J-20 vs. F-16V: Assessing the potential outcome Taiwan clash

In response to the growing capabilities of the Chinese PLA Air Force, the United States [US] has tactically opted to prepare its F-16 Viper fighter jets through rigorous training alongside its advanced fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II aircraft.

Thrust vectoring engine: J-20 performs strong maneuvers at low speed
Photo credit: ADN

In the context of the Northern Lightning exercises in Wisconsin, F-35B Joint Strike Fighters, representing the Marine Corps’ stealth capabilities, in conjunction with the F-35As, symbolizing the combined power of the active-duty Air Force and Air National Guard, have assumed the role of ‘quarterbacks’ for larger contingents of fighter jets. This strategic positioning is aimed at refining their combat skills against a hypothetical opponent.

In the annual exercises of 2023, a noteworthy dynamic has emerged, wherein the non-stealthy, albeit venerable F-16 Viper fighters are being shielded by the technologically superior F-35s. This strategic arrangement permits the F-16s to utilize their more substantial missile payload to engage simulated enemy forces, encompassing both fighter jets and cruise missiles, with heightened efficacy.

In the course of these exercises, Air Force T-38 jet trainers, along with the elusive F-117 Nighthawk stealth jets, assumed the role of adversaries. A select number of F-35s also participated, further enhancing the complexity of the drills.

F-35I Adir is a 'monster', with its own frequency hopping EW system
Photo credit: IAF

In the view of the Marines engaged in the training regimen, success in any ensuing high-intensity confrontations, for instance, a potential conflict in the Indo-Pacific region against China, necessitates such collaboration. This assertion gains significance because military analysts anticipate a plausible eruption of hostilities between these two nations.

According to the statement of a US Marine pilot, Capt. “Melon” Streicher, the strategic integration of fifth and fourth-generation fighter jets is being emphasized as a pivotal aspect of their current training regimen.

“Indeed, the critical aspect of the integration, particularly for the F-35, lies therein,” articulated Streicher. “Our arsenal consists of a mere four missiles.” This statement, echoed and reiterated over time, underscores that despite the heightened invisibility and survivability of stealth aircraft like the F-35s, their missile capacity remains a constraint when engaged in combat with enemy aircraft.

China showed a two-seater stealth J-20 in combat camouflage
Photo credit: South China Morning Post

Each variant of the F-35 fighter jet has been designed with the capacity to internally house up to four AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles [AMRAAM], or alternatively, a combination of two AIM-120s and a variety of air-to-ground weaponry. Although the external load capacity of these aircraft is greater, allowing for the carriage of additional air-to-air missiles and other armaments, such an action invariably mitigates their intrinsic stealth capabilities, a feature that primarily characterizes these modern warbirds.

Contrarily, the F-16Vs hold the capacity to be retrofitted with the advanced AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, a product of the renowned Raytheon Technologies Corp. The aircraft also has the potential to be armed with an array of missiles, namely the AGM-84 Harpoon, AGM-88 HARM, AGM-154 JSOW, and SLAM-ER. Of these, the SLAM-ER missiles are particularly noteworthy for their efficacy as long-range precision strike weapons, boasting a remarkable range of 170 miles.

Streicher articulated that, in contrast to the current F-35s, “the F-16s are each equipped with six missiles. Consequently, we must ensure their successful engagement and survival in battle. If these F-16s are lost prematurely, it presents a significant issue. Therefore, our role is to strategically orchestrate the battle,” he explained.

Undoubtedly, a significant advantage of the Joint Strike Fighter lies in its inherent ability to function as a strategic coordinator, akin to a quarterback, for both stealthy and non-stealthy aircraft in forthcoming operations. This capability extends to aircraft hailing from diverse branches, as well as those belonging to international allies and partners, thereby amplifying its strategic value.

F-16 fired a 5th-gen missile with upgraded circuit guidance cards
Photo credit: USAF

Theoretically speaking, should a conflict arise with China concerning Taiwan, the United States Air Force’s F-35s could potentially form a formidable alliance with Taiwanese F-16Vs to engage the People’s Liberation Army Air Force. However, this strategic scenario hinges on the critical decision of whether the United States or its regional allies equipped with F-35s – namely Japan and South Korea – elect to intervene in a war against China.

Nonetheless, should there exist even the slightest chance of them deciding against engaging Beijing in direct combat, a decision that was previously witnessed during the Ukrainian conflict, the F-16Vs of Taiwan would be left to fend for themselves against the elusive J-20s.

