In the final week of December 2023 it was confirmed that two new brigades in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force had received new J-20A fifth generation fighters, namely the 4th Air Brigade based Foshan Air Base under the Southern Theatre Command and the 97th Air Brigade in Dazu Air Base in Chongqing under the Western Theatre Command. The latter unit acquired J-20s to replace ageing J-7E fighters, and is now the closest J-20 combat unit to production facilities for the new fighters at the 611 Plant in the city of Chengdu. The deployment to Foshan Air Base, meanwhile, positions J-20s to assume a greater role both in air defence duties for the key cities of Shenzhen and Hong Kong, and for the Longpo Naval Base which is a centre for nuclear submarine operations on Hainan Island. With nuclear submarines increasingly considered the most vital arms of the Chinese, American and Russian nuclear triads, deployment of leading combat aircraft to protect bases for such warships has been common since the Cold War – a notable example being the Russian Navy Northern Fleet’s continued deployment of MiG-31BM interceptors for such roles. China has invested significantly in modernising its ballistic missile submarine fleet with acquisitions of Type 094A Class ships, induction of the new JL-3 ballistic missile into service, and considerable investments developing new technologies for the Type 096 Class next generation ballistic missile submarine.
Foshan Air Base is notably located just 700km southwest of the Taiwan Strait, allowing J-20s to operate in the region for extended periods with their very wide combat radii of over 1000km – more than double that of the American F-35 and F-22 fifth generation fighters. Although Taiwan is internationally recognised by the United Nations and all UN member states as a part of China, in contrast to the People’s Republic of China government based in Beijing the separate Republic of China authorities on Taipei themselves constitutionally lay claim to all of Chinese territory – leaving China technically in a state of civil war. Ongoing tensions between the rival Chinese governments in Beijing and Taipei are considered a leading hotspot for potential tensions, particularly as the United States has invested heavily in building up its special forces capabilities on Taiwan to support the Republic of China Armed Forces against the mainland. Although air power on Taiwan remains limited, the possibility of intervention in a Taiwan Strait conflict either by Japan or the United States, both of which are major operators of the J-20’s closest rival the F-35, makes the presence of the PLA’s top fighters particularly important.
The J-20 and F-35 are considered effectively in a league of their own in the sophistication of their avionics and stealth capabilities, with the Chinese fighter being a much larger twin engine design optimised for long range missions and high intensity air to air combat while its American rival was designed primarily for air to surface roles. J-20s are currently deployed under all theatre commands, with the Southern Theatre Command’s 5th Air Brigade based at Guilin Air Base having previously begun operating the stealth aircraft in 2021. In 2023 there were also indications that the Southern Command’s 131st Air Brigade based at Nanning Air Base had begun deploying the aircraft, although this remains unconfirmed. The Northern, Eastern and Southern commands have all been prioritised for deployment of J-20s and are in range of key hotspots off China’s vast eastern coast, where hostile Western militaries retain large and expanding military presences and have sought to further integration with the armed forces of South Korea, Japan and the Republic of China. J-20s under the Northern Command are the only ones confirmed to have been involved in encounters with American F-35 units, however, with the first such encounter confirmed in March 2022 to have occurred over the East China Sea.