China’s ‘Ace’: Yang Wei, fighter de­signer

Vayu Aerospace and Defence - - Aviation Defence & in India - With in­puts from Ben­jamin Baker and Robert Beck­husen

There are ar­guably thou­sands of en­gi­neers around the world in the realm of new air­craft de­sign, but ace de­sign­ers only come along once every few decades. In the 1930s, there was Regi­nald Mitchell of Spit­fire fame, Syd­ney Camm who de­signed the Hur­ri­cane, Willy Messer­schmitt and his line of fa­mous fighters, Claude Dornier and his bombers and sea­planes, Kurt Tank and the FW 190, sev­eral Soviet de­sign­ers in­clud­ing Tupolev, Yakovlev and so many oth­ers. In the 1950s, the United States had Kelly John­son, de­signer of the Starfighter and SR- 71 Black­bird; the Soviet Union’s Mikoyan and his clas­sic MiGs and more lately Mikhail Si­monov of the Sukhoi Su- 27 fam­ily. Each of them were highly skilled, but they also owed much of their suc­cess to cir­cum­stance. They came along when their re­spec­tive gov­ern­ments in­vested mil­lions — or bil­lions — of dol­lars into trans­form­ing brain­power into cut­ting-edge com­bat air­craft.

This mix­ture of en­gi­neer­ing ge­nius and un­re­strained spend­ing ap­pears to have pro­duced a new ace de­signer – this time in China. Over the last decades, a rel­a­tively un­known en­gi­neer named Yang Wei has rapidly risen to the lead­er­ship of the Chengdu Air­craft De­sign In­sti­tute, China’s ma­jor fighter man­u­fac­turer and re­spon­si­ble for most of the PLAAF’s present new gen fighters. Th­ese are the J-20, China’s first stealth fighter and the more mod­est, but one which will make very im­por­tant im­pact amongst air forces in the third world notably Pak­istan, the JF-17 Thun­der.

Yang Wei was born in 1963 and en­rolled at the North­west­ern Polytech­ni­cal Univer­sity in 1978 at the age of just 15. He com­pleted two de­grees and be­came a con­trol sys­tems en­gi­neer at Chengdu. At 35, he be­came the youngest-ever direc­tor of such an im­por­tant mil­i­tary re­search and de­vel­op­ment in­sti­tute. Yang is con­sid­ered as the main de­signer be­hind China’s in­no­va­tions in elec­tronic ‘ fly- by- wires’ con­trols in the 1980s, and fur­ther­more, is de­scribed as the main ar­chi­tect be­hind the PLAAF’s in­tro­duc­tion of all-dig­i­tal air­craft sim­u­la­tion tests. As a re­sult, Yang is hailed as the “man who broke the block­ade of for­eign tech­nol­ogy.”

In fact, Yang has been re­spon­si­ble for the Chi­nese evo­lu­tion­ary ap­proach to de­sign­ing and build­ing com­bat air­craft. In­stead of de­sign­ing and build­ing a brand-new air­craft from scratch, he has un­abashedly bor­rowed from other de­signs, in­te­grated some im­ported and/or in­dige­nous tech­nol­ogy, and pro­duced them at a frac­tion of the cost.

A prime ex­am­ple is the J- 20, de­signed with for­eign tech­nol­ogy in the way of ‘ steal­ing’ the blueprints for the F-35 Light­ning II and the F-22 Rap­tor. While no num­bers are avail­able for what the J-20 is go­ing to cost, an­other, re­lated Chi­nese stealth fighter, the J-31 Gyr­fal­con will re­port­edly cost some $ 75 mil­lion. How much the F-35 will end up cost­ing is any­one’s guess, but ac­cord­ing to Robert Far­ley, “some­where around $ 100- 120 mil­lion is a pos­si­bil­ity”.

The J-20 may not be a com­plete “gamechanger,” prob­a­bly not be as ef­fec­tive as the F-35 or cer­tainly the F-22 (not least due to China’s per­sis­tent prob­lems with un­der­pow­ered engines). How­ever, in a lit­tle more than a decade, China went from hav­ing no stealth fighters to en­ter­ing the select club of coun­tries in the fifth gen­er­a­tion fighter stakes. One can ex­pect, ow­ing to Yang’s de­sign phi­los­o­phy, that what­ever the J-20 be­comes, it will not be rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent from what is al­ready fly­ing.

In case of the JF-17 (photo be­low), Yang’s phi­los­o­phy shines through in a dif­fer­ent way. This air­craft has been mas­sively up­graded by the in­cor­po­ra­tion of ad­vanced im­ported and in­dige­nously de­signed tech and is sup­posed to be com­pa­ra­ble to ear­lier mod­els of the F-16. Again, not a rev­o­lu­tion­ary air­craft, and prob­a­bly in the bot­tom half of the cur­rent fourth gen­er­a­tion fighter rank­ing, but con­sid­er­ing the price tag at $25 mil­lion, quan­tity be­comes a qual­ity in it­self !

The J-20

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