Does China’s 131st Air Brigade Now Deploy J-20 Fifth Generation Fighters? New Unit Optimal For South China Sea Operations

Amid a surge in deliveries of J-20 fifth generation fighters to brigades across the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force, unconfirmed reports from early 2023 indicated that the 131st Air Brigade based at Luliang Air Base, Yunnan Province, Southern Theatre Command had received the new aircraft. J-20s were confirmed to have been delivered to three new brigades in 2022, with the rise in production meaning it was almost certain that at least three and likely four new brigades received the aircraft in 2023. Only two, however, have been fully confirmed – namely the 4th Air Brigade based at Foshan Air Base under the Southern Theatre Command and the 97th Air Brigade at Dazu Air Base in Chongqing under the Western Theatre Command. Of three brigades suspected but not confirmed to have received the fighters, the 131st was the most widely reported to have done so. Th unit had in the early 2010s operated J-7 lightweight third generation fighters, a class which has rapidly been phased out of service since then, before replacing these with J-10A early fourth generation fighters form 2016. These were phased out and replaced with J-10C ‘4+ generation’ fighters from 2016.

Although as of early 2024 the 131st Air Brigade is reported to still be operating J-10C fighters, this is common for units receiving new classes of fighters until enough of the new aircraft are delivered to fully phase their predecessors out of service. The J-10C entered service in parallel to the J-20 in 2017 and deploys similarly advanced avionics and the same primary air to air missile classes the PL-10 and PL-15. Its operational and production costs are very considerably lower, however, allowing it to be acquired on a large scale to bring Chinese fighter units up to a cutting edge standard. Investments in the J-10C and its heavyweight counterpart the J-16 ‘4+ generation’ fighter provided an invaluable means of modernising Chinese fighter units as the J-20 program matured until it was ready for serial production on a larger scale from 2021. The J-20 is in many respects the world’s overall most capable fighter, with avionics on par with the top Western fighter the F-35 including unique features such as distributed aperture systems, which are paired with a much larger twin engine airframe providing far greater manoeuvrability, a larger radar of similar sophistication, and more than double the range with a combat radius of over 2000km. The J-20 is currently in the only stealth fighter in production worldwide capable of super cruise – meaning it can fly supersonically without using its engine afterburners and thus sustain supersonic flight over long distances without high fuel consumption. 

One of the most notable indications that the 131st Air Brigade has received J-20s was the image of an unknown pilot with one of the fighters wearing what appeared to be a symbol of the air brigade. With the J-10C still being among the PLA’s top fighter classes, receipt of J-20s will result in the reallocation of these aircraft to a location that is of slightly low priority but still significant. The J-10C is one of the most capable fighters classes in the world in terms of its air to air performance, and has comfortably surpassed the Russian Su-35 in simulated engagements while proving a close match and winning marginal victories over the J-16. The J-20’s much longer range and far larger sensor suite, however, will allow the 131st Air Brigade to contribute to air defence across much of the contested South China Sea, and with a single round of aerial refuelling to also operate for extended periods in the Taiwan Strait. If confirmed, the deployment will represent one of the furthest south for the fighter class and facilitate air defence duties over Longpo Air Base on Hainan Island, which houses the backbone of the PLA Navy’s strategic nuclear arsenal and is expected to be a priority target for Western air attacks in the event of full scale hostilities.