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J-20: China’s 5th-Generation Fighter the U.S. Should Not Dismiss

J-20
Image: Creative Commons.

China’s J-20 stealth fighter, explained: The Americans are not the only nation with a homegrown, fifth-generation fighter jet. China, a nation rising in all respects, unveiled its answer to the F-22 and F-35 in 2021. 

Nicknamed the “Mighty Dragon,” the Chengdu J-20 is indeed a capable aircraft. It is not only one of China’s most advanced weapons systems – the J-20 is actually one of the most advanced systems in the world. 

The J-20 Seems Suspiciously Familiar

At a glance, China’s stealth figther looks quite similar to the F-35 – so much so that claims of Chinese industrial espionage seem plausible. The J-20 features a bubble canopy, canards, delta wing, forward-swept leading edges, and low-observable intakes. 

As my colleague Peter Suciu notes, “The J-20 has many of the same capabilities, including stealth and supercruise, as the F-35. In addition, last year it was reported that the Mighty Dragon was copying one of the Lighting II’s non-stealth features – namely the ability to carry weapons on external pylons and to operate in the so-called ‘beast mode.’

“The J-20 is also believed to have a sensor suite that is similar to the F-35’s Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS),” Suciu continues. “As the saying goes, ‘good artists borrow, great artists steal.’ Beijing has long stolen technology that it would be otherwise incapable of developing on its own.” 

What Will the J-20 Do?

Western pundits speculate about the J-20’s purpose. The design features all lend themselves toward high instability, which allows for fantastic maneuverability. This maneuverability, paired with a bubble canopy, suggest the J-20 was built for air-superiority missions and within-visual-range engagements. 

“Really all we’ve seen it do is air superiority,” U.S. Air Force Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach told the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. “It’s still too early to tell exactly what they intend to do with the J-20 – whether it’s going to be more like an F-35 that’s capable of doing many, many missions, or more like an F-22 that is primarily an air superiority fighter that has an air to ground capability.”

Like the F-35, the J-20 was designed to give pilots situational awareness through advanced sensor fusion. The J-20 is also designed with stealth and electronic warfare measures intended to deny an adversary’s situational awareness. Naturally, the question on most war planners’ minds is what happens when the F-35 and the J-20 meet in combat. A prelude to such a meeting occurred for the first time this year. 

Which Aircraft Is Superior?

The U.S. Air Force confirmed that in March, F-35s and J-20s got “relatively close” in the East China Sea. While the interaction was mild and civil – “I wouldn’t call it an engagement,” Wilsbach said – it is a significant moment in the history of warfare: The interaction is the first acknowledged stealth fighter encounter ever. Considering the aircrafts’ similarities, and their encounter earlier this year, pundits are comparing the two airframes and wondering which is superior.

“When we apply fifth-generation technology, it’s no longer about a platform, it’s about a family of systems, “former Air Force Chief of Staff David Goldfein told reporters several years ago. “It’s about a network and that’s what gives us an asymmetrical advantage, so that’s why when I hear about an F-35 versus a J-20, it’s almost an irrelevant question.” 

J-20 Stealth Fighter

J-20 Stealth Fighter. Image Credit: Artist Rendering/Creative Commons.

J-20 Fighter

J-20 Fighter via computer-generated artist rendering. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

J-20

China’s J-20 stealth fighter. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

While it’s not yet clear that the J-20 can rival American aircraft, one thing is certain: China is ascendant and ambitious, and with respect to aerospace, it is making big improvements. America should not dismiss the J-20. 

Harrison Kass is the Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison has degrees from Lake Forest College, the University of Oregon, and New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken.

Written By

Harrison Kass is a Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison has degrees from Lake Forest College, the University of Oregon School of Law, and New York University’s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. He lives in Oregon and regularly listens to Dokken.

8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. TrustbutVerify

    June 15, 2022 at 7:32 am

    You should probably note that neither the Chinese nor the Russians, who make better engines, can actually make a jet engine that can super cruise. It may be designed to do so and talked about, but they are flying with inferior engines of older design – the ones that they have, anyway. So we can talk about what the Chinese SAY it can do in propaganda, much as the Russians, but we also have to look at reality. This applies to the targeting system, sensor suite (or lack thereof), electronic warfare systems and avionics.

  2. EPWJ

    June 15, 2022 at 10:06 am

    The J-20 takes millions of man hours to build and to operate. Also all chinese pilots are conscripts, forced labor, they are of very low morale and receive virtually no real tactical training. They can barely fly in formation.

    China can be a threat if they get past the forced labor issue and are manned by people who actually want to be sitting in the cockpit.

    But even then they dont stand much of a chance even against an F16.

  3. ken li

    June 15, 2022 at 11:30 am

    J-20 is F-20 and F-35A rolled into one, while J-35 is more a copy of F-35A but able to super-cruise, and may have vector-thrust engine.
    When they fight, it’s the missiles they carry to make difference.

  4. Brian Foley

    June 15, 2022 at 11:40 am

    This is an unfortunate article. On one hand it is never a good policy to “dismiss out of hand” any adversary or their equipment. Given the right circumstances almost every aircraft can be a threat and any adversary can be dangerous. On the other hand the author just hasn’t put enough thought into how future air wars will be fought. If the Russians are having a tough time against the Ukrainians just try to imagine that same fight against an air force quipped with America’s front line fighters…and the Russians were thought to have a well equipped and manned air force. I can’t take this author seriously, he just doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

  5. Ed

    June 15, 2022 at 6:08 pm

    The J-20 uses a canard, on a long fuselage. A canard is often used to make up for short-fall elsewhere. The additional lift in an SVTOL, or stability in a delta wing. And whatever capabilities the J-20 has, the one it doesn’t have is a plethora of refueling tankers to get them from A-B.

  6. NorEastern

    June 16, 2022 at 5:46 am

    This is China’s first attempt at stealth. The US has been working on stealth for forty years. My money is on the F-35.

  7. Steve

    June 24, 2022 at 9:40 pm

    In what way exactly does the J-20 resemble an F-35, as was claimed early on here?
    The J-20 has TWO engines, canards, a different wing, is much larger, has much longer range, has side bays for internal storage of close-in AAMs, and the list goes on.
    I guess maybe one could be confused if you didn’t bother to LOOK at them(?).. Then you could rightly claim they’re both aircraft powered by engines – Sheesh

  8. K. Wallace

    November 10, 2022 at 7:45 pm

    That thing looks just entirely too LONG to be highly maneuverable, even with those canards. When your source of thrust is that far away from the nose of the aircraft (the bit you want to turn into a new direction) turning is going to be slower. And those canards could probably only take so much sheer force before breaking. I just don’t think the thing looks very much like it can “turn on a dime”. But, I’m not an aeronautical engineer, so….

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