• July 24, 2024

China is employing innovative strategies in aerial warfare with the deployment of this fighter aircraft.

The J-20 possesses impressive speed capabilities; however, its maneuverability is limited, making it more suitable for swift and tactical operations.

During the 2018 Zhuhai airshow in China, an exceptionally modified Chengdu J-10B single-engine multi-role jet captivated spectators with a remarkable showcase of aerobatic maneuvers. These included the renowned Pugachev’s Cobra and the Falling Leaf, where the aircraft gracefully rotated laterally on its horizontal axis, seemingly descending leisurely towards the ground. You can witness these awe-inspiring stunts in the accompanying video.

The China J-10TVC Engine Fighter:

Similar to its American counterpart, the F-16 jet, the J-10—referred to as the Vigorous Dragon or the Firebird by NATO—is a highly agile fourth-generation aircraft with an aerodynamically unstable airframe that relies on its flight control computer for regulation. However, executing such maneuvers would have been unattainable for a regular aircraft relying solely on conventional flight controls.

The key ingredient behind the J-10B’s extraordinary performance at Zhuhai was its powerplant: instead of the typical Russian AL-31F(N) turbofan, it featured the WS-10B Taihang engine typically reserved for the larger twin-engine Chengdu J-20 Mighty Dragon stealth fighter.

 

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Significantly, this specific Taihang engine (referred to as the WS-10G in certain sources) underwent modifications incorporating three-dimensional Thrust Vector Controls (TVC). These advancements enable the pilot to redirect the engine’s thrust by tilting the exhaust nozzles both laterally and vertically.

Such enhancements greatly augment the aircraft’s capability to adapt its pitch, roll, and yaw, granting the J-10B remarkable super-maneuverability in flight. This ensures that the pilot maintains control of the aircraft even during a stall, a characteristic not typically seen in conventional planes.

 

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In addition to various testbeds, the United States presently deploys only one fighter aircraft equipped with TVC in operational missions. This exceptional aircraft is the F-22 Raptor, an air superiority stealth fighter renowned for its outstanding performance, featuring two-dimensional TVC. However, TVC was not incorporated into the later F-35 Lightning, which focuses on attack-oriented capabilities.

Russia, on the other hand, has adopted TVC engines on a larger scale across several fourth-generation fighters, including the Su-30MK, Su-35S, and MiG-35, as well as their stealth fighter, the Su-57. China’s acquisition of 36 Su-35 fighters in 2016 likely provided valuable insights and technology that informed the development of the TVC-equipped WS-10 engine.

Undoubtedly, the ability to execute tight maneuvers serves as a valuable advantage for pilots during within-visual range dogfights. This capability enables them to potentially outmaneuver nearby adversaries and evade incoming missiles, making it a strategic asset in their arsenal.

 

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However, there is an ongoing debate within Western aviation circles regarding the value of incorporating heavier and more expensive TVC engines. The concern stems from the fact that executing extreme maneuvers using TVC can significantly deplete the aircraft’s energy in terms of speed and altitude, which could otherwise be traded for increased velocity. While a tight maneuver may prove advantageous against an immediate threat, it can subsequently leave the TVC-equipped aircraft in a sluggish state, making it challenging to evade subsequent attacks.

There are allegations that excessive reliance on thrust-vectoring played a role in the defeat of Indian Air Force Su-30MKI fighters during a Red Flag exercise in 2008 when pitted against American F-15C jets.

Another factor to consider is the emergence of high-off-boresight missiles like the American AIM-9X and Russian R-73, coupled with helmet-mounted sights integrated into the latest fourth-generation fighters. These advancements allow pilots to launch short-range air-to-air missiles at targets without having to precisely align the nose of the aircraft (although maintaining such positioning remains desirable due to the added momentum). While this development diminishes the advantages offered by superior maneuverability to some extent, it does not completely eliminate them.

The Taihang engine, despite its potential, has faced certain challenges and difficulties.

 

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Photographs have unveiled further instances of modified J-10B aircraft, as well as more advanced J-10C variants utilized as WS-10B testbeds. These images captured in November 2019 depicted a yellow composite-skinned J-10C featuring production model serials, equipped with higher-thrust non-TVC WS-10B turbofan engines.

 

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Additionally, it is known that a testbed J-20 stealth fighter equipped with a thrust-vectoring engine exists.

China has encountered challenges for years in achieving the desired performance and reliability from its indigenous WS-10 turbofan engines, particularly in terms of metallurgy and single-crystal fan blades. There have been reports of early WS-10 engines requiring refurbishment at the factory after only a few dozen flight hours.

As a result, the J-20 stealth fighters often rely on lower-thrust Russian AL-31F engines, which means that the formidable stealth jet has not yet reached its intended level of performance characteristics.

 

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Following years of continuous improvements, CAIG, the manufacturer of J-10 and J-20 aircraft, anticipates that the WS-10B model signifies a more consistent advancement in thrust and performance. This progress comes as China diligently works towards the development of the highly potent WS-15 turbofan engine.

Projections indicate that the WS-15 engine could generate 40,000 pounds of thrust, potentially enabling the J-20 to achieve super cruising capabilities. This means the aircraft could sustain supersonic speeds in level flight without relying on fuel-consuming afterburners. Speculation also surrounds the WS-15 engine potentially featuring three-dimensional thrust vectoring.

Consequently, an important question arises: Do the various J-10 TVC testbeds imply China’s intention to produce a higher-thrust, and potentially thrust-vectoring, J-10D model as a successor to the already esteemed J-10C fighter?

 

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Alternatively, could these tests indicate CAIG’s focus on incorporating thrust-vectoring capabilities into J-20 stealth fighters? According to Dr. Andreas Rupprecht, the author of the Modern Chinese Warplanes series, it is more plausible that the J-10 engine testbeds serve the purpose of evaluating capabilities that will eventually be integrated into the planned WS-15 engine for the J-20.

The prevailing theory in Western discussions suggests that the robust J-20 prioritizes high-speed performance over maneuverability, making it most suitable for hit-and-run tactics. However, China’s sustained interest in testing agility-enhancing TVC engines indicates a different perspective. It may suggest that the intention is to upgrade the J-20 with new engines, transforming it into a well-rounded aircraft capable of excelling in within-visual range combat scenarios.

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