The Chinese-made J-20 “Mighty Dragon” fighter is the third operational fifth-generation fighter aircraft, following on the heels of the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II. This stealth, multirole fighter, modeled in part off stolen U.S. designs and technology, is intended to counter U.S. F-22s and F-35s and challenge U.S. air dominance in the Pacific.
What Makes the J-20 Special
The J-20 has lots to boast about. It can fly at supersonic speeds, with an estimated maximum speed of around Mach 2 (1,535 mph). It has a ceiling of somewhere between 60,000 and 66,000 feet. Its range has been broadly estimated at between 1,200 and 2,000 miles, the ability to equip four external fuel tanks undoubtedly contributing to this number. Its internal weapons bay holds four long-range PL-15 missiles, with the possibility of six. Its two side weapons bays hold one short-range PL-10 missile each.
Additionally, it has been reported that the J-20 is copying one of the F-35’s non-stealth features – the ability to load four additional missiles on external pylons.
The J-20 Mixed Bag
On top of all this, the J-20’s stealthy features, maneuverability, avionics, radar capabilities, and robust targeting mechanisms make the craft a serious threat to U.S. allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific.
Yet the news has not all been rosy for the J-20.
To date, the fighter’s greatest weakness has been its engine, a reflection of larger problems with China’s ability to produce the equipment indigenously. Originally powered by the Russian Al-31F, China has been straining for decades to produce engines at home fit for a fifth-generation multirole fighter like the J-20. Most operational J-20s are fitted with two upgraded WS-10C engines, items more appropriate for a fourth-generation fighter than a fifth.
However, recent reporting suggests China has made substantial progress on its domestically-produced WS-15 engine, and is expected to begin fitting its aircraft with the component as early as 2023. Such an engine could provide the J-20 the thrust needed to compete with the F-22 and F-35 truly.
This said the J-20 continues to lack in other areas.
It doesn’t possess the F-35’s short takeoff and vertical landing capabilities, key aspects in the ability to project air power from the sea. It may not be able to carry directed-energy weapons (DEW), such as lasers, due to a lack of engine thrust. Lastly, it is still unclear just how stealthy this stealth fighter really is, as some have suggested its canard winglets add radar-reflecting edges, thereby reducing stealth.
The latter—the J-20’s stealth—could ultimately be of immense consequence, as one potential use of the aircraft would be the utilization of its stealth to breach an adversary’s defense line and open up airspace for other aircraft such as bombers and transport planes to support longer-term operations.
The Longterm J-20 Threat
As China continues its recently launched J-20 patrols over the South China and East China seas, all eyes will remain on the aircraft, as well as Chinese actions and intentions. Any attack on U.S. allies and partners in the region would almost certainly commence with a J-20 strike, and as the J-20 steadily improves, the plane could also commence longer-range strikes against U.S. and allied bases in the Pacific.
Though the J-20 is still lacking in important areas, the potential future rapid development of the aircraft should not be underestimated. In 2009, U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, claimed that China would not have fifth-generation aircraft by 2020 and only “a handful” by 2025. Such an inaccurate warning should remain high on the mind of the U.S. and its Pacific allies.
Thankfully, steps are already being taken to mitigate the threat of the J-20 in the Western Pacific.
Alex Betley is a recent graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy where he was an International Security Studies Civil Resistance Fellow and Senior Editor with the Fletcher Security Review.