The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force has begun to equip the latest of eight air brigades, the 8th Air Brigade at Changxing, Northeast China, with J-20 fifth generation fighters. The brigade is the second under the Northern Theatre Command to deploy the aircraft, after the 1st Air Brigade at Anshan received the fighters in January 2021 where they phased J-11B and twin seat J-11BS fourth generation heavyweight fighters out of service. The J-20 is a twin engine heavyweight fighter and a direct successor to the J-11B, and is today one of just two fighters of its generation both in production and fielded at squadron level strength alongside the lighter American single engine F-35. The new aircraft at Changxing replace J-10A lightweight fighters, and are expected to result in far higher operational and maintenance costs for the unit as a price for a much increased combat capability. J-20 deployments under the Northern Theatre Command, which face the East China Sea as well as U.S. forces in South Korea and Japan, have been referred to as a means of deterring Japanese or American intervention in the Taiwan Strait which is a growing hotspot for tensions. The fighters are also capable of providing air defence duties to support China’s treaty ally North Korea, complementing its investments in asymmetric aerial warfare assets, and have an endurance high enough to comfortably operate in the Taiwan Strait if needed.
The J-20’s estimated scale of production is unprecedented for a twin engine fifth generation fighter, and could facilitate acquisitions to equip two brigades per year or more. Full scale mass production was announced in December 2021. The Northern Theatre Command was the first to receive a unit comprised entirely of enhanced J-20A fighters, which benefit from improved stealth capabilities, supercruise capabilities and a greater flight performance facilitated primarily by the integration of new WS-10C engines. New variants, including a twin seat variant first seen in October 2021 which are expected to enter service in the near future. The J-20 and its American competitor the F-35 are considered in a league of their own in terms of performance, deploying advanced avionics including features such as distributed aperture systems which rival fighters such as the American F-22 lack.
The first encounter between the J-20 and F-35 is thought to have seen units from the Northern Theatre Command involved, since it took place over the East China Sea, with the incident confirmed in March 2022 by Commander of the U.S. Pacific Air Forces, Air Force General Kenneth Wilsbach. At the time he highlighted the considerable respect the service had for the new Chinese fighter’s capabilities. China is expected to place a second fifth generation fighter class into serial production by 2023 based on the FC-31 prototype, which will deploy with the Navy and be designed for carrier operations. The country is currently competing neck to neck with the United States to field the first and most capable sixth generation fighter, with U.S. officials highlighting that China may well achieve this first providing its fleet with a successor to the J-20.