China’s J-20 fifth generation heavyweight fighter entered service in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force in 2017 as the first active stealth fighter developed outside the United States, and is currently the only non-American fighter of its generation deployed in sufficient numbers to form full squadrons. Continued improvements to the J-20’s design have ranged from new stealth coatings to new engines, and in 2020 a new variant of the fighter the J-20B entered production with considerable improvements over the original. It has long been speculated that China could develop a twin seat variant of the aircraft, which would represent the very first fifth generation fighter with such a configuration. Twin seat aircraft have been popular in the fourth generation not only for training purposes, but also for roles beyond air superiority such as strike, ship hunting and electronic attack roles where the second seat can accommodate a weapons systems officer to operate armaments.
Defence experts writing for the Chinese military magazine Ordnance Industry Science Technology elaborated on the advantages a twin seat variant of the J-20 could have, stating: “The emergence of a twin-seat version of the J-20 is because the J-20’s mission has diversified and China needs a more capable fighter jet.. It’s a piece of cake for the J-20 to perform [electronic interference] duties because of its strong power supply capacity, fire-control radar and integrated avionics system.” In the role of an electronic attack jet, the magazine further noted: “We can imagine that the front pilot will be in charge of flying the aircraft, while the pilot sitting behind is in charge of controlling the electronic inference platform, making the J-20 a nightmare for enemy electronic equipment.” Another notable advantage a twin seat J-20 variant would bring is that the second seat could accommodate a controller for drones that fly near or alongside J-20 squadrons. It noted to this effect: “The drones could be bait to attract enemy aircraft or draw in stealth aircraft … they can also gather intelligence, carry out attacks against air defence systems and gain air superiority.”
With America’s F-22 terminated from production early and long before its design had matured or been developed into other variants, and its lighter and cheaper F-35 suffering from multiple very serious design and performance issues and expected to also see production terminated early, the J-20 could well be the star player of the fifth generation and be commissioned in the most variants. These could include a number of increasingly advanced air superiority fighters, and variants for electronic attack and for strike and anti shipping roles. The possibility of an airborne early warning and control aircraft with a much larger radar also being developed based on the J-20’s airframe has also been raised, as well as a maritime strike fighter. Considering the wide range of variants the J-20’s predecessor, the J-11 was developed into, including carrier based fighters, strike fighters and electronic attack jets, this remains highly plausible. Much a derivatives of the J-11 were named J-15 and J-16, so too could future derivatives based on the J-20 airframe carry different designations.