China is never shy about conducting an air show, military parade, or expo to show off its latest and greatest military hardware. This usually creates a propaganda and psychological boost to both the military and the general public and sends a message to adversaries that Beijing means business when defending its homeland. On August 26, China had an “open day” flight demonstration of its low-observable J-20 fighter to remind Taiwan and the United States of what it can do and show that the airplane can easily transit the Taiwan Strait and patrol the South and East China Sea to great effect.
Wowing the Crowds
China’s People’s Liberations Army Air Force (PLAAF) held the air show in Changchun, located in Northeast China’s Jilin Province. The Chengdu J-20 Mighty Dragon was the last airplane to display its prowess in the air that day. The fighter “put a number of challenging moves on display, including quick pullups, quick turns and consecutive horizontal and vertical maneuvers,” according to first-hand observers from the Global Times.
Always a Threat to Taiwan
After Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan at the beginning of August, the J-20 has taken an outsize role when flying near Taiwan. Other Congressional members have made appearances on the island since then, riling China even more. Before the in-person interest from American leadership, the J-20 has often flown in numbers to Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. The PLAAF believes the J-20 is the most powerful and advanced fighter in the Chinese arsenal.
Numbers are Increasing Monthly
The single-seat fifth-generation jet is a multi-role platform with stealth characteristics comparable to the F-22. It entered service with the PLAAF around 2017. The branch has at least 100 and perhaps as many as 150 of the J-20s operating now. And Chengdu is busy churning them out – perhaps at the rate of one per month.
Fast Climber With Long Range
The airplane is known for its ability to achieve high altitudes quickly. It also has the range – about 2,000 miles – to reach destinations that makes the United States military worried that China can threaten targets in Guam, Japan, and South Korea.
Other Specs Are Impressive
The J-20 is a larger airplane than the F-22. The fuselage is wider (49 feet) and longer (76 feet), enabling more fuel to be stored in addition to a bigger weapons bay. It has a fly-by-wire system and a more than capable “fire control and engine management system,” according to Air Force Technology. Pilots have a liquid crystal display and helmet-mounted sight system.
New Engines Are Key to Its Development
The J-20 has new WS-15 homegrown turbofan engines that put out 30,000 pounds of thrust. This is a better powerplant than previous Russian AL-31F engines and the WS-15 has “afterburners and two-dimensional thrust-vectoring nozzles,” according to Business Insider. The WS-15 gives the airplane a better rate of climb (60,000 feet a minute), agility, and maneuverability. The maximum speed is 1,300 miles per hour. The PLAAF believes it can dogfight with the best warplanes in the world.
The J-20’s four weapons bays can carry a full spectrum of PL-15, PL-10, and PL-12 short, medium, and long-range air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles plus bombs.
The J-20, despite the Chinese stealing and borrowing designs from Russia and the United States, is a symbol of the country’s military might. Taiwan’s warplanes are outclassed by the fighter and the Americans and their allies must depend on the F-22 and F-35, both of which are in some ways superior to the J-20. The J-20 is not as stealthy as those fighters as it has a larger radar cross-section, but it could be a stalwart foe in a dogfight, nonetheless.
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/ International Relations.