China’s J-20 stealth fighter, a short explainer – The Chengdu J-20 “Mighty Dragon” jet represents a major breakthrough for Chinese military development. This stealthy twin-engine fighter aircraft is only the fourth 5th generation fighter in the world, with capabilities making it at the very least a near-peer to America’s F-22 and F-35, as well as Russia’s Su-57. Although it entered service in 2017, the aircraft started to serve in large numbers by 2018. The Chinese military began to deploy the J-20 in hotly contested regions in the East and South China Seas in April, indicating its confidence in the full operational capabilities of the jet.
The stealth technology behind the Mighty Dragon appears to rival the U.S. 5th generation fighter jets. Its fuselage shape, engine intake shape, exhaust nozzle shape, and even the paint design mirror the F-22 and F-35. Before the J-20, China primarily used Russian parts and designs to construct its military equipment. Initially, the Chinese military relied on Russian-made engine systems for the new jet, but it eventually nixed these and produced its own engines, the WS-15. This marked a major improvement for China’s aircraft development capabilities as the J-20 is truly a homegrown technology.
The depth of the Mighty Dragon’s avionics suite and electronic capabilities is unknown, yet it is possible that technology was stolen from the U.S.’s Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program to enhance it. Specifically, there is potential for the J-20 to perform Airborne Early Warning and Command & Control missions using the same technology employed by F-35. Typically, Airborne Early Warning and Command & Control aircraft – like the U.S. E-2 Hawkeye – are big and lumbering targets. Enhanced software enables stealthy and maneuverable fighter jets to perform those missions, which is a major advantage.
While some speculate the J-20 is faster than the F-22, it is unclear whether or not the jet has its super cruise capabilities. However, the U.S. is confident the J-20 is capable of beyond visual range (BVR) engagements, meaning they could lock on to an enemy aircraft, launch a missile a hundred miles away and then leave the air space instead of dogfighting.
It is clear the J-20 represents major advancements for the Chinese military, yet significant drawbacks do exist. The engine systems that power the jets remain the most controversial aspect of the aircraft. The People’s Liberation Army initially used Russian engines but switched to domestic production once they were underperforming. It is unclear whether this production is on schedule or how efficiently they run.
According to an analyst from the Yuan Wang military think tank in Beijing, the American XA100 engine that powers the F-35 remains at least ten years ahead of the WS-15. The analyst elaborated that “China has so far just matched the American engines in some areas, but not in overall performance. It’s also not meaningful to emphasize one area because military confrontation is about a competition of systems and a contest of joint operational capabilities.”
Overall, the J-20 is a capable, 5th generation multirole aircraft challenging the best the U.S. has to offer. While its full potential is as yet unknown, it remains a major threat to U.S. designs in the Western Pacific. Furthermore, it is solid proof of a competent and growing domestic Chinese aerospace defense industry that will no doubt rival the West in the near future.
Maya Carlin is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in a wide range of publications including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post and Times of Israel.