Is China testing the J-20 fighter's latest engine near super-altitude Sikkim border?

China likely testing new technology for operating aircraft in high-altitude zones

Chinese J-20 fighter A Chinese J-20 stealth fighter | China's Ministry of National Defense

Now and then, whenever China’s cutting-edge J20 ‘mighty dragon’ fighter aircraft operates near the Indian borders, much hype follows.

The latest buzz has come about after a few satellite images captured by ‘All Source Analysis’ showed at least half a dozen J-20 fighter jets being parked at the Shigatse air base, about 150km away from the Sikkim border.

First tested in 2011, the J-20 has evolved much. With the J-20 technology being constantly upgraded, the motive of the latest development could be to test the new technology of the aircraft to operate in high altitude zones.

While the Russian Saturn AL-31 aero engine was the first one used on the fighter, it was replaced with the locally-developed Shenyang WS-10 Taihang aero engine before being fitted with the WS-15 in 2023, which is a further upgrade.

A China state-owned media outlet quoted Li Gang, a J-20 ace test pilot, on Wednesday: “The J-20 is constantly improving, keeping pace with the times, and continuously perfecting its mission system to achieve its expected combat objectives.”

Along with the air bases in Lhunze and Burang, the Shigatse base is among the recent infrastructural development projects taken up by the Tibet Civil Aviation Administration. But the fact remains that all Chinese air bases have both civilian and military facilities.

The Shigatse air base is closest to the Doklam plateau, near the tri-junction between India’s Sikkim, Bhutan and southern Tibet. Doklam was the site of the 73-day standoff between Indian and Chinese soldiers in 2017.

The Lhunze base is just across the border from Arunachal Pradesh’s Upper Subansiri district while the Burang base is located in the tri-junction in China’s Tibet, bordering Nepal and Pithoragarh in India’s Uttarakhand.

Several J-20 fighters had landed in the Hotan air base in August 2020, less than two months after the Galwan clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers on June 15, 2020, where at least 20 lives were lost while about 76 were injured.

Situated in southwestern Xinjiang, Hotan is about 130km away from the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

From the Chinese military standpoint, these three bases are critical as they can act as launch bases for support of troops and supplies that can be a challenge in the high-altitude Tibetan region.

It is another challenge for aircraft to take off from the 4km high Tibetan plateau as the air is rarified and aircraft cannot acquire full thrust, as a result of which there is a limit to the payload that they can carry.

The J-20 is a much-hyped fighter aircraft of the Chinese Air Force reportedly under mass production now. What gives the J-20 a larger-than-life image is its stealth capability besides being much faster, more manoeuvrable and its better avionics than the older generations.

The J-20 is the world’s third stealth fighter aircraft to be deployed after the F-22A Raptor and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, both of which are with the US military.

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