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China’s J-20 Stealth Fighter Is Making U.S. Air Force Generals Sweat

We asked a top military analyst to explain the history of China’s J-20 stealth fighter and why Asia – and the U.S. military – are watching its development very closely.

J-20
J-20 Stealth Fighter. Image Credit: Chinese Military.

A Comprehensive Look at China’s Next Generation J-20 Fighter, by Expert Dr. Brent M. Eastwood: Outright Chinese theft of intellectual property, design, engineering, and technology is evident in Chinese fighters over the years.

One can see this in the current J-20 fifth-generation fighter that looks like it took designs from at least four different fighter programs.

The following description is a complex back story for the airplane, so bear with me.

The J-20 is an outgrowth of the J-10 which borrowed technology from the Israelis. The J-20 is also based on the J-11 and the J-16 – both from a Soviet Su-27 design. The J-15, the naval fighter which the J-20 borrows from, is also a product of a Russian warplane — the Su-33.

Finally, the J-20 resembles the American F-35 and F-22.

Confused yet?

The J-20 is one complicated warbird. Let’s take a closer look and hopefully things will become clearer.

China Is Not Afraid to Spend Money on the J-20

The J-20 Mighty Dragon is China’s most technologically advanced fighter plane.

It is the world’s third fighter with stealth characteristics after the F-22 and F-35.

China has spent over $4.4 billion on its development over the years. Each fighter costs about $120 million.

The J-20 made its first appearance in 2016 at a Chinese air show and was introduced to the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) in 2017. But some date the J-20 back to 2011 when online images first appeared in blogs. The airplane grew from the J-XX program in the 1990s.

How Many J-20s Are There?

The PLAAF may have as many as 150 J-20s already in service. The Chinese are building one J-20 each month.

The fighter is making regular patrols over the Taiwan Strait and the East and South China Seas. The J-20 often flies into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone and would be difficult for existing Taiwanese air defenses and fighter planes to stop.

However, Taiwan does have the fourth generation improved F-16V Viper to go up against the J-20. The F-16V is thought to have longer range and a better radar system, but it is not stealthy. It is smaller than the J-20 and maybe a bit more maneuverable.

The Specs Are Strong

The J-20 is believed to be fast–approaching speeds of up to MACH 2. It has a ceiling of 60,000 feet and a range of around 700 miles. China’s fighter jet has PL-12C/D and PL-21 air-to-air missiles and PL-10 short-range air-to-air missiles.

The fighter has a high thrust/weight ratio, good speed, excellent maneuverability, and the range needed to dominate its immediate neighborhood. In addition to threatening Taiwan, the J-20 can also enforce China’s claims over various islands, rocks, and reefs that Beijing thinks are it’s own.

China Steals to Its Heart’s Content

Chinese cyber hackers are believed to have stolen plans from the F-35 program.

The thieves took details from an Australian subcontractor, and they were off and running. Asia Times said, “The sensor system on the J-20, which is visible on the fuselage in some high-resolution photos handed out by the Chinese military, looks ‘awfully similar’ to the Lockheed Martin Electro-Optical Targeting System on the front of the F-35.”

Weapons Systems Officer Will Help in Combat

The PLAAF may eventually add a back seat for a weapons systems officer if it hasn’t already. This will help the pilot concentrate on maneuvering the airplane and make its munitions more lethal. The J-20 is expected to have robust electronic warfare and jamming capability to enhance its radar evasion for better survivability.

J-20

J-20 Stealth Fighter. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

U.S. Allies Are Stocking Up On F-35s

It will likely be able to fire anti-ship missiles and other strike munitions to challenge the U.S. Navy and Taiwan’s navy. South Korea and Japan will also have to worry about the J-20. South Korea, as a result of the development of the J-20, is buying more F-35s. Japan is a huge customer of the F-35. The Japanese self-defense force owns over 100 Lightning IIs.

Watch Out for J-20 Beast Mode

The J-20 may also be able to fly in “beast mode” and attach even more munitions to its wings to include air-to-surface models for ground strike. This would make the fighter a multi-role warbird as well as achieve air dominance in contested skies.

F-35 Versus the J-20

The F-35 also has better stealth attributes and may be able to fire at a J-20 before the Chinese pilot sees it. The F-35 has a superior engine and there are even efforts to improve it to answer China’s air force.

