China speeds up Chengdu J-20 fighter deliveries to military

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army [PLA] Air Force officially deployed a new brigade of J-20 fifth-generation fighters in 2023. This new unit, known as the 41st Aviation Brigade, is based at Wuyishan Air Base in Fujian province, with at least six of the aircraft already in service that year. 

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

This marks the eleventh unit to convert to the advanced fighter class, and it’s the third such conversion in 2023. The other units include the 97th Air Brigade at Dazu Air Base in Chongqing near Chengdu and the 4th Air Brigade at Foshan Air Base near Shenzhen. 

Before this, the unit at Wuyishan operated J-11 fourth-generation fighters since 2008, which had replaced older third-generation J-7s. The J-11, like the J-20, is a heavyweight twin-engine air superiority fighter, making it a direct predecessor to the J-20 in the Chinese fleet. 

The location at Wuyishan is particularly sensitive due to its close proximity to the Taiwan Strait. This area remains a hotspot because the Chinese Civil War technically continues, with the Republic of China government, based in Taipei, still asserting sovereignty over all Chinese territory. 

One of the major shifts in the balance of power has been mainland China’s development of fifth-generation fighters. In contrast, the Republic of China Air Force heavily relies on the American F-16 for air defense—a lightweight fourth-generation fighter that first took to the skies over 50 years ago. 

Since the early 2000s, Taipei has repeatedly tried and failed to procure fifth-generation F-35s from the United States for various reasons. Wuyishan’s strategic location, just 200 kilometers from the Taiwan Strait, is key. However, the J-20’s impressive 2,000-kilometer combat radius means units based much farther away can still engage effectively if a conflict arises in the region.

The J-20 saw a significant production boost at the end of 2021. Deliveries ramped up considerably the following year, with ongoing enhancements to its airframe and avionics. 

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

This aircraft stands out as one of the only two of its generation, alongside the American F-35. Unlike the J-20, the F-35 is a single-engine aircraft, about one-third lighter, and more optimized for air-to-surface missions rather than air-to-air combat. 

Looking ahead, J-20 deliveries are expected to approach nearly 100 units in 2024 and rise to 120 in 2025. This would make its delivery rate over 250% higher than that of the F-35 for the U.S. Air Force.

By the end of 2022, eight brigades had confirmed deployments of J-20s, and although only three units have been officially recorded as converting in 2023, there’s strong suspicion that two more have done so. 

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

The J-20 is often regarded as the leading air superiority fighter in the world. It boasts more than twice the range of any Western fighter except the F-15 and features a significantly larger radar. Moreover, its avionics are considered on par with the sophistication of the F-35. 

The Chinese J-20, also known as the Chengdu J-20, is a fifth-generation stealth fighter aircraft developed by the Chengdu Aerospace Corporation for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force [PLAAF]. It is designed to compete with advanced fighter jets such as the American F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II.

The J-20 has a length of approximately 20.3 meters [66.6 feet], a wingspan of around 13.5 meters [44.3 feet], and a height of about 4.45 meters [14.6 feet]. These dimensions contribute to its imposing presence and stealth capabilities. 

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

Technically, the J-20 is equipped with advanced stealth features, including a low-observable airframe, internal weapons bays, and radar-absorbent materials. Its design emphasizes reduced radar cross-section and enhanced aerodynamic performance. 

The propulsion system of the J-20 includes twin engines, initially Russian-made AL-31F engines, but newer variants are expected to be powered by the domestically produced WS-10C or WS-15 engines. These engines provide the necessary thrust for supersonic speeds and high maneuverability.

The J-20’s avionics suite includes advanced radar systems, likely an Active Electronically Scanned Array [AESA] radar, which provides superior tracking and targeting capabilities. It also features an electro-optical targeting system and sophisticated electronic warfare systems. 

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

Key components of the J-20 include its stealthy airframe, advanced avionics, and powerful engines. The aircraft also incorporates fly-by-wire controls and a glass cockpit with multifunction displays, enhancing pilot situational awareness and control. 

The equipment on the J-20 includes a comprehensive suite of sensors and communication systems, enabling network-centric warfare capabilities. It is also equipped with advanced navigation systems and countermeasures to enhance survivability in hostile environments.

The armament of the J-20 is versatile, with internal weapons bays designed to carry a variety of air-to-air missiles, including the PL-15 and PL-10. It can also be equipped with precision-guided munitions and potentially anti-ship missiles, making it a formidable multirole fighter. 

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

The People’s Liberation Army Air Force is boosting the capabilities of its Chengdu J-20 Mighty Dragon, marking China’s response to the Lockheed Martin F-22. Additionally, like the U.S. Air Force, China is exploring manned-unmanned teaming concepts. This information comes from the Pentagon’s recent assessment of Chinese military power. 

In the annual China Military Power Report, released in mid-October 2023, it’s noted that the PLAAF is “preparing upgrades for the J-20.” These enhancements could include increasing the number of air-to-air missiles [AAM] the fighter can carry while maintaining its stealth profile, adding thrust-vectoring engine nozzles, and integrating supercruise capability via higher-thrust indigenous WS-15 engines.

A new version, the two-seat J-20S, has also emerged. Experts believe this variant might be tested for controlling autonomous escort aircraft. 

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

The J-20 can already launch a missile load comparable to the F-22. Upgrading its stealth-mode carriage capacity could give the J-20 a notable advantage, especially since it can deploy the PL-15—China’s equivalent to the U.S. AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile. While the range of the PL-15 is speculative and the latest AMRAAM range is classified, senior USAF officials have stated that the PL-15’s range surpasses that of the AMRAAM, potentially giving the Chinese stealth fighter first-look/first-shot capability against its American counterpart. 

The report was relatively quiet about the PLAAF and People’s Liberation Army Navy [PLAN]’s version of the F-35, known in China as the FC-31/J-31.

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