Seven Chinese Air Brigades Now Deploy J-20 Stealth Fighters: Where Are They and Why Were They Chosen?

In five years since entering service in March 2017 the Chengdu J-20 fifth generation heavyweight fighter has been deployed by seven brigades in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, with expansions to the scale of production in xx and again in January 2021 resulting in the class being adopted at an accelerating rate. The fighter is the one of just two of its generation in the world in production and fielded at squadron level strength, the other being the much lighter American F-35, and it is expected that the J-20 will form the backbone of the Chinese heavyweight fleet by the end of the decade as rapid increases in both the aircraft’s sophistication and its numbers are seen. A look at the eight PLA Air Force Air Brigades show which units have been prioritised to receive China’s most advanced fighter, and provide some indication as to which could be the next to integrate the aircraft. 

The first unit to integrate the J-20 was the 176th Air Brigade at the Dingxin Flight Test & Training Base, located near the Shuangchengzi missile test range in the Gobi Desert of Gansu Province. The facility has long been a centre for weapons integration testing in a relatively isolated desert climate, and plays a comparable role to Nellis Air Force Base in the United States with its size accommodating well over 100 aircraft and regularly doing so - of which the first J-20 unit made up a small fraction. The first serial production J-20s unit was received there in December 2016, although it did not become operational in the PLA Air Force until the following year. The fighters were at the time leaving their factory at a low initial production rate. The location under the Western Theatre Command Is considered optimal for exercises and ‘breaking in’ new aircraft, with very wide open airspace, expansive training range complexes, and clear weather suitable for flight throughout the year. The facility thus served as home to both the Golden Helmet and Golden Dart competitions which are the most prestigious in the PLA Air Force.

The second unit to integrate the J-20 was the 172nd Air Brigade at the Cangzhou Flight Test & Training Base near the city of Tianjin under the Central Theatre Command near its East Coast, which received its first aircraft in February 2018. The facility is one of the closest to the Korean Peninsula, and the deployment notably came at a time of particular high tensions when China had drawn a red line against a U.S.-led attack on North Korea. Its location is also suitable for operations near Japan and Taiwan, while allowing the J-20 to play an air defence role for the capital Beijing. The 172nd subsequently saw its J-20 units supplemented by J-20A fighters from January 2021, making it the only Air Brigade to operate both variants with two different engine types. It is rare not only in China but worldwide for a fighter unit to deploy the same class of aircraft but using drastically different engine types - particularly engines from different countries which have almost no commonality. This makes maintenance and logistics more difficult, although it is expected that the older J-20s will eventually be re-engined with the WS-10C or more likely the next generation WS-15, the latter which first flew with the J-20 in January 2022.

The third unit to integrate J-20 stealth fighters was the 9th Air Brigade at at Wuhu under the Eastern Theatre Command, which received the stealth fighters from January 2019. The facility had previously fielded Su-30MKK fighters which until the late 2000s had been considered the most capable in the PLA Air Force, with the Russian jets phased out and reallocated to lower priority units. The 9th Air Brigade was the last in the PLA to receive the first variant of the J-20 stealth fighter, with production lines shifting to the more capable J-20A which was powered by the indigenous WS-10C engine. The first J-20A fighters were delivered in January 2021, with the new engine playing an important role in facilitating a far larger scale of production.

The fourth unit to integrate the J-20, and the first to field a unit made exclusively of J-20A fighters, was the 1st Air Brigade at Anshan which also received fighters in January 2021. It was the first unit under the Northern Theatre Command to receive fifth generation fighters, which phased the J-11B and twin seat J-11BS fighters out of service. The J-11B was previously the most capable Chinese built twin engine heavyweight fighter in PLA service. The location were well suited for air defence duties along China’s east coast, as well as operations into Korea and across the East China Sea which remained important hotspots for tensions. The unit may well have been the first fielding J-20s to encounter foreign fighters of the same generation after an encounter with American F-35s was confirmed over the East China Sea in early 2022. A number of analysts interpreted the deployment as intended to send a signal to Japan and South Korea not to intervene in potential conflict with Taiwan which was a central pint of tensions at the time, with Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie stating: “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.”

The fifth unit to integrate the J-20 was the 5th Air Brigade at Guilin, which received fighters in January 2022 replacing older units of J-10B and twin seat J-10AS lightweight fighters that were under half the weight of the new stealth jets. This followed the announcement in December 2021 that J-20 had entered full scale mass production in December 2021. The 56th Air Brigade at Zhengzhou Airbase became the sixth unit to integrate the J-20, with deployments confirmed in March 2022 replacing J-10B and J-10AS fighters under the Central Theatre Command. A seventh deployment of fighters to an unknown unit and facility under the Western Theatre Command was reported but unconfirmed in March 2022. Other than the special Dingxin Flight Test & Training Base, this would have been the first deployment under the command traditionally receiving lowest priority for deployment of modern fighter classes due to the lack of a U.S. or allied military presence in the region. The command is the largest by area, and faces the former Soviet Central Asia, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The deployment came less than two years after clashes on the Sino-Indian border, and was likely made with deterrence of China’s southern neighbour in mind. J-20s were allegedly seen in March at Chongqing where the 97th Air Brigade was based, although it was uncertain whether this was the rumoured deployment under the Western Theatre Command or whether, if confirmed, it was a temporary deployment for exercises. 

As China's top fighter by a considerable margin, the J-20 is expected to continue to be deployed to priority locations. The expansion of production from late 2021, and expected further expansion once the WS-15 engine enters service, means the aircraft could begun entering service at a higher rate than any other heavyweight fighter in China or the world. 

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