China’s radar-evading fifth-generation fighter, the J-20 “Mighty Dragon,” is being sent to strategic areas around its borders. American and allied force planners should take notice. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force is beefing up pilot training and engaging in war games, but the main change is where the J-20s will operate – in the Taiwan Strait and the East China Sea.
Allied strategists will have to consider the airplanes taking on future combat roles when planning for scenarios to fight a potential war with China. Most analysts compare the J-20 fighters to American F-35s and F-22s, but one scenario would be conflict between China with Japan or South Korea first, especially if North Korea conducts a strike against South Korea and China enters the fray as it did during the Korean War.
Another scenario would be the Japanese and Chinese battling over various rocks and reefs in which they both have territorial claims. China could also invade Taiwan, and this has some analysts calling for F-35s to be sold or leased to the Taiwanese. So, the strategic climate hinges on numerous stealth fighters equipped in allied air forces in East Asia. For example, Japan announced a purchase of 105 F-35s in 2020. If this sale goes through as planned, Japan would potentially have a total of 147 F-35s. This would be second to the United States in total Joint Strike Fighters. South Korea plans to have around 60 F-35s.
J-20: The Details
Can Japan and South Korea’s allocation of F-35s balance against China’s J-20s? The J-20 is a worthy adversary. The J-20 maneuvers well, is stealthy, keeps its weapons internally, has excellent avionics, advanced radar capability, and capable targeting mechanisms, according to a DOD military power report. The J-20 is similar to the American F-35 and F-22 because China is believed to have stolen plans from the U.S. fifth-generation fighters with cyber-attacks.
The J-20 can also be equipped with four external fuel tanks that extend its range. The airplane can fly at supersonic speed. This allows China to plan for air-to-air combat using the Mighty Dragon. The J-20 will also have air-to-ground capabilities as well because it can be armed with numerous types of missiles and bombs.
The J-20 has a weakness though. The engines are manufactured in Russia and they are viewed to be inferior with less thrust compared to the engines of the F-22 and F-35. The engines on the J-20 could release emissions that would make the airplane susceptible to detection by radar. For these reasons, the Chinese announced earlier this year that they are developing their own engines indigenously to address these weaknesses.
How the J-20 Could Be Used
The air order of battle against a potential conflict with Japan or South Korea could be the J-20 flying in first in stealth mode to take out enemy radar systems. This would clear the way for Chinese bombers and transport aircraft filled with material and troops. Admittedly, a Chinese war with Japan or South Korea may be a low probability event, but strategists should make the possibility a contingency plan.
China is believed to have around 75 J-20s deployed in two brigades in the eastern and southern theaters. That means preparation for potential war with Taiwan and then the need for protection of various rocks and reefs that China it lays claim to in the East and South China Seas. Another 75 Chinese fifth-generation fighters would be in two reserve training areas. This makes for a volatile mix of fighter jets owned by the Chinese, Americans, Japanese, and South Koreans. Only the Americans have recent combat experience, although dog-fighting is a different endeavor that is mostly simulated by the U.S. Air Force and Navy. However, a U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet shot down a Syrian Su-22 in 2017.
So, the question is in future combat scenarios, could the Japanese and South Koreans hold off the J-20 in aerial combat until the United States decides to enter the fight with its own F-35s and F-22s? A Chinese conflict with Japan is probably more likely than one with South Korea. But these are necessary contingencies for planners. These would be bloody fights and would hinge on how stealthy the Chinese airplanes are and if they could punch a hole in Japanese or South Korean air defenses and then deploy the bombers. Also, that means many fighters from various militaries would continue to fly patrols and training missions in the area of operations in East Asia. This could result in an accident or miscalculation that could spark an aerial battle, and lead to warfare.
The J-20 is formidable and is already forward-deployed with ample numbers of back-ups in reserve. Japan and South Korean fighter pilots would have to answer the call and they are without combat experience, while China lacks this familiarity with war as well. This makes military planners of all air forces (along with the U.S. Naval aviation) to plan accordingly in very risky scenarios. Chinese J-20 fighters may have the advantage in a first strike, while American, South Korean, Taiwanese, and Japanese air forces must decide how to respond in a potential aerial defensive second strike.
Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.