The F-35 and J-20 standoff, since both fighters have some similar features, would then come down to the skill of pilots. China has not fought a war since 1979 when its army invaded Vietnam in a conflict that lasted less than a month. American pilots have flown for years over the Middle East and South Asia, although those missions were usually for air support and not flights in contested air space. American pilots would likely have the advantage in a head-to-head matchup.

J-20 Stealth Fighter

Can Taiwan’s Air Force Survive in An Aerial Attack from China?

Chinese pilots have never deployed their weapons in anger, although they practice repeatedly near Taiwan’s air space. Determined Taiwanese pilots, flying the F-16V, could buy time for its air force and attrit Chinese fighters until the United States or other allies intervene with reinforcements. Taiwan’s air force would likely have to survive for at least two weeks for this to happen. It would be a tough fight as China enjoys a two-to-one advantage in terms of the number of fighters across all models.

China has clearly stolen and borrowed technology and designs for its J-20 Mighty Dragon. But that is in the rearview mirror. It is time for China’s adversaries – the United States, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan – to focus on dogfighting skills while flying their F-35s and F-16Vs. This will come down to the daring exploits of individual fighter pilots. The era of the J-20 has arrived, and it will take an F-16V or F-35 to stop it.

Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood 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. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, 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.

41 Comments

41 Comments

  1. Jacksonian Libertarian

    August 20, 2022 at 2:59 pm

    Combat Aircraft are trucks for smart weapons (dogfights are obsolete). The Air Force with the most reliable smart weapons, everything else being equal, will win. The Chinese are building 1 J-20/month, the US is building 12+ F-35/month. Providing them to Taiwan is just a matter of when. Chinese smart weapons, like all Chinese products produced by government monopolies, are of poor quality and no match for the reliability of western smart weapons.

    Western military officers and industry always promote the fearsomeness of the enemy. But, as is seen in Ukraine, the Russian 800 lbs. military gorilla, is really just a weak monkey unworthy of western military prowess. In fact, Authoritarian militaries are armed with poor quality knockoffs of Western developed and designed weapons, and made up of poorly trained and commanded troops. As long as Western militaries avoid using obsolete weapon systems, wars will be won with minimal losses.

  2. Harold

    August 20, 2022 at 3:01 pm

    It comes down to sheer numbers.

    China can mobilize hundreds of fighters rapidly while it will take the US much longer, even with air contingents stationed in Guam, SK and Okinawa. Plus aircraft carriers. While Taiwan does have some of the more advanced F-16 variants, they are in such short supply that you can assume Chinese satellite and surveillance will identify where they are and launch ballistic missiles to destroy them and runways prior to any air assault.

    What the US and their allies really need to do is get everyone on board the F-35 train as soon as possible, and have as many carriers or bases with F-35 ready to go. More and more reports come where F-22 Raptors which are far superior to these are slowly mothballed and in disrepair.

    Another thing to keep in mind, China still has not ramped up their military budget beyond 2% of GDP. Once that changes, you know the war bells will toll.

  3. Justin

    August 20, 2022 at 5:35 pm

    Good for China steal technology like the USA has been doing for years

  4. Fonsman

    August 20, 2022 at 9:08 pm

    @Justin. USA innovates. China steals. There is no incentive in a communist country to create or innovate when they CCP kill your spirit and take everything from the people. Freedom is the father of creative innovation and development and a volunteer army will always kick ass on conscripted forces.
    The US is not innocent in history BUT just look at the 2 countries we decimated in WW2. They are now two free democracies with 2 of the top 10 Economies. Look at the countries the Chinese & USSR swallow. Which satellite of theirs is even in the top 50?
    China is a cheat a liar & a thief and a bully.

  5. Travis

    August 20, 2022 at 10:05 pm

    Espionage is a common practice so no point crying about it. Car is not invented by Americans, but Ford has improved the quality of car production.

  6. Travis

    August 20, 2022 at 10:07 pm

    USA and NATO dare not interfere with Russia Ukraine war, what makes you think they will involve themselves in Taiwan Straits conflict?

  7. Steven

    August 20, 2022 at 11:37 pm

    Low quality comments.

  8. tony

    August 21, 2022 at 12:19 am

    shallow article. nothing new

  9. Jo

    August 21, 2022 at 12:23 am

    The paper dragon, doubt it will work very well, china hasn’t had a original or well executed idea in over a century, they even needed American (fauchi) help to make covid 19.

