Could the Chinese J-20 5th generation stealth fighter succeed in destroying crucial U.S. tankers, surveillance planes or airborne command posts?
The interesting question was posed by a London-based analyst cited in an article from Forbes magazine, raising the idea of whether such a prospect would, in fact, be true. The Forbes article makes the point that U.S. and allied air assets, at a deficit in terms of actual numbers, would rely heavily upon less stealthy surveillance assets such as an E-2D Hawkeye, Triton maritime drone or KC-46 tanker.
“In wartime, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force likely would sortie J-20s to fly through the clutter of raging air battles along the Chinese coast, in the hope that the Mighty Dragons might punch through to the open air space of the western Pacific Ocean,” the Forbes article states.
However, could this actually be possible? Most likely not for a range of possible reasons.
The analyst cited in the article, Justin Bronk with the London-based Royal United Service Institute, makes the point that J-20s would be outmatched in the air by U.S. F-22s deployed to challenge them.
Bronk writes that the J-20 “is a heavier, less agile aircraft that will be more expensive to build and operate. It also cannot compete with the extreme performance or agility of the F-22.”
Bronk makes what appears to be a valid point, as the J-20 does not appear by any estimation to operate with an ability to rival the U.S. F-22. However, what if there are not enough F-22s? Or they are not deployed in the right place at the right time? While the Air Force does have more than 180 F-22s, the F-22 production lines were truncated prematurely according to many observers and they certainly might not be in the right places at sufficient numbers in the event of war with China.
However, many Navy and Air Force war planners are exploring the idea of using F-22s to defend surface assets such as carriers, and Bronk’s point is strongly reinforced by the existence of the Navy’s emerging MQ-25 Stingray carrier launched re-fueler. Not only would this decrease the need for potentially vulnerable larger KC-46 tankers, but they could also massively extend the operational reach, and therefore dwell time, of F-22s looking to cover the seemingly endless expanse of the Pacific. The widely discussed “tyranny of distance” known to characterize the Pacific, making it essential to refuel assets such as an F-35C or F-22 needing to sustain operations well beyond ranges reachable without refueling in the air.
In the event that F-22 and F-35 combat, attack, and defensive maneuvers were better enabled by sleek, fast, carrier-launched re-fuelers operating at sea in closer proximity to ongoing airwar, J-20s would be quite challenged to perform the missions envisioned by Bronk. Also, the Pentagon already operates some very stealthy drones and of course plans to operate even stealthier drones in the future, making forward surveillance more possible in hostile environments in which Chinese J-20s would try to attack reconnaissance drones.
Kris Osborn is the new 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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.
Image: Chinese Internet.