20 as a project may not be pursued in the previous consensus form of a stealthy flying wing bomber.

This would not be entirely unprecedented, as the evolving strategic environment in the last half decade may have caused revisions of various projects and their respective priority, causing the public understanding of the project to be in limbo. We have seen a similar degree of secrecy for the future of China’s carrier procurement beyond Fujian. Somewhat more unprecedented for the H-20, however, is the relatively high-profile nature in which its existence was acknowledged as early as the late 2010s, creating a greater degree of concrete expectation for it than other past projects.

At this stage, the status and prediction of H-20 remains unclear. It may well still be an active project, or alternatively it may have undergone substantial revisions and emerge later than previously expected in an wholly different form, or even have elements of its role be delegated to other systems such as UCAVs/CCAs for the near term. Interestingly, there have been some rumors that the J-XD is considered a project of higher priority than the H-20. But in the absence of context or detail, it is difficult to substantiate this.

The PLA’s Unmanned Future

The PLA’s pursuit of high-end UCAVs is fairly established, with the stealthy flying wing GJ-11 being the most well-known type. Its program status (both in stage of development as well as production) is unknown, but potentially a small number of airframes exist in advanced testing. What is known is that a carrier-based stealthy flying wing UCAV (possibly derived from GJ-11) is expected to emerge, with a mockup having been observed aboard the PLA Navy carrier mockup in Wuhan, and a possible new airframe variant having emerged within the last year. A number of other flying wing UAV platforms are also known to exist, and with likely multiple more in more secretive development without public knowledge.

Various air-to-air oriented CCA concepts have also been shown at Chinese defense expos such as the Zhuhai airshow; however, these remain largely in line with various CCA projects around the world, and it is likely that more sophisticated models for PLA use are in more secretive development. The lower profile and more compact nature of many UCAVs and CCAs, as well as greater inherent PLA secrecy, makes it likely that a number of different UCAV and CCA concepts are in development and testing, and their emergence to the public sphere is likely only going to occur in late stages of development or even introduction into service.

Similar to other efforts by international air forces, PLA UCAVs and CCAs are very likely to be integral capabilities with the future J-XD fighter, as well as be compatible with existing fifth-generation fighters like the J-20 and J-35, and potentially 4.5-generation fighters such as the J-16 and J-10C with requisite upgrades.

The future trajectory and shape of PLA high end UCAV and CCA procurement remains one of the major unknowns of tracking future PLA combat aircraft.

Uncharted Waters

At this point in time, the long arc of Chinese combat aircraft (and in particular, manned fighter aircraft) development has brought China into the same category as leading edge aerospace powers, even when considering a few remaining industry domains where China has yet to catch up or scale (such as advanced turbofans). The overall level of advancement somewhat complicates projections of upcoming PLA combat aircraft projects, due to lack of existing comparable platforms that can guide public speculation.

The J-XD and associated future PLA UCAV and CCA projects will emerge alongside other global projects in highly uncharted waters, and may prove to be more fascinating than past PLA aerospace tracking efforts, and indeed more novel than past global military aerospace tracking since the Cold War.

China’s 6th Generation and Upcoming Combat Aircraft: 2024 Update (2024)


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