U.S. Sources Estimate China Likely Already Fields Over 200 J-20 Stealth Fighters: Just How Many Are There?

Increasingly since its entry into service in March 2017 estimates of the number of J-20 fifth generation fighters in the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force have varied, with multiple Western sources claiming over 150 were in service in 2021 while other analysts, basing counts on serial numbers observed and the number of units confirmed to have received the aircraft, placed their estimates at under 100. A CNN report on the J-20’s deployment for patrols of the East China Sea and South China Sea on April 15 placed this considerably higher still estimating that around 200 were in service, highlighting that the high endurance jets would be able to operate far out to sea to protect Chinese territorial claims. The assessment stressed that the aircraft’s induction of the indigenous WS-10C engine provided greater reliability than their older Russian AL-31 engines which may well have facilitated sending them out on longer ranged missions. The WS-10C has increased the range of the fighters and provides more power in non-afterburner mode which allows them to supercruise - fly supersonically for extended periods without using afterburners. The J-20 is the only fighter of its generation in production with a supercruise capability, with the much lighter American single engine F-35 and the Russian Su-57 currently in small scale production both lacking it. 

The J-20 has been produced with the WS-10C since mid 2019, and saw the initiation of full scale mass production announced in December 2021. The fighter has entered service in fast-growing numbers and is currently in service with seven PLA Air Force brigades. Acceleration of production comes as the design continues to be improved rapidly, which has included changes to the airframe and work on developing specialised variants to serve in supporting roles such as drone controller and airborne early warning aircraft. Expanded production may well come at the expense of other fighters, most notably the J-11D which is still at a prototype stage and the J-16 of which over 200 are thought to have been built. While an estimate of 200 J-20s in service remains high when considering the number of units deploying them, as the commissioning of new units continues to accelerate it remains plausible that such numbers will have left production lines by the end of 2023. As investments in expanding production continue, it remains very likely that the J-20 will be more wildly fielded than any other heavyweight fighter of its generation with a fleet size of over 500 near the end of the decade being likely. 

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