New Chinese Units Receive J-20A Fighters as Production Expands: Stealth Jets Now Deployed Under Central Theatre Command

Following the announcement in December 2021 that the Chengdu J-20 fifth generation fighter had entered full scale mass production, it was confirmed on March 17 that a new fighter unit in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force had received the aircraft. 

The 56th Air Brigade based in Zhengzhou, which previously operated fourth generation lightweight J-10B fighters and twin seat J-10AS trainers, received its first J-20A with a full transition to the new stealth fighters expected. The squadron is assigned to the Central Theatre Command, which is further away from potential adversaries and has previously not been made a priority for receipt of top end new armaments. J-20s have previously prioritised for the Northern, Eastern and Southern commands facing Japan, the South China Sea and Taiwan on the Chinese mainland's East Coast. 

The PLA is divided between five theatre commands the fifth and largest by area being the Western Theatre Command facing the former Soviet Central Asia, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. 

The J-20’s endurance is thought to be the highest in the Chinese fleet, meaning fighters deployed under the Central Theatre Command will still be capable of reaching targets in Japan, Taiwan and the Koreas - although the fighter is equipped primarily for air to air rather than strike missions meaning penetration of enemy airspace will not be as essential to its mission. The J-20A variant integrates indigenous WS-10C engines and a range of avionics and airframe improvements, and is one of three confirmed J-20 variants to have flown alongside a twin seat variant thought to be designated J-20AS and the standard J-20 which entered service in March 2017 using Russian AL-31FM2 engines. 

As the only fifth-generation fighter fielded at squadron and in production anywhere in the world, other than the American F-35 which is a single engine aircraft from a different weight range, the J-20 has a special place in Chinese military aviation and is expected to play an increasingly central role in the country’s defence and gradually surpass older heavyweight aircraft such as the J-16 in production. Extensive investments have also been made to modernise existing fourth generation designs with fifth generation technologies. 

The transition from the J-10B to the J-20A is a significant one not only in terms of generation, but also weight range with the J-20 being a twin engine aircraft over twice the weight of the J-10. This is hardly the first time that Chinese fighter units make such a sharp change, with J-7 third generation fighter units having recently transitioned directly to the J-16 which is almost three times as heavy. Such transitions not only significantly raise operational costs, but also add considerable complexity to units' maintenance and operational requirements. 

With the United States and allies such as Japan quickly transitioning to rely on the F-35, and the U.S. moving to field a sixth generation fighter within the next decade which is expected to be a heavyweight of comparable size to the J-20, accelerating the phasing out of older airframes and induction of J-20s into service is increasingly urgent. The J-20A is next expected to phase out Russian-sourced Su-30MKK fighters in the 54th or 85th Air Brigade. 

The replaced relatively capable J-10B and Su-30MKK aircraft are not expected to be retired from service entirely, but rather transferred to lower priority units such as those in the Western Theatre Command which in turn will phase out their own older aircraft and acquire used ones from superior units. 

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