The Chengdu J-20 marks the first entry of a multirole stealth fighter into China’s armed forces. According to the Department of Defense (DOD), China views stealth technology as a core component in the transformation of its air force from “a predominantly territorial air force to one capable of conducting both offensive and defensive operations.”
Designed for enhanced stealth and maneuverability, the J-20 has the potential to provide China with a variety of previously unavailable air combat options and enhance its capability to project power.
Development of the J-20
As an advanced multirole stealth fighter, it is speculated that the J-20 can fulfill both air-to-air and air-to-ground combat roles for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and the aviation branch of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (referred to as either Naval Aviation or the PLAN-AF). According to PLAAF Senior Colonel Shen Jinke, the J-20 will enhance the overall combat capability of China’s air force.
A 2016 report by the DOD states that the J-20 represents a critical step in China’s efforts to develop “advanced aircraft to improve its regional power projection capabilities and to strengthen its ability to strike regional airbases and facilities.” In 2014, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission described the J-20 as “more advanced than any other fighter currently deployed by Asia Pacific countries.”
The J-20 is believed to be equipped with subsystems and field signature reduction technology that collectively meet the internationally-accepted classification of a “fifth-generation” aircraft. This refers to military aircraft featuring the general requirements of stealth technology, supersonic cruising speed, and highly integrated avionics. The J-20 is the first Chinese aircraft to fit this description, and it may serve as a critical asset for both the air force and the navy.
As these branches have different areas of responsibility, how the J-20 is ultimately utilized is likely to vary. In broad terms, the PLAAF is China’s mainstay for air operations and is responsible for homeland air defense, while Naval Aviation is tasked with fleet air defense and defending the territorial waters and coastline of China.
It is worth noting, however, that China’s criteria for defining aircraft generations differs from accepted international standards. China defines aircraft generations based upon when an aircraft was integrated into the air force. Per China’s criteria, the J-20 is considered a fourth-generation aircraft.
Currently, the United States is the only country with a fully operational fifth-generation fighter. Several other countries including Russia, India, and Japan are currently in the process of developing their own advanced stealth fighters that fit this classification.
The J-20 is one of two stealth fighters being simultaneously developed in China. The other aircraft is the Shenyang FC-31, a smaller multirole stealth fighter that is being developed by the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation and could potentially be commercially exported to other countries.
The two Chinese stealth fighters may have been designed to complement each other in a similar manner to the planned deployment of the F-22 and F-35 by the United States. At present, China and the U.S. are the only two countries that have concurrent stealth fighter programs. (end of excerpt)
Click here for the full story, on the CSIS website.