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More photos of the Chengdu stealth fighter prototype, reportedly the J-20, continue to emerge - although they don't add too much as yet to our understanding of the aircraft itself. It will take a little more measurement to pin down the jet's size, and without a plan view we can't say much. (The last time this happened was with the YF-12, and most people were miles away from the real aircraft.)First, it looks like a delta, not a lambda:That has some signature implications, with what looks like an almost unswept trailing edge, because edges scatter forward and backwards.More new photos: The questions that need to be answered start with the size, because that will start to tell us where this aircraft falls on the bomber/fighter continuum. The next question: how far along is the aircraft in development and, if it is pursued, when will it become operational? I would submit that the simplistic approach - comparing this aircraft to the YF-22 or X-35 and therefore projecting an IOC well beyond 2020 - is philosophically wrong, dangerous and stupid.One problem is that we don't have a pattern for Chinese major programs. In the Cold War, the Soviet Union had its own development procedure that often confused us. The first aircraft of any type would be pure prototypes. Once the go-ahead was given for the type to enter service, MiG or Sukhoi would build a small batch of aircraft for service testing under operational conditions. Only then would full-rate production start. What was often confusing was that the service-test jets would be mistaken for operational aircraft.China has not had many major combat aircraft programs. The most complex is the J-10, which flew in 1998 and is now well established in service with a major upgrade in flight test. The simpler JF-17 has moved even faster. However, this means that Chengdu can draw on a team which has recent experience with two full development programs and an upgrade. Once big factor will be the engine. China's transition from dependence on Russian-developed high-performance engines is still under way. The key will be seeing whether and when the doemstically designed WS-10 replaces the Russian AL-31 in the J-10 and the J-11 (China's "bootleg" version of the Sukhoi family). What could change things substantially is Russian-Chinese collaboration. Despite Russian concerns over China's reverse-engineering of its products, the lure of Chinese money and access to China's micro-electronics base is strong. And if Russia has permitted the export of the latest 117S engines for the J-20, it tells us a lot. Meanwhile at Chengdu, the forward observation team is digging in for the long haul:Much more comfortable than Freedom Ridge back in the Interceptor days.
ar99, tacair, j-20, china
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