New Unit of China’s Elite J-20A Stealth Fighters Deployed to Guard Taiwan Strait and North Korea

The China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force has reportedly deployed a new unit of J-20 heavyweight stealth fighters under its Northern Theatre Command with the intention of guarding the Taiwan Strait, according to local media reports. The deployment of China's most capable fighters coincided with celebrations for the 100th anniversary of the founding of China’s ruling party. Although the Eastern Theatre Command is usually tasked with security issues pertaining to Taiwan and Japan, the range of the J-20 will reportedly also allow it to contribute to military operations in the Taiwan Strait from bases in Liaoning province. Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie reported to this effect: “The J-20’s new deployment, announced ahead of the Communist Party’s 100th anniversary on July 1, is aimed at telling South Korea and Japan that China is strengthening its air defence along the coastal areas, warning them not to join Washington and intervene in the Taiwan issue.” He explained the rationale for deploying the fighters relatively far from Taiwan as follows: “None of the J-20s will be deployed near the coasts, because of their 2,000km-plus combat range, which is more than enough to cover the mainland coastal provinces and Taiwan.”

Liaoning notably also borders North Korea, meaning the fighters could be ideally placed to provide air cover to China’s treaty ally in the event of a clash on the Korean Peninsula. J-20s were previously reported to have flown into South Korean airspace as a show of force during a time of high tensions with the north in 2017 as a show of force. The purpose of the new J-20 deployment can only be speculated, but it is clear that the fighter is being deployed in fast growing numbers with production expected to expand as the design is further improved. The latest variant of the jet, the J-20A, uses a new WS-10C engine, while the upcoming J-20B which entered production in 2020 will use engines with thrust vectoring capabilities for improved manoeuvrability. The J-20 is the only fifth generation fighter developed outside the United States which is in service at squadron level strength, and is prized for its stealth capabilities, its advanced AESA radar guided air to air missiles, its long range and its very modern avionics and sensors.

Both Korea and Taiwan are major hotspots, and represent the only theatres over which the PLA Air Force has ever fought - using MiG-15 and later MiG-17 jets in the 1950s to engage U.S., European, Australian and Taiwanese air units. Both hotspots remain sensitive for Chinese interests, the former because North Korea is a treaty ally with a relatively weak air force, and the latter because Taiwan continues to be recognised by the UN and all UN member states as part of China, but has taken steps towards formally declaring its separation which would likely spark a major war if seen through.

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