China Will Struggle to Match the United States' Growing Fleet of F-35s

February 15, 2022 Topic: Chinese Air Force Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: PLAPLA Air ForceJ-20F-35 FighterGreat Power Competition

China Will Struggle to Match the United States' Growing Fleet of F-35s

Despite reports that the PLA will massively increase production of its J-20 fighters, it will be difficult for China to match the United States’ pace. 

The United States operates 757 more fighter aircraft than China and likely has a greater number of 5th-generation stealth fighters as well. These advantages undoubtedly impact the balance of power and the United States’ deterrence posture in the Pacific theater.

This disparity may be why Chinese government-backed newspapers have recently highlighted that the People’s Liberation Army Air Force conducted war drills, combat preparation exercises, and interoperability training across all five “theater commands.” China’s Global Times newspaper reported that the “Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force units across all five theater commands recently conducted simultaneous exercises after the PLA Navy held concurrent drills in three major sea regions in a similar manner.”

The United States operates 1,957 fighter aircraft, while China only operates 1,200, and the margin of difference between their total number of planes is even larger. Global Firepower reports that the United States operates 13,247 aircraft in total, while China only operates 3,285 planes. This will likely place China at a tactical and strategic disadvantage in the air should it need to engage the United States in combat.

While sheer numbers alone may matter less than the capabilities of a given aircraft, China would be operating at a substantial deficit in the event of an air war in the Pacific. Although China is ramping up production of its 5th-generation J-20 aircraft, multiple news reports indicate that China’s fleet of J-20s is smaller than the United States’ fast-growing fleet of F-35 fighters.

The U.S. Navy’s America-class amphibious assault ships can deploy with as many as fifteen F-35s at one time, and the Marine Corps plans to acquire more than 350 F-35Bs. In addition, the U.S. Air Force intends to eventually operate over 1,700 F-35As. It is not clear when, or if, China may be able to match the United States’ fleet size. However, the PLA is known for its fast-paced construction of airplanes and warships, and China does have a large industrial base. Nonetheless, despite reports that the PLA will massively increase production of its J-20s, it will likely be difficult for China to match the United States’ pace. 

In addition, J-20s are not believed to be carrier-capable aircraft, something that has led China to develop the carrier-launched J-31 stealth fighter. Given the vast waters of the Pacific, it is not clear how formidable any Chinese fleet of land-launched J-20s would be, as they would need to travel hundreds of miles from mainland China to engage targets near Japan or in the South China Sea.

And while China may be planning to produce many J-31s, it does not appear that the J-31 has any kind of short take-off and landing or vertical landing capabilities. This means that unlike the United States, which can transport F-35Bs on amphibious assault ships, China will likely be restricted to using its J-31s on aircraft carriers.

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.

Image: Reuters.