Pictures have emerged from Chengdu Aerospace Corporation’s plant and flight test airfield that appear to show a J-20 in yellow primer paint with a two-place tandem cockpit and an elongated canopy to enclose it. If the images are indeed legitimate, the appearance of this J-20 variant, often referred to as the J-20B, J-20AS, or J-20S, wouldn’t be much of a surprise as China’s military-industrial complex has been hinting at its development in an increasing manner for some time now. In fact, we covered its potential development just this summer.
This new J-20 variant would give China something the United States and other competitors do not have—a stealthy high-performance tactical jet that has two heads in the cockpit instead of one. Why the two-person crew concept is becoming a big deal again is that two people are better able to exploit the enormous information advanced sensors and networking, as well as close proximity to the enemy, that a stealthy advanced fighter with good endurance can provide. In doing so, they can become force multipliers, helping to enable other, less capable assets by working as a ‘quarterback of sorts of the localized tactical air battle. Having another brain available to help best employ the J-20’s own weapons is also a plus, especially as its arsenal expands and its missions continue to evolve.
There are also clear training advantages of having a two-seat variant of any aircraft. Even if the ‘J-20B’ is not configured with full controls in the rear cockpit, crews can still benefit from exposure to tactical training and basic flight operations via the second seat accommodation.
As to the question of whether the images of a two-seat J-20 are real or not, we cannot say for certain, but they do fit well with an established pattern of ‘leaks’ on the internet in China that show increasingly more detailed images of new aircraft developments out of Chengdu. In fact, these images are very similar to the first glimpses we got of the J-20. At the time, many said they were fakes. They, and many in the U.S. government, were soon proven quite wrong when it came to their chronic underestimation of Chinese engineering capabilities and the level of espionage at work that helped it advance so quickly.
Still, these images could easily be altered. We have seen some great fakes before. The timing is key here, though, as two-seat J-20 concept art has increasingly been present at major events, including China’s big air show and arms expo in Zhuhai that just wrapped up earlier this month.
As such, it really isn’t as much a question of if we are getting a ‘J-20B,’ but when.
It will be interesting to see if this new variant also has other major refinements to the core J-20 design. We have seen the aircraft evolve over the last decade on many fronts and it is known that its avionics have progressively improved. The advent of a two-seater would be a great time to introduce more major modifications, some of which are thought to be on the way.
So, we’ll have to see if more images emerge of this potentially impactful two-seat J-20. If these are indeed the real McCoy, we will likely see higher resolution images of the jet in question very soon.
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