China’s J-20 Stealth Fighter Marks Five Years in Service: Production Scale Expanding as Upgrades Enhance Performance

March 2022 marks five years since the entry into service of the world’s first fifth-generation fighter developed outside the United States, the Chengdu J-20, which joined the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force just six years after its first flight in January 2011. 

The anniversary closely coincided with the fighter’s first encounter with another aircraft of its generation, the American F-35, which reportedly occurred over the East China Sea in mid-March, during which Commander of the U.S. Pacific Air Forces, Air Force General Kenneth Wilsbach, commented on how the Chinese fighter was performing: “we notice that they are flying it pretty well… we’re relatively impressed with the command and control associated with the J-20. We’re seeing relatively professional flying and it’s still too early to tell exactly what they intend to do with [the J-20].” 

The J-20 and F-35 are currently the only fifth-generation fighters in the world in serial production and fielded at squadron level strength, with the first fighter of the generation older American F-22 having seen orders to cut production given just four years after the aircraft entered service due largely to performance issues and serious overruns in operational costs. 

The Chinese fighter its a heavyweight twin-engine design comparable in its role and weight range to the F-22, while the F-35 was designed to be much lighter and cheaper with a more modest flight performance and single engine and a greater focus on roles other than air to air combat. 

The J-20 saw production expanded considerably in December 2021, and has continued to incorporate wide ranging upgrades at a rapid rate making current production models significantly different from those which first joined the PLA five years ago. The fighter has seen Russian AL-31FM2 engines used as a stopgap on early batches phased out in favour of the indigenous WS-10C, while a newer more powerful engine the WS-15 is expected to provide an unprecedented degree of thrust for a twin engine fighter surpassing the current leader the F-22. 

Superior engines provide more power for new weapons systems such as laser weapons, which are currently under development, as well as improving maneuverability, endurance and speed and reducing maintenance requirements with more efficient designs. The J-20 in October 2021 became the world’s first fifth generation fighter to be developed into a twin seat variant, which is expected to provide new options for strike, airborne early warning, command and control and drone control functions. The fighter has consistently performed well in exercises, reportedly tackling over a dozen older fourth generation aircraft at a time demonstrating tremendous superiority, and has seen several landmark deployments including furnishing the PLA's elite 'Ace Unit' from January 2020.

The J-20 is one of three Chinese fighters currently in production for the PLA Air Force alongside the J-16, a fourth generation heavyweight based on the Russian Su-27 Flanker design but very significantly enhanced with Chinese technologies, and the lightweight J-10C which is in production on a far larger scale with over 200 thought to have entered service in four years from early 2018. Both fighters, as well as the lighter JF-17 Block 3 built for export, integrate avionics and armaments similar in sophistication to those of the J-20 with the successful development of a fifth generation fighter thus significantly benefitting fourth generation programs. 

What particularly sets the J-20 apart, aside from its weight and endurance, is its radar evading stealth profile which makes it extremely difficult to lock onto at long ranges, as well as its priority status for the receipt of new subsystems and weaponry.

The J-20 is expected to increasingly form the backbone of China’s heavyweight fleet, and it is expected that close to 500 could be in service by the end of the decade likely replacing older fourth generation heavyweights such as the Russian-supplied Su-27 and Su-30. 

Improvements to the J-20 come amid growing threats to Chinese airspace from a range of new Western assets under development, including the widespread proliferation of the F-35 which is expected to form the backbone of the U.S. Air Force, as well as development of the F-X sixth generation fighter and B-21 stealth bomber. 

The J-20 is itself very likely to be the first outside the United States, and possibly in the world, to integrate sixth generation technologies such as laser weapons and more advanced forms of artificial intelligence as the program continues to receive tremendous support from China’s very large industrial and R&D bases. 

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