China's J-20 Stealth Fighter Photographed Toting Massive External Fuel Tanks

The J-20's range just got longer and its flexibility enhanced.

China's new warplane J-20 makes debut at Zhuhai show
Li jianshu—Li jianshu - Imaginechina

China's stealthy J-20 fighter-interceptor program continues to gain steam, with deep avionics integration work underway and even reports the jet is already deployed in a semi-operational state. Now the aircraft has appeared in a totally new configuration, toting a quartet of massive auxiliary fuel tanks (aka, drop tanks or "bags") under its usually clean wings. 

The J-20 is designed to capitalize on glaring holes in American air combat capabilities. This primarily includes US tactical air power's lack of range and its dependence on force-multiplying assets like tanking, airborne early warning and control, data-fusion and other lumbering and potentially vulnerable aircraft. China building a stealthy fighter-interceptor that can range far from the mainland and work to pick off these enabling support aircraft, as well as other fighters, is tactically sound. On a larger level, the J-20 works as an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) weapon, pushing out the PLAAF's anti-air reach while also bringing a whole new level of capabilities to the flying force's tactical aircraft inventory. 

All this fits into China's overall A2/AD strategy, which aims to deny an opposing force the ability to operate within hundreds, or even thousands or miles of the Chinese mainland—far enough that many of said enemy's offensive military capabilities are automatically neutered. But executing long-range combat air patrols or stalking an enemy's vulnerable force multiplier assets are not the only ways such an aircraft could be put to use. Outside of possible secondary air-to-ground, air-to-surface and suppression/destruction of enemy air defenses roles, the J-20's advanced avionics can be leveraged to benefit lesser platforms within the air-to-air realm. 

If the photos are legitimate, and they appear to be, by adding auxiliary fuel tanks, the J-20 will be able to fly even further than it does today, not just for ferrying operations, but also for air sovereignty missions, just like F-22s do in Alaska. Additionally, the ability to haul thousands of pounds of fuel externally will allow the J-20 to loiter for long periods of time, during which time the aircraft can act as a sensor node and "quarterback" for other aircraft Chinese tactical aircraft. Once again, this is a tactic the F-22 pioneered to some degree, as even after its magazine runs dry, Raptors are often kept on the scene to direct other coalition aircraft not just towards the enemy to assist in kills, but away from them as well.

Although cumbersome external fuel tanks sap the J-20's low observable (stealth) qualities and maneuvering performance, it is likely that they can be jettisoned along with their pylons in a similar manner as the F-22. This allows the aircraft to recapture a large degree of its low observability, and is clearly useful if increased kinematic performance is needed. The tanks will also allow J-20s to reach stations hundreds of miles beyond what they are capable on external fuel alone. They will make the J-20 more independent of aerial tankers for certain missions, and even with four tanks, the J-20's baseline internal weapon carriage capability is not disturbed.

F-22A test aircraft during external tank/pylon jettison tests (USAF): 

It is also becoming increasingly evident that for some missions the J-20, or a least a portion of them, are likely to carry weapons under their wings. In particular, China's new and nearly telephone pole sized very long-range air-to-air missile that is in development. You can read all about this missile here, but it certainly will not fit in a J-20's weapons bay. That does not mean the J-20 won't have great use for it, quite the contrary. 

J-20s working cooperatively are the perfect team to put such a weapon to use. For instance, a devision (flight of four) J-20s could work in two sections, one section of two jets in stealth configuration, and the other two carrying four long-range air-to-air missiles. The stealthy pair can venture forward to quietly (electronic emissions silent) obtain targeting information while the J-20s carrying the long-range missiles can act as weapons magazines, leveraging the targeting data obtained from their stealthy wingmen. These are similar to tactics being developed by the USAF for the F-15 and F-22 air dominance team. For instance, the stealthy J-20s can use their passive sensors (electronic support measures and infrared search and track) to silently stalk targets far in front of the non-stealthy configured J-20s. Meanwhile the other non-stealthy J-20s operating many dozens of miles to the rear can use their radars freely, providing enhanced situational awareness to the stealthy J-20s ahead by sharing their radar "picture" via data-link. In doing so these non-stealthy configured J-20s also act as bait, drawing in enemy fighter aircraft, and leaving them vulnerable to ambush by their stealthy and silent counterparts. You can read more about these types of tactics here.

One of the latest images of the J-20 to come out of China showing an increasingly missionized aircraft (Chinese internet):

Although similar tactics can be realized via the interoperation between China's Su-27 derivatives and J-20s, the J-20's sensor suite and level of sensor fusion is supposedly a leap ahead anything else in the PLAAF. Most importantly the J-20 is built to work among its own kind above all else. Training is also simplified by keeping these tactics "in house" at least until the aircraft has many more years to develop and synergies with other PLAAF platforms are identified, tested and regularly trained for. Even then, a Flanker does not have the ability to blow off its external stores and instantly become much harder to detect, all the while still be armed with internal short and medium-range weaponry.    

Basically, seeing the J-20 tanked up gives us evidence of a potentially more flexible combat aircraft than we have known in the past, and it will be interesting to see other stores begin to appear under its wings. It is also another reminder that the J-20 is rapidly maturing and will soon become a front-line reality within the PLAAF. And this is just part of China's stealth aircraft revolution. With a medium weight fighter also in the works—flying in its second and much more refined form no less—as well as a stealthy bomber program underway, the PLAAF of today is likely to be unrecognizable from what it will become a decade from now.

Contact the author Tyler@thedrive.com