Zhuhai Air Show Reveals China’s Fleet of J-20 Fifth Generation Fighters is Significantly Larger Than Thought

Six years after the first public appearance of J-20 fighter jets from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force, when a pair conducted a brief flypast at the opening ceremony of the 2016 Zhuhai Air Show, the aircraft’s presence at Zhuhai 2022 has given further insight into the secretive but very high profile weapons program. Since the first J-20s were delivered to the PLA in mid 2016, speculation has continued to grow regarding how large the fleet is with estimates varying increasingly widely. Estimates by U.S. analysts in April 2022 placed the fleet size at around 200, while more conservative assessments from elsewhere in the Western world indicated that only around 140 were in service shortly before the opening of Zhuhai 2022. Prior U.S assessments in late 2021 estimated a fleet size of over 150 fighters.

At Zhuhai 2022 J-20s with construction numbers CB0370 and CB0369 were seen publicly for the first time, indicating that the second batch of J-20 fighters includes at least 70 aircraft – many more than previously thought. With aircraft from the fourth batch having already been seen earlier in the year, this has raised the bottom figures for the most conservative estimates of J-20 numbers much closer to the 200 figure, with the possibility of under 180 of the fighters being operational today being unlikely. 

Significant investments have been made in expanding J-20 production, and despite the announcement in December 2021 of full scale mass production being achieved further very significant growth in manufacturing facilities is expected. Satellite images of expanding associated factories at Chengdu provide one notable indicator of this. The J-20 is one of just two fighters in the world of its generation both in production and fielded at squadron level strength, alongside the American F-35, with the two having first encountered one another relatively recently over the East China Sea as confirmed in March 2022. Although China spends more on defence acquisitions than the United States, the F-35 fleet is expected to continue to significantly outnumber the J-20 fleet for a number fo reasons – primarily because it is a much lighter single engine aircraft with lower operational costs while the J-20 is a twin engine heavyweight optimised for high end air superiority missions. The F-35, like its predecessor the F-16, was designed to be relatively inexpensive and be produced on a massive scale, while the J-20 in terms of role and configuration is more similar to America’s higher end F-15 and F-22. Some of the most significant advantages for the heavier classes such as the J-20 include much greater manoeuvrability, weapons payloads and speeds, larger radars, and higher altitude ceilings.

A J-20 fleet eventually reaching over 700 aircraft remains highly plausible, particularly following the lates revelations regarding the scale of production of China’s most advanced pre fifth generation heavyweight fighter the J-16 of which around 300 have entered service since 2014-2015. The J-20 is estimated to be in production at a rate of well over 30 pear year, which if further expanded as more new variants are developed could provide a means to quickly bring more brigades to a fifth generation level. Three J-20 variants have been confirmed including the standard J-20, the J-20A with an improved engine and revised stealthier airframe design, and a twin seat variant of the latter the J-20AS. China and the United States are also competing neck to neck to field the world’s first sixth generation fighter, the first of which are expected to enter service around 2030. New unmanned stealth aircraft seen at Zhuhai 2022 are expected to serve as supporting ‘wingmen’ to both the J-20 and its upcoming sixth generation successor.