As movement across China and Russia continue to alarm US intelligence, the Department of Defense (DoD) is now looking for a stealthy target drone system that will ideally combat J-20s and Su-57s.

The Sukhoi Su-57 is a Russian twin-engine stealth multirole fighter aircraft capable of aerial combat and maritime strikes. It is lauded for its super maneuverability, integrated payload capacity, and supercruise features. Russia has used the Su-57 multiple times, including during the Ukraine-Russia war attacks.

Though the Su-57 development has been going on for years, Russia has every intention to triple their production of these Sukhoi-produced fighters. New facilities are getting opened for testing new fighter systems and equipment, according to the United Aircraft Corporation (UAC). There will be expansions on multiple locations so UAC can fulfill another order of 76 stealth fighter Su-57s. There will also be regions for testing fuel tanks, engines, and avionics. UAC is preparing a new building where they will develop electroplating, heat treatment, and machining of the components.

On the other hand, the Chinese Chengdu J-20 is another stealth fighter jet the US is watching out for. It is known for its air superiority and long history. Unlike the newer Su-57s (on its 5th generation now), the J-20s have been in production since the late 1900s through the J-XX program. The J-20 has undergone several revisions on its prototypes, including stealth coating, redesigned vertical stabilizers, and updated low-observable intake and payload capacity.

In October 2017, the final version of the J-20 was finalized and approved for mass production. By 2019, the J-20s were already running through Chinese air and had been integrated with the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (PLA Air Force) training.

The Chinese also used the Su-57 for their aerial combat training, but in January 2021, it was reported that they have decided to completely replace the Russian engines with the J-20 stealth fighters, showing how confident China is when it comes to the aircraft’s speed and firepower.

PLAAF J-20 Stealth Fighter (Source: L.G. Images/Flickr)

The J-20 has an extended fuselage and sharp nose section that allows it to reach top speeds while being maneuverable in battle. Its aft section has twin outward canted fins and deep ventral strakes partnered with a low-observable engine exhaust.

One of the top features of the J-20 design is its high instability, requiring it to have a sustained pitch authority at high angle attack.

“Further decreasing the aircraft’s longitudinal relaxed stability is an excellent solution to this problem. Diagram 1 shows how the variation tendency of trim-drag coefficients against longitudinal instability of a conventional fighter aircraft in a tight, sustained turn. Modern fighters fix their longitudinal instability at 3% the average aerodynamic chord length. The future fighter could enjoy a significant improvement in lift-to-drag if the longitudinal instability could be increased to a magnitude of around 10%.,” according to Dr. Song Wencong, the chief designer of the J-10 program and the lead for J-20 too.

“Further relaxing the longitudinal instability could not only enhance trans-sonic lift to drag characteristics but also improve super sonic lift to drag capabilities, increase take-off and landing characteristics, and maximize low-speed lift characteristics. This is akin to killing three birds with a single stone. Yet a increase in longitudinal instability will also increase the burden on high AOA pitch down control and subsequently increase flight control complexities. As a result the design team should not “over-relax” the longitudinal stability.

What is the US Air Force Alternative?

Sukhoi Design Bureau, 054, Sukhoi Su-57 (Source: Anna Zvereva/Wikimedia)

For now, the Air Force has no definitive answer yet, but they have opened up a call for the next-generation drone fighter that “resembles a fifth-generation” aircraft like the Su-57 and the J-20. They are looking for a system that has an infrared sensor and a radar screen (that could ideally emit radar and jamming signals). The open call also states they’re looking for these drones to be “destructible,” meaning it has to be low-case and can be easily replaced during practice.

They’re looking for a drone “designed to replicate threat aircraft systems that emulate performance, signatures, and countermeasures of enemy aircraft.” This “fifth generation representative target suite… should be able to provide a remotely-controlled destructible asset” that features electronic attack emissions and radio frequency.

“Remotely-controlled targets must be capable of autonomous operation, either under remote control by a human operator, autonomously by onboard computers, or any combination of the two methods,” the RFI adds.

Though these are the preliminary requirements, analysts believe the new vehicle should be able to do so much more. It should have a minimum of two supersonic dashes at Mach 1.2 and a potential operating altitude of 100 feet up to 50,000 feet.

As the saying goes, “Train like you fight and fight like you train,” a fast, stealthy evasive target drone will give Air Force pilots training in shooting down adversary aircraft with actual missiles and guns, something neither Russia or Chinese pilots get a chance to do.

SOFREP will monitor the best manufacturer who will land this USAF contract.