The encounter between F-16s and J-20s is inevitable

The F-35 Lightning II presently stands as the globally coveted stealth combat aircraft, attributed to its superior stealth features. These characteristics, as asserted by the US, comprise an unmatched blend of speed and agility, fully integrated sensor data, network-enabled operations, and advanced sustainment. These aspects collectively contribute to an unrivaled prowess in aerial warfare.

Typically, F-35s are deployed in conjunction with other combat aircraft, namely the F-15 Eagles and F-16 Fighting Falcons, serving a protective role. A notable example of this synergistic deployment occurred during a military exercise, where the stealth capabilities of the F-35 fighter jets were brought to bear against the heavyweight F-15 Eagles, commonly viewed as the F-35s’ bodyguards. The outcome of this exercise was a remarkable kill rate of eight, with the F-35s emerging unscathed, thus underscoring their formidable capabilities.

In the intricate dynamics of warfare, the faction that succeeds in discerning the enemy and launching the initial offensive often secures a commanding position. This fundamental principle elucidates the strategic deployment of the F-35s. Their function is not merely to engage in combat but to serve as the enabling force for other fighters, which carry a substantial payload of missiles yet lack stealth capabilities. The F-35s, with their advanced stealth technology, facilitate these fighters to release their missiles undetected, thereby enhancing the overall efficacy of the military operation.

If you haven't seen it yet: F-16, serial 88-0499, carries nukes
Photo by Joseph Albergo

In anticipation of potential future skirmishes with the PLA Air Force, Taiwan is cognizant of the fact that the F-16 Vipers, which it is currently acquiring from the United States, will likely serve as their most potent line of defense. Observers within the military sphere frequently pose the question as to whether the F-16Vs will possess the capacity to confront the J-20s, bereft of the purportedly crucial shield provided by a stealth fighter.

Thrust vectoring engine: J-20 performs strong maneuvers at low speed
Photo credit: eng.chinamil.com.cn

In an endeavor to counterbalance the formidable presence of the J-20, the third fifth-generation stealth fighter to be deployed globally, the island nation is currently undergoing an extensive transformation. It is refurbishing a fleet of 141 antiquated F-16A/B block 20s into cutting-edge US fighters. Furthermore, a procurement order for 66 state-of-the-art F-16V block 70s has been placed, signifying a robust commitment to upgrade its aerial defense capabilities.

Conceptually akin to the United States F-35, the J-20 is recognized for its advanced radar capabilities and intricate electronics, in conjunction with a seamlessly integrated weapons management system. Its well-engineered radar system boasts an impressive range, capable of identifying potential targets up to a distance of 135 kilometers. Complementing this, the aircraft’s long-range missiles possess a striking range of 300 kilometers, equivalent to approximately 186 miles, further consolidating its reputation as a formidable force in the skies.

When juxtaposed with its antecedent models, the technologically advanced F-16V demonstrates an enhanced propensity for detecting the elusive J-20. This is largely attributed to its incorporation of the contemporary APG-83 active electronically scanned array [AESA] radar, in addition to a suite of modern avionics. Subsequently, the decision by the United States to provision Taiwan with these upgraded fighter jets elicited a storm of indignation from the Chinese leadership.

US-made F-16 in the sky over the Black Sea: predator or prey?
Photo credit: Lockheed Martin

Nevertheless, it is imperative to acknowledge the undeniable progression of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force [PLAAF]. Over the past two decades, it has significantly bolstered its fleet with the addition of hundreds of indigenously manufactured J-10, J-11, and J-16 series fighters.

Moreover, conjectures abound that the current strength of the PLAAF fleet includes approximately 200 state-of-the-art J-20 fighter jets. These advanced stealth fighters have been deployed across all theater commands, further demonstrating the force’s strategic capabilities.

Consequently, Taiwan could potentially confront an Air Force that surpasses them both in terms of numerical strength and technological advancement. The introduction of the J-20s, soaring high above the Taiwanese island, could ostensibly amplify their sense of invulnerability, largely attributable to their stealth capabilities.

China showed a two-seater stealth J-20 in combat camouflage
Photo credit: South China Morning Post

In a meticulously crafted piece for War on the Rocks, published in 2018, the astute military analyst Drew Thompson delineated the contours of Taiwan’s innovative strategy designed to counter China’s military prowess. Thompson’s incisive analysis reveals that the Taiwanese air force, in a calculated move to thwart the People’s Liberation Army Air Force from offering close-range air support to the invading contingents, is set to orchestrate the deployment of integrated air defense systems. These systems, strategically assigned, aim to safeguard air bases and vital infrastructure, thereby fortifying Taiwan’s defensive capabilities.

