Earlier this fall, the Chinese Air Force publicly unveiled its newest fighter, the J-20. Although spectators were only given a relatively brief glimpse of the plane undertaking simple maneuvers, the development of an indigenous 5th generation Chinese stealth fighter has made waves in the China-watcher community. Many questions still remain such as the quality of the fighter’s engines, the effectiveness of the fighter’s stealth features, and the number of planes expected to be built. Despite these questions, the significance of the J-20 cannot be overstated. China is well on its way to becoming a major military player, and this development is just one of many illustrating China’s rising power.
The J-20 possesses a relatively novel design that seems to borrow elements of Russian and American fighter designs. Indeed, it is highly likely that the J-20 incorporates many Russian and American innovations, as China has a history of illegally reverse engineering Russian technology and launching cyber-attacks against U.S. defense firms so as to acquire American designs. Incorporating features from the F-22 and the Mig 1.42 technology demonstrator, the J-20 features small canards near the front of the aircraft and a number of stealth features designed to reduce its radar cross-section (1). The aircraft features a twin-engine design and also incorporates vertical stabilizers near the rear of the plane. The J-20 is also suspected to have advanced avionics and senior capabilities such as an active electronically-scanned radar system that prevents other aircraft from using radar emissions to detect its location. The J-20 is also said to have infrared search and track sensors, and some analysts suspect that it might possess a distributed aperture system like the F-35, allowing pilots to use cameras around the plane to see through the aircraft (2).
Clearly, these capabilities represent a massive leap forward, and they represent the cutting edge of Chinese military industrial capability. Because of the plethora of new technology in this aircraft, there are serious questions regarding China’s ability to produce the J-20. After all, the highly experienced American defense giant Lockheed-Martin has struggled to produce and build the F-35, its 5th generation stealth fighter. Russia, another country with experience building complex fighters, has also struggled with its advanced 5th generation fighter, the PAK-FA (3). Given that both Russia and the U.S. are struggling, it is highly unlikely that China – a country lacking experience in aircraft production – will be able to quickly perfect and mass-produce the J-20. This is particularly true given China’s historical struggles with indigenous engine production (4).
In spite of the likely shortcomings of the J-20, it still poses a clear threat to American aircraft in the Asia-Pacific. This raises the question, though: What is the J-20 going to be used for? It is still far too early to know with any certainty how Beijing will try to utilize its new fighter. However, one can speculate based on the design characteristics of the aircraft. As Kyle Mizokami recently pointed out at Foreign Policy, it is plausible, and even likely, that the J-20 serves as a long-range interceptor for the PLAAF (5). As the fighter appears to be designed for range and speed, it’s possible that the J-20 will serve as China’s primary aircraft in the South and East China Seas. The placement of stealth features also suggests that the J-20 might be tasked with interception. This is due to the fact that the plane is stealthiest from the front, indicating that it might be designed to remain a stealthy profile during interception, fire from a distance, and then leave. Though as Chinese military analyst Yin Zhuo points out, the J-20’s emphasis on maneuverability and speed also suggests that it could be a potent dogfighter (6). Others have argued that it might act as fighter-bomber, as the size of the aircraft and its three weapons bays might also mean that the J-20 could be used to carry heavy ordinance, dropping bombs in contested airspace.
Obviously it is far too soon to evaluate the full potential of the J-20. Much is still unknown, and mass-production has likely not yet begun. However, it is probably safe to assume that the J-20 will not be as capable as comparable American or Russian fighters like the F-35 or PAK-FA. Nevertheless, the plane represents an enormous leap forward for China both militarily and industrially. Even if the fighter is not as effective as some American analysts fear, it will provide the Chinese aircraft industry with valuable experience, improving the Chinese military industrial complex and making China an even larger competitor on the international arms market.
(1) Mizokami, Kyle. “China has Big Plans for Its Deadly New Stealth Fighter.” Foreign Policy. November 4, 2016. Web.
(3) Seitz, Sam. “PAK-FA: An Impressive Plane Plagued with Issues.” Global Intelligence Trust. July 21, 2016. Web.
(4) Govindasamy, Siva. “Not Top Gun yet: China struggles with warplane engine technology.” Reuters. January 28, 2016. Web.
(5) Mizokami, Kyle. “China has Big Plans for Its Deadly New Stealth Fighter.” Foreign Policy. November 4, 2016. Web.
(6) Mouquan, Xu. “China's J-20 Stealth Fighter to debut.” News China. October 31, 2016. Web.
Image: © Maccj | Dreamstime.com - China Fighter Jets On Display At LIMA Langkawi Exhibition Photo
Sam Seitz is a student at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, where he studies International Politics, German, and European Studies. He has served as an analyst for the Roosevelt Institute at Georgetown University, specializing in defense and diplomacy, and runs the blog Politics in Theory and Practice. Sam’s areas of interest are, broadly speaking, security studies, alliance networks, European politics, and the intersection between comparative politics and international relations. Sam is also a devoted fan of the University of North Carolina’s men’s basketball team.