Ninth Chinese Air Brigade Receives J-20 Fifth Generation Fighters – Reports

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force’s 55th Air Brigade has reportedly received J-20A fifth generation fighters, which if confirmed would make it the ninth unit to operate the new fighter class. Based at Jining in southwestern Shandong province, the fighters are within operating range of both the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait. The J-20’s very high endurance allows it to contribute actively to engagements around China’s periphery despite the more isolation position of bases under the Central Theatre Command, with the fast and long ranged aircraft more than capable of operating far into the South and East China Seas from facilities such as that at Jining.

Integration of the J-20 into the 55th Air Brigade follows confirmation in late August that an eighth unit, the 8th Air Brigade at Changxing, Northeast China, had received the fighters. A rate of one new brigade’s worth of fighters entering service every six months would be in line with some of the highest estimates for J-20 production rates. Even at lower estimates, however, the J-20 is already being produced at a significantly larger scale than any other twin engine fighter in the world, and is exceeded in production only by the single engine American F-35. The J-20 and the F-35 are the only fifth generation fighters in the world both in production and fielded at squadron level strength, and are largely in a league of their own in terms of performance and sophistication particularly in their avionics. 

The 55th Air Brigade would be the third unit under the PLA Central Theatre Command to receive the fighter class. Previously the 5th Air Brigade at Guilin which received J-20s from January 2022 was also under the same command, and used the aircraft to replace older units of J-10B and twin seat J-10AS lightweight fighters. J-20s had also previously been integrated into the 172nd Air Brigade at the Cangzhou Flight Test & Training Base near the city of Tianjin, which was also under the Central Theatre Command, with these fighters received from February 2018. The 172nd subsequently saw its J-20 units supplemented by J-20A fighters from January 2021. 

All J-20s built since mid 2019 have been of the enhanced J-20A variant, which boasts superior stealth capabilities and a more reliable indigenous WS-10C engine. This replaced the AL-31FM2 engine powering baseline J-20 models and provided a supercruise capability – the ability to fly supersonically for sustained periods without using engine afterburners. Further improvements to the J-20 have been made continuously, with an enhanced J-20B variant expected to enter service in the near future. Whether the 55th Air Brigade’s fighters are J-20As or J-20Bs remains uncertain, but the latter reportedly entered production in mid 2020. The J-20 is relied on heavily for China’s defence, providing a key source of prestige as its combat aviation industry competes at a level above all rivals other than the United States. Over 200 fighters are estimated to be in service, with estimates for the planned fleet size ranging from around 500 to over 700.