Chinese J-20 emerges as a hot contender to replace refused UAE F-35

After the U.S. denied the United Arab Emirates access to the F-35 Lightning II, a fifth-generation fighter, the UAE may now be turning to China for its security needs. The latest aircraft that has piqued the UAE’s interest is China’s fifth-generation stealth fighter – the J-20. 

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

Created by Chengdu Aerospace Corporation for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force [PLAAF], the Chengdu J-20 is a stealth fighter capable of operating in all weather conditions. As time goes by, the likelihood of the UAE incorporating this aircraft into their military becomes greater. 

In 2020, the UAE’s plan to buy the F-35 jet complicated its budding relationship with Israel. Israel perceived this as a threat to their longstanding security rule – to always maintain the most powerful military in the region. This rule generally functions by either procuring top-notch military equipment from the U.S. or preventing neighboring countries from doing the same.

South Korean F-35A
Photo credit: USAF

UAE may look at J-20

A National Interest article suggests that the UAE might now turn to other sources like China for their military supplies due to this conflict. The UAE and China seem to be growing closer, and this may extend to military cooperation. The UAE’s interest in Chinese aircraft, such as the J-20, could affect regional military dynamics and how the US cooperates with Gulf countries. 

There are clear indications of increased military connections between the UAE and China. This is evidenced by the recent high-profile meeting on April 23 between Major General Saleh Mohammed bin Majren Al Ameri, head of joint UAE operations, and Lt General Chang Dingqiu, chief of the PLAAF, at the Chinese Ministry of Defense. 

The possibility of the UAE opting for the J-20 is becoming more plausible given that they’ve already received the Chinese Falcon L-15 advanced trainer aircraft. This is being recognized as China securing a foothold in the Middle Eastern defense market. 

UAE is a central player in Mideast

Should the UAE integrate the J-20 into its fleet, this could significantly alter the US’s regional influence. The UAE is a central player in the Middle East and a key partner of the United States, collaborating on a variety of issues, such as defense, non-proliferation, trade, law enforcement, energy policy, and cultural exchange.

A Chinese report suggests that the introduction of advanced fighters like the J-20 could disrupt the US’s dominance in global fighter jet supply. The US’s discontinuation of the F-22 ‘Raptor’ and selective F-35 sales in the Middle East could offer an opportunity for Chinese fighters to penetrate the Middle Eastern market. 

This conjecture is further fuelled by a claim from the US stating that the design of the J-20 closely mimics that of their own 5th-generation fighter jet. A 2018 Pentagon report suggested that this similarity between the J-20 and the F-35 might stem from espionage. Upon close scrutiny, the J-20 does bear a striking resemblance to the F-35, especially its unified wing-body front and internal exhaust pipes.


China sells 12 supersonic L-15 light combat aircraft to the UAE
Photo credit: Wikipedia

The United Arab Emirates [UAE] maintains a robust trade relationship with the United States, securing its position as the top US export market in the Middle East and North Africa. The UAE not only hosts approximately 1,000 US companies, but is also utilized by multiple enterprises as a strategic regional base for their business operations across the Middle East, North Africa, and certain parts of Asia. 

When it comes to security ties, the relationship between the US and the UAE has been extensive and enduring. There has been a consistent presence of a US ambassador in the UAE since 1974. 

According to a 2023 report from The Hill, there is a growing trend of strengthening ties between the UAE, Russia, and China for economic benefits and diplomatic reasons. Globally, China ranks as the UAE’s largest non-oil trade partner, and reciprocally, the UAE stands as China’s second-largest trading partner.

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

Loyalty to China?

In a surprising turn of events in 2021, US intelligence uncovered a secret military base being built by China at a UAE port. Despite initial halts due to pressure from the United States, the construction project resumed by the end of 2022. Current progress includes the provisioning of power and water supplies, as well as the installation of a boundary wall at the Chinese military’s operational site. 

A Washington Post article from 2023 points to an intriguing development. The United Arab Emirates [UAE], long aligned with the US, now appears to be shifting allegiance toward China. 

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

The logistics centers in question, constructed under ‘Project 141’, align with China’s visionary goal for 2030. Their ambition? To establish a robust global military network, featuring at least five overseas bases and ten support sites.

F-35 vs J-20

If we compare the American Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II with the Chinese-made Chengdu J-20, we see two of the cutting-edge, fifth-generation fighter aircraft in existence today. Born in the US, the F-35 is a single-engine aircraft designed for diverse combat roles. It excels in both air-to-air and air-to-ground combat. Meanwhile, the J-20, China’s response to fifth-generation fighters, is equipped with its own stealth features. 

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

The J-20 boasts a distinct edge over the F-35 when it comes to range. Its ability to fly farther without refueling makes it invaluable in strategic air missions. The remarkable speed of the J-20 can be attributed to its homegrown WS-15 after-burning turbofan engine. This engine powers the plane to speeds nearing Mach 2 [1,535 mph], enables it to ascend to 60,000 feet, and provides it a commendable range of about 700 miles. 

Simply put, the J-20 typically outpaces the F-35. The J-20 can hit lightning speeds of Mach 2.0, outstripping the F-35 which maxes out at Mach 1.6. 

J-20 can carry more ammunition

Chinese J-20 aircraft fired a short-range PL-10 infrared-homing AAM
Video screenshot

The J-20 stands out with its ability to launch missiles without getting too close to the enemy’s air defenses. Its impressive arsenal of weapons surpasses that of the F-35. Plus, the operating cost for the J-20 is significantly lower than its counterpart. 

To quote US defense expert Kris Osborn, “The J-20 can carry more ammunition than an F-35 on a single mission. In terms of weight, it can load up 27,998 pounds of weapons, compared to 18,000 pounds for an F-35.” However, the F-35 holds its own with superior avionics and sensor technology. It possesses the capability to take off and land vertically [VTOL], and can execute a variety of missions. 

In a nutshell, while the J-20 outperforms in range, weapon capabilities, and stealth features, the F-35 ascends with superior technology, agility, and versatility. Both of these aircraft represent the best of aerial technology, giving us a glimpse into the future of air combat.


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