There may be more unknown details of relevance to the Chinese J-20 5th-generation stealth fighter than there are known specifics, yet the People’s Liberation Army has been writing about its J-20 in several respects for many years now, so there are a handful of key pertinent observations to be made regarding the extent of the threat it may pose.
J-20: How Much of a Threat?
Upon initial glance, the stealthy looking airframe has been widely seen by US Congressional reports and Pentagon essays as what could be called a “transparent” rip-off of US 5th-generation stealth technology.
This possibility, and the visible similarities in stealth configuration between the J-20 and F-35 and F-22 have been cited in several Pentagon reports, all as part of a long-standing and publicly documented concern about Chinese theft of US military technology.
The J-20 does look stealthy, as it has a standard blended-wing-body stealth shape, rounded fuselage, few if any protruding structures likely to generate a return radar signature and what appears to be an internal weapons bay devoid of external pylons.
While many have drawn comparisons between the J-20 and F-35, the J-20’s apparent dual-engine configuration looks a bit F-22-like. Also, the J-20s dual wing configuration looks a bit different than existing F-22 or F-35 designs, as its dual-wing fuselage is more elongated and larger than US 5th-gen aircraft.
While available specs published by Aerocorner do say the J-20 is nearly five meters longer than the F-22, the largest differences appear to be maximum take-off payload and fuel capacity.
Aerocorner lists the length of the J-20 at 23 meters, compared to 18.9 meters for the F-22.
Range is also dramatically different as well, as additional size and fuel-carrying capacity results in a massive range disparity; Aerocorner reports that the J-20 flies with a 4,166 gallon fuel tank capacity compared with 2,400 for the F-22. This disparity results in a massive range difference, as the J-20 is listed as having a range nearly 3,000 km farther than the F-22. The spec sheet says the J-20 can travel to ranges of 5,926km, a range which puts Taiwan well within reach of mainland China, whereas the F-22 is slated as having a range of 2,963km. However, with two non-stealthy external fuel tanks, an F-22 can travel more than 1,864 miles, yet a plane with this configuration will compromise dogfighting ability and speed.
As a longer, dual-winged stealth fighter, the J-20 is likely much less maneuverable than an F-22 and therefore less likely to challenge the Raptor for air supremacy in air-to-air combat. However, once over a target area, the J-20 appears to have a massively larger payload capacity to deliver ordnance, one reason why the J-20 is much slower than the high-speed F-22; the specs list the speeds as 1,963 knots for the F-22 and 1,333 knots for the J-20.
Payload capacity is also quite different, as the J-20 can reportedly take off with 27,998 pounds of internal and external weaponry, whereas the F-22 can take off with a fraction of that at 3,915 pounds. This would suggest that a lighter, faster, air-to-air combat aircraft such as the F-22 would be well positioned to destroy a J-20 in the air with relative speed and efficiency, depending upon the range and fidelity of weapons sensors, precision guidance and targeting technology.
Even the F-35, a multi-role fighter with more payload than an F-22 is reported to operate with a take-off payload of 18,000 pounds of internal and external weapons. This means a J-20 can operate with longer dwell time above target areas, drop a much higher percentage of bombs on any one given mission and certainly reach thousands of kilometers further in terms of range, unless an F-22 flies with non-stealthy external fuel tanks.
Propulsion comparisons also appear to heavily favor the F-22, however Chinese-backed newspapers report that the J-20 is now built with a first-of-its-kind WS-15 domestically produced engine. It may not be clear how much this impacts performance, yet it seems unlikely a J-20 could rival an F-22 in the air.
It may not be well suited to challenge an F-35 either, although a true F-35 and F-22 comparison with the J-20 may depend upon lesser known variables such as the range and accuracy of its sensing, targeting and weapons envelope.
For instance, the F-35 is known to fly with sensors enabling it to see and destroy enemy fighter aircraft at unprecedented stand-off distances. Therefore, should the J-20 be unable to match this, then it would be quite vulnerable to an F-35 or F-22, regardless of its maneuverability and weaponry.
Should a J-20 be seen before it can detect an F-22 or F-35, other variables will certainly matter less. Secondly, the precision-guidance, seeking or course-correcting accuracy of air-to-air weapons would likely be a deciding factor as well. Finally, all of this likely relies upon the aircraft’s ability to “network” with other nodes across multiple domains and operate with high-speed, potentially AI-enabled computing and mission systems. The answer regarding which aircraft would ultimately be superior may reside in answers to these lesser known variables.
What this might suggest is that the US Air Force and Navy would be well served to find and destroy J-20s in the air before they are over target areas where they might be positioned to use a large bomb-dropping payload capacity to inflict damage or overwhelm air defenses with numerous attacks per single aircraft.
Expert Biography and Experience
Kris Osborn is the Military Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.