Tailless Warplane Concept May Provide Clues To China’s Future Fighter Ambitions

An intriguing photo has appeared on social media showing what looks to be a fighter-sized tailless aircraft concept out of China. Provided the photo is legitimate, and that it does represent some kind of future fighter concept or related demonstrator, it would add to the weight of evidence that suggests that China has indeed focused on a tailless configuration for its sixth-generation fighter jet, or that a design of this kind is at least under intensive study. In fact, a remarkably similar-looking vehicle appeared at the airfield of one of China’s biggest fighter manufacturers back in October 2021 — The War Zone was the first to report on to this still-mysterious airframe.

Reportedly first posted to Weibo, the Chinese microblogging website, next to no details are currently available about what the photo actually shows, let alone where or when it was taken. In the photo, a group of suit-wearing apparent executives stand around what looks to be a fairly basic flight simulator setup, apparently little more than an office chair, throttle plus sidestick controller, and a large computer screen that seems to show a more representative computer-generated cockpit, complete with a head-up display.

It’s the three larger monitors above this pseudo-cockpit that are of most interest, however. The one on the left is obscured, while the central screen shows an image of the tailless aircraft in question — with only limited resolution, it’s not immediately clear if this is computer-generated or if it shows an actual flight vehicle. This same picture is seen again on the right-hand screen, where the computer-generated cockpit is also repeated, together with other frames that are impossible to make out with any certainty.

A close-up view of the tailless concept seen on the monitors. via Twitter

In the background, the scene is dominated by what looks like a much larger dome-type flight simulator, suggesting that the individual in the chair is actually operating a full-motion simulation being run inside. In this case, the various views on the monitor could be providing different aspects of the simulated flight inside the dome and/or the perspective of an aggressor or other player being controlled by the simulator workstation.

Taken together, the scene looks very much like a simulation being run to investigate or demonstrate some of the characteristics of a tailless fighter concept or its subsystems.

Especially interesting is the fact that the dome simulator in the background has a sign on it with the emblem of AVIC, the Aviation Industry Corporation of China. This state-run conglomerate is responsible for most of the major Chinese aerospace companies. There is a suggestion that the accompanying Chinese text states that this is an ergonomics design and evaluation lab. If that’s the case, then the simulation work would seem to be connected to developing future fighter cockpits and interface features rather than the aerodynamic characteristics of the tailless aircraft, for example.

Another suggestion has it that the photo shows the interior of the China Aeronautical Radio Electronics Research Institute, in Shanghai, suggesting that this facility may be working alongside AVIC on some aspect of a possible future fighter program. On the other hand, the tailless design could also be a ‘placeholder’ concept, intended to give a rough impression of what a future fighter may look like, but relating to an entirely different program.

Whatever the kinds of simulations or evaluations being run in this photo, it provides yet more evidence that a tailless, large delta-like wing design is likely a top configuration for China’s next fighter.

So far, we have already seen a mysterious tailless vehicle that appeared in satellite images of a Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC) factory airfield in October 2021. The Chengdu ‘shape’ was a large modified-diamond-like delta planform with a relatively thin nose section; it also had a significant wingspan — broadly similar to that of a J-20.

The diamond-shaped tailless vehicle seen in a satellite image of the CAC factory airfield in October 2021. PHOTO © 2021 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION

It’s possible this was a demonstrator or a mock-up, and while it may well be connected to China’s sixth-generation fighter program, we simply don’t know for sure. CAC is one of China’s two preeminent fighter manufacturers, responsible for the single-engine J-10 fighter as well as the stealthy J-20. It has long been earmarked as a top candidate to develop a sixth-generation fighter.

Tailless fighter concepts have also made appearances in Chinese academic papers, suggesting that this configuration has already made a deep impression in the country’s aerospace design circles. On an unofficial level, too, artworks showing tailless combat aircraft concepts have appeared with increasing regularity in China.

As we have discussed in depth before, there are pros and cons behind a tailless design for a tactical aircraft. Perhaps the biggest advantage is what it brings in terms of broadband low observability against a wide variety of radar types operating across multiple frequencies. At the same time, the radar signature from the side and rear perspectives will also be reduced significantly. Overall, there will be a reduction in aerodynamic drag, which translates to better performance for sustained high-speed dashes and cruising flight. Other beneficial factors will almost certainly include a large internal volume for the carriage of fuel and weapons — critical for long-range and combat persistence, two key concerns in the Asia Pacific theater.

At the same time, a tailless configuration can adversely affect overall maneuverability, requiring advanced fly-by-wire digital flight control technology to simply keep it in the air, and perhaps also thrust-vectoring engines to confer any measurable level of agility.

Still, if these issues can be addressed, a tailless future tactical fighter could provide China with significant advances in terms of range, payload, speed, and low observability, at least compared with the fighters it currently operates.

That China is working on a sixth-generation fighter of some kind is also hardly a secret, despite the lack of official information emanating from Beijing. In September last year, Gen. Mark D. Kelly, the head of Air Combat Command (ACC), confirmed that China was developing an answer to the U.S. Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance program, or NGAD.

A notional design for the U.S. Air Force NGAD in a promotional video from Northrop Grumman. Northrop Grumman

Gen. Kelly added that he expects the Chinese efforts to involve the same kind of air combat ‘system of systems’ approach that the U.S. Air Force is pursuing, including a sixth-generation manned fighter jet.

While China is extremely tight-lipped about its pathway to a future fighter, the U.S. Air Force has also not revealed much about what it knows of its adversary’s sixth-generation air combat program. One thing Gen. Kelly did say is that the kind of platforms expected to emerge will have an “exponential” improvement in stealth compared with current Chinese aircraft. As we have noted before, a tailless design could be one way to help achieve that.

it is perhaps no surprise then, that almost all renderings of NGAD concepts from U.S. companies and the U.S. Air Force so far feature tailless designs.

A notional tailless NGAD design by Lockheed Martin. Lockheed Martin

As to when we might see the manned fighter element of China’s future air combat ecosystem, that’s unclear, although there have been one or two tantalizing suggestions offered by officials.

In a 2019 interview, for example, Wang Haifeng, chief designer for CAC, described a project that aims for service entry around 2035. That would suggest that a maiden flight might be expected sometime in the second half of this decade, at the latest.

Indeed, in the past, Chinese aerospace observer and author Andreas Rupprecht told The War Zone that: “Allegedly, since 2018, CAC and its related 611 Institute have been working on the development of key technologies for the next-generation fighter.”

Gen. Kelly has since suggested that China is on a broadly similar developmental timeline to the U.S. Air Force’s NGAD, which would also seem to suggest that testing of different manned fighter configurations is already well underway within one or more of the AVIC subsidiaries.

This testing is almost certain to include different manned fighter configurations and may very well also involve demonstrators, both sub-scale and full-size. One of these may well be what was spotted at Chengdu in 2019, and a similar concept may well have cropped up again in computer-generated form in this new image.

As well as the design of the fighter itself, supporting technologies are likely to include the ability to team with drones, the use of artificial intelligence, and advanced sensors that will be brought together as part of China’s broader future air combat architecture.

Whether a tailless manned combat jet eventually emerges at the center of all this remains speculative, for now, but the number of pointers suggesting that this kind of configuration could be related to China’s future fighter aircraft is certainly growing.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com