China’s latest fighter jet shows promise as a multirole aircraft but remains reliant on Russian know how.
Beijing has announced that its J-20 ‘Mighty Dragon’ stealth fighter jet aircraft will be moving into mass production.
– The J-20B serves as the latest iteration of China’s J-20 stealth fighter, possessing sophisticated stealth technology and Thrust Vector Control that bring it in line with other fifth-generation, multirole fighters
– The aircraft seeks to close a major capability gap with the US, shore up China’s anti-access area denial (A2/AD) systems and directly challenge aircraft such as the F-35 Lightning II and F-22 Raptor
– While the J-20B could close the capability gap with the US in the long term, manufacturers still rely on Russian-made engines as Chinese jet engines have faced quality issues
BRINGING A DRAGON TO A DOGFIGHT
Beijing has announced that the latest iteration of the Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter jet has entered mass production, with new upgrades allowing it to meet the benchmark of other fifth-generation fighters. The J-20B possesses added manoeuvrability and air-to-air combat capabilities through the introduction of Thrust Vector Control (TVC), a feature that its predecessor, the J-20A, lacked. TVC allows the pilot of a craft to control the angle of the thrusters that propel the jets through the air, which in turn allows pilots to perform a wider range of attack and evasion manoeuvres.
In addition to these new capabilities, the J-20 platform is already equipped with sophisticated stealth and sensor technology that make the aircraft hard to both detect and hit. The fighter can also be outfitted with beyond-visual-range attack capabilities in the form of long-range missiles, like the PL-15, hidden in the aircraft’s belly; the J-20 can carry at least four of these long-range missiles while maintaining its stealth capabilities. This is significant as the combination of increased agility, stealth, long-range strike and dogfighting capabilities make the J-20B a true multi-role aircraft. As such, the J-20B will likely serve as both a strike interceptor and air superiority fighter for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF).
CATCHING UP IN QUALITY AND QUANTITY
The announcement of the J-20B moving into mass production is a clear signal that Beijing intends to contest the skies with its strategic competitors. Considering the significance of airpower to modern warfighting, Beijing likely viewed its lack of fifth-generation fighter systems as a major vulnerability in its A2/AD systems. Prior to the J-20s introduction, the PLAAF did not possess a multi-role strike fighter that could perform to the same standards as the US’s fifth-generation aircraft such as Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II and F-22 Raptor. Having identified a capability gap between the PLAAF and US Air Force (USAF), Beijing has invested in developing a fighter that can contest US dominance in the air.
Additionally, Beijing is lagging behind the US in terms of the raw quantity and quality of fifth-gen fighters. This was made clear in the J-20B production announcement: Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth factory had delivered 134 F-35 aircraft in 2019, a 47% increase on the previous year’s output, while China is believed to only have around 50 operational J-20 aircraft in total.
The mass production of the J-20B is Beijing’s attempt to close those gaps in quantity and quality within the wider strategic aims of President Xi Jinping’s ‘national rejuvenation.’ Speaking to the National People’s Congress, Xi voiced his belief that building “world-class armed forces that obey the party’s command, and can fight and win wars” is an integral component of that rejuvenation.
CAN THE ‘MIGHTY DRAGON’ RULE THE SKIES?
Considering that Beijing is seeking to close a capability gap between the PLAAF and the USAF, identifying whether they will achieve this warrants attention. As far as the production of fifth-generation fighters goes, Chengdu Aviation Corporation — the manufacturer of the J-20B — is thought to have around four production lines each capable of producing one aircraft a month. However, the fact that the J-20B is currently fitted with Russian-made Saturn AL-31 engines is a sign that Chinese engine manufacturers have been so far unable to close this capability gap. Before China can truly challenge the US in the production of fifth-generation fighters, there are significant unaddressed issues in quality assurance, including difficulties that manufacturers are facing in achieving the target weight-to-thrust ratio. In this regard, stealth fighters produced by US manufacturers remain the benchmark, and with plans for sixth-generation systems for the F-22 and other aircraft, it is likely to remain this way for now.
Chinese manufacturers have attempted to reduce their reliance on Russian engines by developing their own systems, namely the WS-15 engine. However, how this changes the equation is difficult to say given that the engine is still possibly two years away from completion. Arguably, the addition of more powerful engines will increase the agility of the fighter and enhance its performance in both an interceptor and air superiority role, whilst simultaneously reducing the strategic vulnerability of relying on Russian-made engines. Despite efforts by Moscow and Beijing to increase defence cooperation and interoperability, a deterioration of bilateral relations or other external threats to the supply chain could hinder the J-20B’s production. This is not a remote possibility: Russian deliveries of its S-400 missile systems have reportedly been withheld amid allegations of Chinese espionage, despite officials claiming the delay was due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Apart from the short-term strategic vulnerability that reliance on Russian engines could pose, the mass production of fifth-generation fighters for the PLAAF will be a boon to China’s existing air, land and sea A2/AD systems. A true multirole fighter could be invaluable in conflict by destroying specialist early detection and refuelling craft with its stealth and long-range attack capability. As air superiority fighters rely heavily on these aircraft to remain operational, this could hamstring an adversary’s air power and force projection. Additionally, the J-20B’s added agility could allow it to engage in within-visual-range air combat more effectively against other fifth-generation air superiority fighters like the F-22. Furthermore, even if the J-20B is still outclassed by its competitors, the mass production of these fighters could have a strong deterrent effect. This would significantly increase the cost of achieving air superiority for any would-be challengers in the areas that Beijing would want to deny its adversaries. Coupled with its land and sea-based systems, the J-20B is likely to bridge the capability gap in the air enough to achieve that aim.
Besides its advanced engines, the thing that could make the J-20 a truly ‘Mighty Dragon’ may be the addition of AI technology. At least according to Yang Wei, the chief designer of the J-20, a ‘cognition-subverting’ fifth-generation fighter jet is close to fruition. This weapons system would rely on faster, assisted decision-making rather than manoeuvrability to gain the edge in combat. If Chinese arms developers create an AI system that can outclass its adversaries and make up for current technological shortcomings, the J-20 could conceivably contest skies beyond the areas Beijing wants to deny its rivals.