J-20s may be based at Luliang base – Chinese blade against Taiwan

Rumblings spread in early 2023 following unofficial reports hinting at the delivery of J-20 fifth-generation fighters to the 131st Air Brigade, stationed at Luliang Air Base, Yunnan Province, Southern Theatre Command. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army [PLA] Air Force saw an increase in fighter deliveries in recent years, bolstering brigades nationwide. 

J-20 fleet is growing - 13 Chinese brigades have the Mighty Dragon
Photo credit: EurAsian Times

In 2022 alone, confirmation was received that three new brigades had been equipped with the J-20 fighters. Thanks to increased production rates, it’s almost certain that these cutting-edge aircraft have found their way to at least three if not four, additional brigades in 2023. 

However, only the 4th Air Brigade, based at Foshan Air Base, Southern Theatre Command, and the 97th Air Brigade at Dazu Air Base in Chongqing under the Western Theatre Command, have been explicitly confirmed to have received the jets. 

Chinese stealth J-20 with serial number 2051 has design changes
Photo credit: Chinese Internet

The 131st Brigade is a possible host

Among the three brigades suspected, but not officially confirmed, as recent recipients of the J-20 fighters, the 131st Brigade seems to be the primary contender. The Brigade transitioned from operating J-7 lightweight third-generation fighters in the early 2010s to fortifying their unit with J-10A early fourth-generation ones from 2016 onward. The unit gradually phased out the older J-10As with more advanced J-10C ‘4+ generation’ fighters. 

As of 2024, the 131st Air Brigade reportedly still utilizes J-10C fighters, a common practice wherein newer jets slowly become the primary aircraft until their predecessors are fully replaced. This process began around 2017, when the J-10C entered service alongside the J-20. Both the J-10C and J-20 utilize state-of-the-art avionics and the same primary air-to-air missile classes, PL-10 and PL-15. 

Royal Saudi AF may replace the Tornado fighter with Chengdu J-10
Photo credit: Twitter

Though the J-10C may not pack the same punch as the J-20, its economical production and operational costs make it a practical choice for large-scale acquisitions aimed at modernizing Chinese fighter units. While the J-20 was fine-tuned for serial production, the J-10C and its heavyweight counterpart, the J-16 ‘4+ generation’ fighter, were pivotal in bringing Chinese fighter units up to current standards. 

J-20 and F-35

Regarded as one of the world’s most capable fighters, the J-20’s features rival those of the top-tier Western fighter, the F-35, and in some cases, surpass them. With unique distributed aperture systems, an expansive twin-engine framework for enhanced maneuverability, comparable but larger radar, and double the range with a combat radius of over 2000km, it’s a force to be reckoned with. 

Australia has shown how rapidly it can cloak its F-35 fleet
Photo by Sergeant Craig Barrett

Currently, the J-20 stands alone as the only stealth fighter in production worldwide that can supercruise. This means it’s designed to sustain supersonic flight over vast distances without significant fuel consumption and without the need to engage its engine afterburners. 

One of the strongest pieces of evidence suggesting the 131st Air Brigade’s acquisition of J-20s is an image of a pilot next to one of the fighters sporting the Brigade’s emblem. The repositioning of high-end J-10C jets enables the Brigade to maintain a strong stance, albeit with reduced priority, as they transition to using the J-20s. 

In comparison with world-class fighters, the J-10C emerges as a formidable adversary with vast air-to-air capabilities, outshining even the Russian Su-35 in simulated encounters and displaying abilities comparable to the J-16. 

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

Highly strategic position

However, the J-20’s longer range and large sensor suite put the 131st Air Brigade in a highly strategic position. The fighter’s capabilities allow it to participate in air defense operations across a significant portion of the already contested South China Sea and maintain a robust presence in the Taiwan Strait with the help of aerial refueling. 

If these rumors are verified, the 131st Air Brigade with its J-20 fighters would shoulder a significant protective duty for Longpo Air Base on Hainan Island, a potential priority target for Western attacks in the event of large-scale hostilities, given that it houses the backbone of the PLA Navy’s strategic nuclear arsenal.

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