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China's 'two-headed dragon' may make its debut in skies next month

Stealth fighters another area where US and China going at it ‘head to head'

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An artistic rendition of China's J-20 Weillong fighters (Weibo, @航空EXIA image)

An artistic rendition of China's J-20 Weillong fighters (Weibo, @航空EXIA image)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — China’s J-20 Weilong twin-seater stealth fighter might make its maiden flight on Nov. 11 to mark the People's Liberation Army Air Force’s 72nd anniversary, per an anonymous Chinese military source.

The fighter jet, whose name means “Great Dragon,” is rumored to be the world’s first stealth fighter that can hold two pilots, according to a report by the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Experts frame the new aircraft as Beijing’s answer to Washington’s much-touted strategic concept of “next-generation air dominance” (NGAD). NGAD aims to keep American superiority in the air going well into the 2030s by building out overlapping systems that feature advanced fighters, sensors, and autonomous drones all battling in tandem, per SCMP.

For its part, the U.S. Air Force has already test flown a new generation stealth fighter that operates with a human pilot and an AI-based computerized co-pilot, according to a National Interest report released in July.

“You may need a human in the aircraft and not when the threat dictates otherwise, and use AI to relay human mission level tasking to unmanned autonomous vehicles,” Jason Clark, director at Raytheon, a fighter jet manufacturer, was quoted as saying.

It’s unknown if the Chinese designs will also have this optionality, but it seems the added human intelligence in the form of another pilot will be highly valuable nonetheless.

“The extra human brain could help profoundly in making sense of information — that is coming in hard and fast — as well as maintaining situational awareness, which are so critical in aerial operations, especially air-to-air combat which the J-20 is primarily designed for,” Ben Ho, a researcher Singapore’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told SCMP.

The two-seater may also indicate that, like the U.S, China plans to operate drones in a supportive role with its frontline fighters.

“A second crew member in the cockpit could relieve the pilot of managing these additional aircraft while operating in what is sure to be a complex and rapidly shifting air combat environment,” according to John A. Tirpak of Air Force Magazine.

“The back-seater could reduce the pilot’s workload substantially in this application, at the cost of some reduced range due to the extra weight of a second crew station,” he said.