    As I recall their flagship carrier is a russian hand me down, and we see how well russian military equipment works when compared to our toys, even in the hands of poorly educated and poorly trained ukraines

    china needs a new century of humiliation

  10. Garbagesitewithloserreporters

    August 21, 2022 at 12:25 am

    What a useless and utter garbage article. I can’t believe this guy is even getting paid to write up few paragraphs just to pass on the message it’s a copy. B-2, f117, p-50, slbm, f-35 all have foreign straits and technology. The U.S just modified them to suit their needs as well. Lastly, every time a loser author says it’s a copy, ask them just how advanced Chinese cyber-war capabilities actually are that they are managed to Penetrate the US cyber fields over and over and over and over and over……lol.

  11. Someguy420

    August 21, 2022 at 12:56 am

    You think NATO and the US are afraid of Russia? Your delusional sir, Ukraine has shown the world that Russia is so full of coruption and greed they can’t fulfill their desires in Ukraine. There are US pilots that are just waiting to shoot Russia’s paper bombers amd fighters down. Not too mention the 12 HIMARS there what would hppen if the US said okay send them 100? Russia would lose their minds, stop with the US and NATO is afraid nonsense cause afraid they are not.

  12. Xaber

    August 21, 2022 at 1:09 am

    If Taiwan is making their game plans based on an US intervention they are making a terrible mistake. Sure US can provide weapons but one can’t expect a Ukraine situation because the geopolitics are vastly different. This is Asia we’re talking about. NATO countries decided to stand behind Ukraine but don’t expect the same thing to happen with Taiwan.

    Firstly even UN doesn’t recognize Taiwan as a sovereign county so China invading Taiwan doesn’t get the same reaction as Russia invading Ukraine. Secondly majority of Asian countries will not side with US and it’s allies if there’s a war broke out between China and Taiwan. That’s not because they like China but nobody wants to be on the naughty list of the worlds next super power. Thirdly if you think Ukraine war caused some disturbance in inflation and world food supply you can’t even imagine the repercussions of sanctions or even disruption to BAU of Chinese industrial complex. Whether you like it or not there are too many supply chains tied up with China. Unless we untangle all that before jumping on China you don’t want to mess with that. Above all the loss of life in that kind of war will be devastating to the entire world. After all, these stupid old scum politicians in both side who begin wars are not going fight them. It’s the youth who’s going to die. So all those who cheer for war, stfu unless you plan to be in the frontline when it begins.

  13. wysee

    August 21, 2022 at 2:03 am

    Baseless claims unless you can show physical proof of theft. Looking similar does not conclusively point to theft. These are just western media hype and false reporting and fake news to garner readership.

  14. wysee

    August 21, 2022 at 2:09 am

    @Fonsman think you are dumb. Who invented gunpowder and who stole it? Who invented silk and who stole it? A country with just a puny 300+ years of history cannot be compared to a historic nation of 3000+ year. Wake up.

  15. wysee

    August 21, 2022 at 2:19 am

    @Fonsman, think you must be dumb or blind to history. Who invented gun powder and who stole it? Who invented silk and who stole it? A country with just 300+ years of history is not fit to criticize a 3000+ year nation with strong culture and traditions. Finally which country did China swallow May I know? Which countries did the yanks invade and colonies can you please list down? Shut your myopic views please.

  16. Mohan

    August 21, 2022 at 3:59 am

    Chinese toys will be smashed by US machines..Chinese and related media thinks they can win war by propaganda..they are just spreading to creative an atmosphere. They will never win…all dancing smart boys

  17. Jetinder Singh

    August 21, 2022 at 4:03 am

    Seems like Brent Eastwood is the new mouth piece of PLA, competing for number one spot with Eurasia Times.

  18. Charles onunaiju

    August 21, 2022 at 5:32 am

    Whether China steals defense technology is beyond the point. It has harnessed it to its defense needs is the main issue and that adversaries like the US will think twice before poking fingers in Beijing, s eyes is even the bigger issue.

