The People’s Liberation Army Air Force has officially deployed its J-20 stealth fighters to frontline fighter squadrons. Shen Jinke, a PLAAF spokesman, told the Xinhua News Agency that the new fighters were ready to “safeguard China’s sovereignty, security and territorial integrity.” The PLA’s English website also mentions the J-20’s newfound operational status, which suggests the announcement was meant to raise the international profile of the modernizing Chinese military.
The J-20 is a “fifth-generation” heavy, twin-engine stealth fighter with canards (appendages on the wings that offer greater stability), advanced active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, and three internal weapons bays for air-to-air missiles and bombs. Similarly to to Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor and Russia’s Su-57 fighters, the J-20 is a high-speed fighter that’s very maneuverable, with capacity for long range and stealth.
Its large size and weapons bay has led many to believe it would also be used for long-range strikes and as an interceptor. It first flew in 2011, and low-rate initial production variants were delivered to the PLAAF’s flight test unit in late 2016.
The J-20 is vast improvement over its fourth-generation counterparts (the J-10 and J-11 fighters, which currently occupy the front line in PLA units), though it will still likely take China’s military a couple years to make full use of the J-20’s advanced radar and stealth.
Worried about a surging China with high tech military power? Well, there are currently fewer than 40 J-20s flying. The US meanwhile still operates 187 F-22s, and has built over 265 F-35s as of January 2018. Modern air combat isn’t as simple as a numbers game… but a 10:1 advantage is still a pretty good deterrent.
And, of course, the J-20’s tech will continue to evolve. Around 2021, the J-20 is slated to get new WS-15 turbofan engines, which woudl replace the Russian AL-31FN engines it currently uses. The more powerful WS-15 engines will give the J-20 extra thrust to supercruise (that is, reach supersonic speeds without using fuel-thirsty afterburners) and more energy to maneuver. When that happens, China will further establish itself as Asia’s leading aviation industrial power.
Peter Warren Singer is a strategist and senior fellow at the New America Foundation. He has been named by Defense News as one of the 100 most influential people in defense issues. He was also dubbed an official “Mad Scientist” for the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command. Jeffrey is a national security professional in the greater D.C. area.