Airstrikes By China’s J-20 Stealth Fighters Were Major Highlight of Zapad 2021 Drills — First Ever Deployment Alongside Foreign Forces

At the Zapad 2021 military exercises which concluded on August 13th, Chinese and Russian forces 10,000 strong demonstrated unprecedented levels of interoperability using a joint command and control system. 

The exercises saw Russian troops integrated into larger Chinese formations, using Chinese vehicles and equipment, and carrying out operations planned by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), with the two sides demonstrating unprecedented levels of coherence key to allowing them to fight side by side in a real wartime situation. 

A notable highlight of the exercises which signified their importance was China’s deployment of J-20 stealth fighters, which marked the first time they were deployed alongside foreign forces. The J-20 joined the PLA Air Force in March 2017 and is one of just two fifth-generation fighters in large scale production worldwide alongside the American F-35. 

Where Russia has struggled to develop a next-generation fighter due to delays in its Su-57 program, the presence of the J-20 symbolises that the Western Bloc and its allies will not have a monopoly on stealth fighter technologies in the event of a major war. 

The J-20 reportedly spearheaded an air raid on enemy frontline command centres and air defence observation outposts during simulated combat, followed by strikes by JH-7 jets and artillery. Chinese H-6 bombers, J-11 and J-16 fighter jets, and Russian Su-30SM fighters carried out further strikes afterward. Citing a local military expert, China's Global Times state media outlet reported: 

"The J-20s kicked open the door and seized air superiority by accurately attacking high-value targets on the ground, and this was the leading role the J-20s had played in the exercises as stealth fighter jets... This allowed ground troops and other non-stealth warplanes to proceed with their missions with much fewer risks." Although the J-20 was developed for air to air combat, a precision strike capability capitalising on its stealth features, high endurance and powerful sensors have been speculated. 

The possible deployment of the J-20 either to Russia or to fly alongside Russian forces has been speculated since 2018, and joint air manoeuvres or even adversary training between Chinese and Russian fighter units remains possible in future. This could be particularly beneficial for the Russian Air Force which would be able to train with and against stealth fighters to allow it to develop countermeasures for use against the F-35 and other Western stealth jets. With Chinese and Russian forces for the first time integrated into a single command structure, the J-20’s deployment could have potentially been intended to show Russian forces the benefits of fighting alongside the PLA in such a way — namely access to very advanced hardware much of which only China and the U.S. currently field. 

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