China’s J-20 Stealth Fighters Now Patrolling East and South China Seas as Tensions With U.S. Simmer

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force has for the first time deployed its new J-20 stealth fighters for routine patrols over the East China Sea and South China Sea, both of which are considered primary hotspots for tensions with the United States and its allies at a time when relations remain poor. The Chinese Global Times state media outlet on April 13 highlighted that these regular patrols in these areas were facilitated by progress in the J-20 fighter program, namely the integration of indigenous WS-10C engine. J-20 production transitioned from using Russian AL-31FM2 engines to the WS-10C in mid-2019, with the rate of production increasing considerably from late 2021 after the first aircraft with the new engines entered service. The WS-10C has more thrust than the AL-31FM2 in non afterburner mode, and allows the J-20 to fly supersonically without using afterburners - known as ‘supercruise.’ A yet more capable engine, the WS-15, first flew on the J-20 for testing purposes in January and is set to give the fighter more thrust than any other in the world. The deployment notably follows confirmation in March by Commander of the U.S. Pacific Air Forces General Kenneth Wilsbach that the J-20 had seen its first ever encounter with a foreign stealth fighter, the American F-35, over the East China Sea. The J-20 and the F-35 are the only two fifth generation fighters in the world both in production and fielded at squadron level strength. 

The East China Sea notably saw the first deployment of a U.S. carrier group of the decade in the second week of April, and is the site of a territorial dispute between China and Japan which escalated considerably in the 2010s following the U.S. Pivot to Asia initiative and a decision by the Japanese government to purchase the territory from its private owner. Japan is the leading foreign client for the F-35A fighter. The F-35 is a much lighter and shorter ranged design than the J-20 with a smaller radar and one rather than two engines, and is not capable of supercruise. The fighter was designed primarily to have lower operational and manufacturing costs, rather than forming the elite of a fighter fleet as the J-20 was, and is oriented primarily towards air to ground rather than air superiority missions. The U.S. previously produced the F-22 Raptor as a twin engine fifth generation fighter equivalent to the J-20, but orders to cancel production were given less than four years after the fighter entered service and the first of the aircraft are set to begin being retired several decades ahead of schedule. The U.S. is currently developing a sixth generation heavyweight fighter under the F-X program which is expected to enter service around 2030, with China also developing a successor to the J-20 that Pentagon officials have warned could enter service before its American competitor. The J-20’s deployment reflects growing confidence in the fighter’s capabilities as it continues to enter service at an accelerating rate, with the aircraft continuing to receive significant improvements much as the F-35 has leaving fighters from the previous generation, as well as the F-22, increasingly behind.

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