  19. Ruben

    August 21, 2022 at 6:45 am

    are you guys serious about this? someone snuck a close-up shot of a J20 in landing and the details were amazing… the visible crafting of the skin was laughable… looked like a WWII rosie-the-riveter arrangment… including some warping on the skin itself… lmfao… the engines must be a joke, and commie chinese cannot overcome the problem that their pilots are tactically tethered to a mothership that directs their actions… the only problem an adversary has to worry about is what the commies do with everything… swarm opponents… can you handle the swarm, or not?

    your call

  20. Muthu V

    August 21, 2022 at 6:47 am

    You seriously think US and NATO not involved in Ukraine vs Russia war. US and NATO are sole reason for this war and Russia is just a victim. We know how Americans make dramas to make sure everyone believe what they say against their enemies, all past wars of US are all formed on top of lies and they attack only weak countries, that’s the only reason US/NATO not directly sending troops to Ukraine. They got a free ground and a lot human tests for testing their weapons. For US to defend Taiwan only reason is for semiconductors, that’s why US started investing more inside their country because now china is a stronger oppostion to US.

  21. VT

    August 21, 2022 at 9:02 am

    There are a large number of paid Chinese trolls in here.

    Also, dog fighting is not obsolete, especially if two Gen 5 fighters are going at it due to the smaller radar profiles. It will necessitate a smaller distance of engagement to achieve radar lock which will increase the chances of jets entering g the Minimum Abort Range, creating merges and leading dogfights with fox 2s and guns.

  22. Deng Li

    August 21, 2022 at 9:52 am

    Shame on western nations, especially the USA, for failing to hold Communist China accountable. The PRC employs more spys than the rest of the world combined. The PLA, and other Chinese entities, are responsible for massive theft of western technology. Why do we send hundreds of billions to China every year? The nationalist government of Taiwan is the legitimate Chinese government deposed by communist rebels. The USA should build huge naval and airbases on Taiwan. The Taiwanese should have developed nuclear weapons decades ago and fill their island with hundreds of thousands of rocket launchers. With Biden in office, there are no consequences for the Communists to invade Taiwan.

  23. Eric-ji

    August 21, 2022 at 12:35 pm

    According to 1945 writers some weapon somewhere is making someone ‘sweat’. Repeated clichéd writing cheapens 1945.

  24. Benjamin

    August 21, 2022 at 12:39 pm

    The. Days of the USA are over, it’s time for a future generation of people places to, take over,I spent some time in Vietnam ,, many good Americans was slaughtered,,the us leaders have started to much trouble,, remember this, the battle don’t always goes to the strongest, and the fastest don’t always win the race, taken from the holy Bible, please keep this knowledge always posted , the us time almost over

  25. M.T.M MASHOOR

    August 21, 2022 at 1:22 pm

    West may think China was isstealing their technology. May be long ago. But West is pushed to steal Chinas technologies instead currently .SHAME SHAME. Try to improve yours.

  26. M.T.M MASHOOR

    August 21, 2022 at 1:28 pm

    West may think China was stealing their technology. May be long ago. But West is pushed to steal Chinas technologies instead currently .SHAME SHAME. Try to improve yours.

  27. me

    August 21, 2022 at 1:58 pm

    On ever piece of Chinese military hardware is stamped “Made in China”.
    There’s going to a lot of broken hardware lying around.

  28. Tom Cruise

    August 21, 2022 at 7:50 pm

    A Sukhoi aircraft is able to track J20 “super stealth” and a Sukhoi F35 is a Soviet 4 the generation.

  29. Holeoflogic

    August 21, 2022 at 9:14 pm

    Second after the skin of the aircraft, size plays the an important role in aviation stealth. The J-20 is a huge aircraft, the pilot has room to have a small buffet. Although it has a some stealth capabilities I’m certain they won’t be so hard to detect.

  30. Roscoe

    August 21, 2022 at 9:19 pm

    As with the military, China built up its Mining Industry by stealing pieces of Western Plant design, while misunderstaning the overall system, while they pretended they’d be negotiating with this Australian compay for their next project !

    When they secretivly built the next project in isolation, it all started to buckle with the system principles, all being neglected & set their programs back for years !?

    I dismiss much of their political hype then note many later shortfalls,like B & RI’s.

    So sad China can’t settle with mostly fairly well managed Western Ethics with fulfilling outcomes ??

  31. Gumball

    August 21, 2022 at 11:41 pm

    For those that comment Russia looks weak think again. The U.S. only goes in in company of its bitches who number from a dozen up to thirty (Irak invasion) Today the U.S. cannot afford its toys whom are all on credit card and thus a protracted war will spell doom

  32. Hugh Hungwell

    August 21, 2022 at 11:59 pm

    Chairman Xi Jinping, along with every single one of you insipid Chinese sycophants posting here, are *MORE* than welcome to kiss every single square inch of the Free World’s bare ass, starting with mine.