Thompson posits that, despite their potential role in launching anti-ship missiles at invading Chinese vessels, fighter jets may not be the most pivotal asset in Taiwan’s defensive strategy against a Chinese incursion. He underscores that only a limited number of aircraft could conceivably evade China’s initial onslaught on Taiwan’s air bases. “PLA strikes…will lay waste to Taiwan’s airbases,” he states emphatically. In essence, Taiwan’s fighter jets “will largely function as a deterrent, safeguarding Taiwan’s airspace during times of peace,” asserts Thompson.

In the face of China’s escalated acts of aggression towards Taiwan’s military, coupled with recurrent incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone [ADIZ], there have emerged reports suggesting the Chinese J-20 has been closely monitoring the F-16Vs that Taiwan routinely deploys as a deterrent against Chinese warplanes infringing its ADIZ borders.

If Russia pollutes the runways, the US F-16 becomes unusable
Photo by US Air Force/Senior Airman Erica Webster

An anonymous military analyst offered insights into the significance of the U.S. military’s integration of F-35s and F-16s. He stated, “The strategic combination of 5th and 4th generation fighters—what is known as a complementary integration—is particularly beneficial given that both generations of aircraft are part of the U.S. fleet.” The analyst further noted that the People’s Liberation Army [PLA] is also adopting a similar strategy. The PLA is actively integrating their 5th generation J-20 fighters with their 4th and 4.5th generation forces, which include the J-16s and J-10Cs among others.

From a perspective of military capabilities, Taiwan, it must be noted, lacks advanced fifth-generation stealth fighter jets in its arsenal. Furthermore, the island nation possesses only a limited number of fourth-generation fighters, a fact that underscores the constraints within its air force capabilities.

The analyst further elucidated, “In the broad panorama of military capabilities, Taiwan’s defense infrastructure pales in comparison to that of the People’s Liberation Army [PLA]. This disparity is not merely confined to Taiwan’s non-possession of F-35s, but extends to their entire ‘system of systems.’ The odds are stacked against Taiwan, even before contemplating the feasibility of their fighter jets taking flight in the event of a conflict.”

F-16V and a 50-year-old fighter operate in an interception combo
Photo credit: Taiwan

In essence, this positions the F-16V in direct confrontation with the J-20s and other fighter jets of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force [PLAAF]. Previously, Chinese fighter pilots have asserted that they successfully managed to penetrate Taiwanese airspace undetected by either their fighter jets or land-based radar systems. This, they claim, is a testament to the superior stealth capabilities of their so-called Mighty Dragons.

Ukraine: We will get either F-16 or Gripen, talks are underway
Photo credit: PixaBay

In response to an inquiry regarding the potential performance of Taiwan’s F-16V fighter jets against the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s [PLAAF] J-20 fighters, a military analyst offered an insightful perspective. The analyst suggested that given the extensive disparity in firepower across the Taiwan Strait, the primary concern should not be the comparative performance of the aircraft. Instead, the pressing issues at hand are the number of Republic of China Air Force [ROCAF] F-16s that would be capable of taking off, and the duration these aircraft could remain airborne before achieving combat altitude. This concern stems from the significant qualitative and quantitative superiority of the PLA in areas such as Airborne Early Warning and Control [AEW&C], Electronic Warfare [EW], and weaponry. It is only after these pressing issues have been addressed that a meaningful comparison between the F-16V and the J-20 could be made.

Subsequently, it becomes a matter of contemplation as to the number of air bases that possess the capability to accommodate a landing F-16, or any other fighter aircraft for that matter. Alternatively, these aircraft may be compelled to utilize a highway as a makeshift airfield. Inherently, such a scenario lacks the requisite flexibility for executing large-scale maneuvers and maintaining high velocity.

Thus, it was noted by Yang Juncheng, the esteemed leader of the air group, and the proficient pilot Wei Xin that, “The J-20 possesses a stealth capability of extraordinary magnitude, which undoubtedly stands as its paramount advantage. Our adversaries find their radar systems rendered utterly ineffective, unable to detect our presence, whilst we retain the ability to initiate offensive actions. One could hypothesize the immense psychological burden this places on our foes. Their only recourse lies in executing abrupt defensive maneuvers to avert our threats. Should we advance, they are compelled to retreat.”

The menace imposed by the J-20 acquires an intensified dimension for Taiwan. This is due to the stark contrast in the military preparedness scenario Taiwan faces compared to that of the United States. Unlike the latter, the Taiwanese Air Force lacks the possession of F-35 stealth fighter jets, thereby depriving them of a crucial “quarterback” figure which would otherwise coordinate the firing of missiles by the F-16 Vipers.

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