China marked the end of 2013 with milestones for two major military aircraft programmes: the start of series production of the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC) J-10B fighter and a maiden flight for the second prototype of the Xian Aircraft Corporation's Y-20 heavy transport.
In early December, images of two new Chengdu J-10B fighters with temporary tail numbers 101 and 103 appeared on Chinese military websites. Together with images of the J-10B production line that first appeared in July 2013, it is credible that serial production has started for this advanced version of the J-10, which first appeared in March 2009.
Chengdu has also produced more than 250 J-10A and twin-seat J-10S fighters, which are in service with the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and the PLA Navy Air Force (PLANAF).
The J-10B's key differences to the J-10A include a redesigned chin intake, with the lower edge now angled forward and movable ramp replaced by a smaller, fixed, diffuser bulge that also contributes to reduced weight and radar cross-section; a longer nose radome that is believed to house an NRIET active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar; and an electro-optic (EO) targeting sensor (IRST and laser rangefinder) mounted just forward of the windscreen, offset to starboard. It also has a new electronic warning or countermeasures pod atop the vertical stabiliser.
The J-10B will carry the same array of air-to-air and ground-attack weapons as the J-10A, to include a new twin-missile pylon for the Luoyang PL-12 active radar-guided air-to-air missile (AAM). Its more powerful AESA radar may also enable use of a new larger AAM first seen on a Chengdu J-20 prototype fighter earlier in 2013 and the new CASIC CM-400AKG near-hypersonic ground-attack/anti-ship missile.
The new-production J-10Bs, however, still use the same Russian Saturn AL-31FN turbofan as the J-10A. A prototype of the J-10B equipped with a version of the Shenyang-Liming WS-10A turbofan appeared in July 2011. However, limited access to this powerplant may mean that Shenyang Aircraft Corporation fighters such as the J-11B and J-15 carrier fighter have priority.
Meanwhile, a second prototype of Xian's Y-20 transport flew for the first time on 16 December, following the initial flight of the first prototype on 26 January 2013. Video of the flight posted on a Chinese military website suggested no outward differences between the two prototypes.
The second prototype is also powered by Russian 12-ton thrust Soloviev D-30KP turbofans. China is developing at least three high-bypass turbofans, although the reported 13-ton thrust WS-20, a derivative of the Shenyang-Liming WS-10A fighter turbofan, may be the first to power the Y-20. With the WS-20 installed, the Y-20 is expected to reach its full potential payload of more than 60 tons.
A report from a Hubei City television news programme noted that the PLA may take delivery of initial production versions of the Y-20 in 2017. The report also claimed that China had started discussions for the Y-20 with an unidentified foreign customer.