At the Zhuhai airshow in China this week, China showed off its J-20 jet, known as the “Mighty Dragon.” According to a report by Eurasian Times, the fighter jets sported a Chinese-made WS-10C engine.
This is significant, the report said, because of what it says about China’s ability to make its own parts. Until now, the only countries on the UN Security Council that produce "capable and reliable” jet engines were the United States, France, and the United Kingdom.
“This indicates a high degree of confidence among the country’s aerospace engineering community and the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). WS-10C is part of their concerted effort to initiate a clean break from Russian power plants,” the report said. “Jet engines are an area where even the reverse-engineering expert Chinese have not been able to master, baring the sheer complexity and sophistication of the technology that countries guard so fanatically."
The South China Morning Post had reported back in January that Chinese engineers had been “directed to modify the engine on the J-20 until it matches America's F-22 Raptor.”
"It's impossible for China to rely on the Russian engine because Russia asked China to purchase more Su-35 fighter jets in exchange for the AL-31F engine deals,” an unnamed insider told the South China Morning Post.
The Eurasian Times article also stated that the pandemic had slowed down China’s work on those engines.
“The J-20 spotted at Zhuhai with the WS-10C engine is not the J-20B, which only entered mass production in July 2020 when the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation added a fourth production line,” the report said. “The new line can produce at least one J-20 aircraft a month. The newer J-10B variant will continue to be powered by Russian engines since the WS-10C will take at least another year to finish testing.”
The J-20 itself has been in development since 2017. The development began, ahead of schedule, because “then-President Donald Trump had stoked fears of a sudden conflict with Washington.”
China keeps its J-20 jets “on lock,” according to David Axe, a former defense editor for the National Interest.
"What’s ironic about China’s J-20 sales-restriction is that many observers strongly suspect Beijing’s engineers derived the plane’s design in part from data that Chinese hackers have stolen from the American-led F-35 stealth fighter program," Axe explained in an article published by the National Interest in March 2020. “The U.S. expressly designed the F-35 to be safely exportable. The F-35 is smaller, slower, and less stealthy than the F-22 is. But it still includes sensitive technologies including sophisticated sensors and radar-absorbing coatings.”
Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist, and film critic, who is also a contributor to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.