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The J-20 Will Have A Very Long Career

August 20, 2022
Via Chinese state media.

After its usual acrobatics at Air Show China 2021 fresh public evidence–leaked through social media earlier this year–revealed the PLAAF‘s first operational stealth fighter is evolving. At least a couple of photos have appeared months apart of J-20’s with enlarged cockpits for two pilots. The speculation so far has polarized between competing themes. Either the “fourth-generation” stealth fighter is in full rate production and is being tailored for pilot training or the J-20 will soon have a long-range strike role aside from its original air superiority role. To date, the J-20 doesn’t carry munitions externally as these are stored in the “belly” along with two adjacent ports for extra missiles.

It serves the reader to know the AVIC J-20 is described by Chinese media and the national aerospace sector as a fourth-generation model because the country’s military aviation was only in its third-generation as recently as the 1990s. From the 1950s until the 1970s, the PLAAF’s J-5, J-6, and J-7 were the first generation followed by the J-8/J-8II and Q-5 ground attack aircraft as the second generation. The JH-7 fighter-bomber and the J-10A/B are the third generation. An alternate categorization found in US analysis firmly puts the J-5 and J-6 in the first generation while the J-7 and Q-5 are in the second generation while the JH-7 fighter-bomber and the J-8II interceptor represents the third generation. This puts the J-10A/B, J-11A/B, and even the J-20 in a very broad fourth and “4.5” generation.

When assessed through a Western lens, however, the J-20 is a peer to fifth-generation models like the F-22 Raptor and the Su-57, which are the only twin engine stealth fighters in service today. At least six countries–France, India, Japan, South Korea, Turkiye, the UK–are either planning or prototyping new stealth fighters at the moment. Meanwhile, the US Air Force is directly involved with the NGAD program to replace the F-22 Raptor whose production ceased between 2008-2009 after 187 units were built. (At present the US Air Force’s own data shows 183 F-22 Raptors remain operational.)

The J-20’s public record is now running its twelfth year and what has been gleaned from the period is very interesting. As a symbol of national prestige and technological advancement the J-20 buries long-held assumptions about the supposed backwardness found in China’s high tech manufacturing. As a weapon system whose existence was revealed in 2011 (the exposure was for impressing then US Secretary of Defense Robert gates, who was visiting China to meet his counterpart) the J-20 foreshadowed a busy decade when the Chinese military’s firepower gap compared with the NATO alliance, the Russian Federation, and the United States all but disappeared. Five years later the J-20 entered service with the PLAAF and performed acrobatic flights at the biennial aerospace exhibition in Zhuhai. In 2017 a pair of J-20’s conducted a flyover at a remote training area where President Xi Jinping observed the ground forces and elite airborne units perform exercises. Until 2018 there were persistent doubts about the number of J-20’s in service and some estimates suggested less than two dozen had been made.

But in hindsight serial production of the J-20 lasting from 2016 until 2020 allowed the PLAAF to equip several squadrons in the Northern and Eastern commands–these are historic units assigned to defend bodies of water like the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea. There are unverified claims J-20’s are able to deploy in the South China Sea as well. (China’s military is divided among five geographic “commands” that mix air, ground, naval, and strategic units.) But it was only from 2020 and 2021 when AVIC and Chinese state media indicated the J-20’s greatest flaw, being its Russian-made engines, were finally replaced by the locally made WS-10A engines. Over the same period other aspects of the J-20 were improved and AVIC claimed the aircraft’s “mass-production” was underway. When US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi toured the Indo-Pacific and visited Taiwan on August 3 this year the response from Beijing was to launched military exercises around the island’s airspace. Chinese state-owned media coverage highlighted the level of sophistication and numerical superiority the armed forces enjoyed and claimed J-20’s under the Eastern Theater Command flew missions.

Apparently, a new engine type for the J-20 is being developed called the WS-15 and, based on AVIC’s statements to the press, additional subsystems are being installed on the J-20 in particular. This is somewhat confirmed by photos of the J-20 that seats two pilots. If it’s true mass-production of the J-20 runs until the 2030s then China maintains its reputation for having the busiest military aerospace sector in the world. Four other fighters needed by the PLA are being assembled by state-owned enterprises right now: the single engine J-10C, the twin engine J-16, the carrier-based J-15, and the carrier-based and stealthy J-35. This is coinciding with the over-production of medium and high altitude drones in significant numbers. It’s important to point out the J-20 along with most contemporary PLAAF fixed wing combat aircraft aren’t available for export. Foreign end users who want advanced Chinese-made fighter aircraft have the stealthy FC-31, the FC-1, the JH-7, the J-10C/CE, and the PL-15 to choose from.

Outside fighter jets and drones the production volume for Chinese aircraft of every type is just as immense.

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