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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

The Air Force Has a Problem: China’s J-20 Stealth Fighter Is a Threat

J-20 Stealth Fighter
Image: Chinese Internet.

As the world’s third operational fifth-generation fighter, China’s Chengdu J-20 stealth airframe is a formidable force in the skies. The advanced twin-seat all-weather jet was produced by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to counter the American-made F-22 and F-35 fifth-generation fighters. The “Mighty Dragon’s” stealth capabilities, modeled in part from U.S. designs and technology, make the jet China’s premiere military weapon. 

Since April, the PRC has deployed its fleet of J-20 fighters to patrol the South China and East China seas. The jet has also operated around Taiwan, according to industry experts. China’s belligerence in these disputed waters does not bode well for long-term stability. 

How Strong a Candidate is the Fifth-Generation J-20?

The J-20 has long been touted as a response to Lockheed Martin F-22 and F-25 Jets. The F-22 Raptor first entered service with the U.S. Air Force in 2005. Although production of this supermaneuverable fighter has halted, the Raptor’s blatant air superiority makes the remaining fleet an intimidating asset for the U.S. military. The F-35 was initially introduced to the military in 2015 and has since been described as the “most advanced fighter in the world,” according to its maker. The J-20’s parallel attributes make China’s jet a near-peer to its American counterparts. 

The Mighty Dragon was produced by Chengdu Aerospace Corp. for China’s Air Force as part of a military program launched in the 1990s. Early variants of the J-20 were primarily constructed using Russian parts and technology. Many of the J-20’s capabilities and physical features resemble America’s F-35. The Mighty Dragon’s paint design, fuselage shape, and engine intake shape all mirror its American counterpart. Some of the jet’s more threatening capabilities include its passive sensors, low-observability features, and its range on internal fuel. A research fellow for airpower and technology at the United Kingdom-based Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security called the Mighty Dragon “a qualitatively greater threat than any previous non-Western combat aircraft.”

The J-20 Looks Like the F-35, But Does it Measure Up?

While the J-20 certainly poses a real threat to America’s air superiority status, the fighter does host some apparent downsides. Unlike the F-35, the J-20 is not equipped with short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) capabilities, essential tools needed to project air power from the sea. The jet used Russian-made engines initially, but China ultimately replaced them with homegrown twin engines. Little information is known about China’s domestically-made WS-10 engines. 

However, some experts have questioned the engine’s true capabilities. According to a principal defense analyst at Jane’s, “There are lingering questions over whether China has managed to achieve the thrust required on the J-20 on current payloads with the locally produced WS-10 engines.” Another expert from the Yuan Wang military think tank in Beijing described the F-35’s XA100 engine as far superior to China’s WS-10. 

Last month, China sent 30 warplanes into Taiwan’s air defense zone, marking the military’s largest incursion since January. The PRC claims these types of exercises are carried out to warn Taiwan over its “collusion” with the United States. As China continues to escalate its belligerent rhetoric and behavior toward Taiwan and over the South China Sea, the Mighty Dragon could ultimately play a larger role. 

What Do the Experts Say?

“China’s J-20 stealth fighter has been in the works for roughly a decade now and seems to be taking shape as a premier fighter jet. However, how well integrated the J-20 is with the rest of the Chinese military is the key. The F-35, for example, is an aerial quarterback in the sky that can direct forces and ordinance to any part of the battlefield in nearly any domain. Can the J-20 do that? How well trained are Chinese pilots on the J-20? How good is the stealth considering this Beijing’s first such fighter? It seems to me China has a lot of answers to provide to the world if the plane is to be truly respected,” explained Harry J. Kazianis, President and CEO of the Rogue States Project and a Harvard-trained expert on Chinese military doctrine.

Maya Carlin is a Middle East Defense Editor with 19FortyFive. She is also 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 many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.

Written By

Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, 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 many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.