J-20 first LRIP airframe maiden flight (serial number 2101)
It’s finally happened
After weeks of waiting since the initial blurry pictures of airframe 2101 was sighted at CAC in late December, the first Low Rate Initial Production J-20 has made its maiden flight on January 18th, with clear pictures of 2101 airborne only just released on the internet. This flight definitively marks the beginning of the J-20 programme’s next development stage. The maiden flight of 2101 also makes the total number of identified flying J-20 airframes to reach 9 airframes (8 prototype airframes and the 1 new LRIP airframe).
Examining the outer surfaces of airframe 2101, one can observe many grey dielectric regions around the aircraft, most obviously being its nose radome, but also on the leading and trailing edges of its main wings, the forward aspect of the aircraft’s LERXs, the side aspects of its nose and air intakes, as well as its tails, strakes and tailbooms. These regions of the aircraft could potentially be indicative of radio frequency sensors of any kind, including radar, ECM, ESM, or datalinks. On the other hand, some of these regions could also be indicative of “baked in” RAM of the aircraft’s fuselage.
It is also worth noting that the airframe lacks applicable radar absorbing material seen on fully painted prototypes, such as on the aircraft’s leading edge of its air intakes.
Airframe 2101 is likely to be followed by additional LRIP aircraft, and it has been rumoured that as many as two other J-20 LRIP airframes have been sighted around Chengdu.
Once a sufficiently large batch of initial LRIP airframes have been produced, they will likely be delivered to the Chinese Air Forces’ Flight Test and Training Centre (FTTC) for initial evaluation and to develop tactics, doctrine and procedures for the aircraft, potentially followed by certification next year and a subsequent induction into regular service.
However, it is worth remembering that present J-20 airframes are powered by Al-31 variants, which produce insufficient thrust for the aircraft to reach its true kinematic potential and to truly push the aircraft to its flight envelopes. Therefore, J-20’s true kinematic capability will only arrive once its intended WS-15 17 ton thrust turbofan is ready for the aircraft.
But despite the relative delay of the WS-15 engine relative to the rest of the aircraft, if J-20’s sensor suite, weapons suite and stealth capabilities can be adequately developed and mastered it will likely remain a formidable and very useful new capability for the Chinese Air Force even if the airframe has to cope with underpowered Al-31s.