The Buzz

China's J-20 Stealth Fighter Looks Dangerous (But Can It Crush America's Lethal F-22 Raptor?)

China's J-20 fighter, the first of what could be several 5th generation fighters from Beijing made a big splash, debuting publically yesterday. 

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, "two J-20 jet fighters hurtled over hundreds of spectators, including several foreign military delegations, in a 60-second flyover during Tuesday’s opening ceremony of Airshow China, the country’s biggest aerospace and defense exhibition." The report continued, noting that "The jets, whose thundering engines set off alarms in cars parked below, underlined China’s recent progress in developing air power that the U.S. and its allies are concerned may be used to assert Beijing’s territorial claims in the region and other broader strategic interests. Showcasing the radar-evading fighter is also an attempt to bolster China’s efforts to export stealth fighter technology..."

But we all know the real question: how would the plane do against the world's best fighters? Say America's F-22 Raptor?

For your reading pleasure we are reposting an article from last year that explores this very question. So if the J-20 and F-22 met in the skies in a future conflict who would win? Let the debate begin. 


Despite its recent economic troubles, the People’s Republic of China is likely to be the only peer level competitor to the United States over the next fifty years. While a conflict is unlikely—a Third World War is in nobody’s interests—the United States must be prepared for such an eventuality.  

As with all modern conventional wars, airpower and air superiority will play a key role. For the United States, the stealthy Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor will be America’s premier weapon to ensure dominance over the skies until it is eventually replaced by whatever comes out of the U.S. Air Force’s F-X program.  

The most direct Chinese analogue to the Raptor is the Chengdu J-20. How would such a jet fair against America’s best?

Not much is known about the Chinese jet—it might not even be a fighter in the traditional sense of the word. It could be a specialized aircraft that is specifically designed to attack the sinews of U.S. power projection capabilities in the Western Pacific as part of an overall Chinese anti-access/area denial strategy (A2/AD). Basically, the jet might be optimized to hit support assets like tankers, AWACS, JSTARS or even carry long-range cruise missiles to attack scattered U.S. bases and aircraft carriers in the region.

Here is what we do know about the J-20. It appears to have a stealth airframe and it liberally borrows design cues from both the Raptor and its Lockheed stable-mate, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. That’s not an accident; the Chinese very likely stole a large amount of classified F-35 data.

There are some indications that the J-20 is a primarily a strike aircraft but with a robust air-to-air capability. Like the American F-35, the newest J-20 prototypes appear to have an electro-optical targeting system mounted under the nose. That sensor could be Beijing A-Star Science and Technology’s EOTS-89 electro-optical targeting system (EOTS). A dedicated air superiority fighter wouldn’t need that kind of sensor.

There are also indications that the Chinese jet carries an active electronically scanned array radar (AESA). Allegedly, the J-20 would be fitted with a Type 1475 radar, which is supposedly being tested on a China Test Flight Establishment owned Tupolev Tu-204. However, there is no way to confirm that information because the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) isn’t really all that forthcoming about sharing information about its developmental projects. That being said, given Beijing’s interest in the Su-35—which is mostly likely driven by a desire to harvest that Flanker variant’s radar and engine technology, I have my doubts about how far along the Chinese have gotten on developing an operational AESA.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence that would point to the J-20 being optimized for the strike role is the fact that the airframe is enormous but has relatively small wings. It’s also seems to have huge weapons bays. While such a configuration works well for a fast supersonic strike aircraft, it’s not ideal for an air superiority fighter that needs be able to sustain high rates of turn.