China is pushing to quickly produce large numbers of fifth-generation J-20 stealth fighters, a move which could further solidify the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) as a dominant regional power.
Lacking a carrier-launched fifth-generation fighter able to project power from the sea, China would likely rely upon its land-launched J-20 fighter in any kind of regional engagement. When it comes to projecting power beyond the Pacific in the air, China will face real challenges in its competition with U.S. airpower. However, when it comes to projecting regional power, the J-20 is likely to play an important role in Chinese military strategy as the jet can reach both Japan and Taiwan from mainland China without needing aerial refueling.
Yet considering that China reportedly only has around fifty J-20s, the PLAAF would face real attrition risks in a regional confrontation in the Pacific. Since the United States is planning to field more than 2,000 F-35s stealth fighters across its three military services and Japan just made a multi-billion-dollar purchase of F-35s, Chinese air dominance in the Pacific is by no means a certainty. In fact, given the fast-arriving number of U.S. and Japanese F-35s and forward-positioned fifth-generation assets in places like Guam, Chinese air superiority appears unlikely in the short term.
These factors are likely a key reason why a Chinese-government-backed newspaper is reporting that the PLA Air Force is now surging its production of J-20s. China is well known for its large industrial base, something Beijing is leveraging quickly to fast-track new aircraft carriers, destroyers, and amphibious warships to deployment, and there are now indications that China is moving quickly to leverage this ability when it comes to aircraft production.
The J-20 was recently upgraded with a Chinese-engineered WS-10 engine, so domestic production of the jet can become more streamlined and efficient with a higher operational tempo.
“The switch to domestically made WS-10 engines from imported ones has made mass production possible… other systems on the J-20, including the avionics system, radar system and weapons systems, were already domestically developed,” the Global Times states.
The scope and pace of a J-20 production ramp-up may not yet be clear, however, the intent and industrial capacity both seem to be there. Given the consensus that Sun Tzu’s “mass matters” principle is still quite relevant and important in modern warfare, China would need much larger numbers of J-20s to truly compete for air superiority both globally and also in a purely regional sense.
At the same time, considering what can be seen regarding its external stealth configuration and resemblance to the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, there is little to no information as to whether the J-20 could truly rival a U.S. or Japanese fifth-generation fighter jet. Should the J-20 be unable to compete with a U.S. F-35 when it comes to sensor range, targeting precision, and multi-role air dominance, then having larger numbers of the aircraft might not necessarily make too much of a difference. For example, should long-range, high-fidelity F-35 sensors see J-20s before they themselves are detected, then a single F-35 could be positioned to destroy an entire formation of J-20s.
Finally, being restricted to land-launched operations might not prevent Chinese J-20s from having a decisive impact against Japan or Taiwan, though it certainly would limit China’s ability to project global air power without substantial forward basing.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a master’s degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.