    So go grab some Chapstick, pucker up, write that down, kiss my ass, and steel yourselves for the fight of your lives you are invariably destined to lose.

  33. Brad Naksuthin

    August 22, 2022 at 2:42 am

    AUTHOR’S CLAIM
    Outright Chinese theft of intellectual property, design, engineering, and technology is evident in Chinese fighters over the years.

    AUTHORS EVIDENCE OF THEFT

    AUTHOR:
    A) J-20 fifth-generation fighter LOOKS LIKE it took designs from at least four different fighter programs.

    In court they call this evidence
    HERESAY

    AUTHOR
    B) the J-20 RESEMBLES the American F-35 and F-22.

    In court they call this evidence
    HERESAY

    AUTHOR
    C)The sensor system on the J-20, which is visible on the fuselage in some high-resolution photos , LOOKS “AWFULLY SIMILAR: to the Lockheed Martin Electro-Optical Targeting System on the front of the F-35.

    In court they call this evidence
    HERESAY

    THEREFORE AUTHORS CONCLUSION:
    D) China has CLEARLY STOLEN and borrowed technology and designs for its J-20 Mighty Dragon.

    In court they call this conclusion
    SPECULATION

    ____________
    AUTHOR
    Chinese cyber hackers ARE BELIEVED to have stolen plans from the F-35 program.
    The thieves took details from an Australian subcontractor, and they were off and running.

    In court they call this evidence
    HERESAY

    FACT
    The Australian defence contractor was allegedly targeted between April and June 2019

    FACT
    The J-20 entered service in March 2017

    FACT
    Two years before the alleged theft occurred

  34. Master

    August 22, 2022 at 11:00 am

    Taliban is still laughing . US for running home like a headless chicken

  35. NcT

    August 22, 2022 at 1:41 pm

    Espionage and taking inspiration from others are common in this business but it’s unfortunate that the writer accusations are just ludicrous. I count 9 planes sobbing almost 5 decades that he claims the j20 is based on, namely j10, j11, j16, Lavi, F35, su27, su33, f16, f22. Strangely, the j20 ended up looking like none of them!

  36. Dr izza

    August 22, 2022 at 6:10 pm

    Full of craps. What evidence to prove that a single piece of technology was stolen from the US? A total garbage article.

  37. Harry O

    August 23, 2022 at 7:15 am

    The Chinese military did not steal anything from anyone.
    There spy’s paid good old USD to insiders for blue prints.
    This is called smart business.

  38. Nobino

    August 23, 2022 at 10:41 am

    It should. As we know most western wastes are just crap made by drunks based on design & tech of talented asians living there. As for US, they have even stolen identity of real naive americans. China must make sure US & after that fake manufactured nation like VS, WS never pops up ever again

  39. Tauqeer Haider

    August 23, 2022 at 10:29 pm

    And what about US!!!!!
    They stole whole WW2 German Technology.
    Flying Wing idea that ends up as, B-2 Stealth Bomber.
    SR-71 Black Bird, US stole or smuggled, USSR’s Titanium or something like that.
    For F-117 Night Hawk, Original Idea of “Diamond Shaped Angular design” was came from an USSR’s engineer.

    So!!!
    Shut your f********g mouth!!!

    Because

    If others done something, is wrong!!!
    If you do that thing, is right!!!

    Because
    Everyone can get inspiration from everyone.
    Like
    US inspired from MiG-15 and used swept wing design in F-86 Saber.

    US used MiG-21’s wing design with little bit modifications, and wing root edge extension, and wing tip rail for missile.

    Why???
    Why???

    Why???
    You are not blame US????

    Is because!!!!!
    Mine is mine!!!!
    Others is mine too!!!!

    So!!!
    Mr. Brent!!!
    I hope you stop fooling people!!!

    You know, it is always a CAT & MOUSE game, to stole others technology.

    And that’s okay!!!!

  40. Chin Chan Chon

    August 24, 2022 at 11:34 am

    In a nutshell we just hate mannerless China.

  41. Perry Vincent

    September 4, 2022 at 4:57 pm

    @wysee: Sorry, your country only has a history of 70 years not 3000, the mass murderer mao made sure of that with the cultural revolution which destroyed china’s once rich culture

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