- A high-profile part of China’s ongoing military modernization is the J-20, the country’s first stealth fighter jet.
- The J-20, likely based on stolen US designs, looks a lot like the US Air Force’s F-22, but appearance isn’t the only similarity between the two fifth-generation fighters.
Aside from China’s aircraft carriers and ballistic-missile programs, no weapon system has captured as much attention as the J-20 Mighty Dragon, China’s first stealth fighter.
The aircraft is the world’s third operational fifth-generation stealth fighter, the only one in official service that wasn’t designed by the US or its allies.
Two J-20s were seen at a Chinese air base near the Indian border after tensions between the two countries spiked, rumors of a twin-seat variant under development have spread on social media, and last month, two J-20s were shown conducting a fighter drill in footage released by Chinese state media.
Conventional wisdom holds that the J-20 is currently unable to face the US Air Force’s F-22 in a straight-up dogfight. But the J-20, and China’s stealth program overall, is young, and may very well be maturing.
J-20 vs. F-22
The J-20’s development began in earnest after the F-22 was unveiled. Its exact specifications are not known, but it is believed to be capable of a maximum speed close to Mach 2 (1,535mph), a ceiling around 60,000 feet, and a range of almost 700 miles.
The jet, likely based on stolen plans from the American stealth program, made its first test flight in 2011 and entered official service in 2017. It is estimated that 50 to 60 J-20s are in service with an unknown number under construction.
A large internal weapons bay is capable of carrying at least four long-range air-to-air missiles, while two more lateral bays can each hold a single shorter-range missile. The Chinese have also experimented with external hardpoints that enable the J-20 to carry an additional four missiles.
The F-22 Raptor, first flown in 1997 and adopted in 2005, has a main internal weapons bay that can carry six long-range air-to-air missiles, and two lateral bays with single shorter-range missiles. Four external hardpoints allow it to carry more missiles, and it has a 20-mm rotary cannon for close-range combat.
There is broad consensus that the F-22 would win a dogfight with a J-20. Its higher speed, operational ceiling, superior stealth technology, and more experienced pilots give it an edge over the J-20. But that advantage may soon slip away.
“There are numerous factors that are in China’s favor as time goes on,” Timothy Heath, a senior defense researcher at the Rand Corporation, told Insider
A development gap
Much of the F-22’s advantage is based on something that China has always had difficulty with: high-end engines.
China’s first attempts at an engine for the J-20 were so bad that they had to use Russian Saturn AL-31 engines for the first production models. Later variants would use the domestically made WS-10, but it is still considered under powered and unreliable.
But unlike the F-22, which ceased production in 2011, the J-20 program is ongoing — meaning it is constantly undergoing changes and refits.
“China continues to refine and improve on the aircraft as the manufacturing goes on,” Heath said. “They’ll learn lessons and they can tweak and modify their aircraft, whereas in the US that’s obviously much harder to do with all the factories shuttered.”
This means that future J-20s will likely close the gap with the F-22.
The Chinese are developing a new engine, the WS-15, which will be significantly more powerful. In the meantime, they have fitted their latest model, the J-20B, with newer Russian-made engines capable of thrust-vectoring, which the WS-15 will also have — an advantage the F-22 will no longer enjoy over the J-20.
The development gap extends to armaments as well.
The J-20’s long-range missile, the PL-15, has a range over 200 km and can reach speeds up to Mach 4, outclassing its US counterpart, the AIM-120, which is believed to have a 160 km range.
China is also developing a newer missile that will supposedly have a 300 km range.
A different focus, a different mission
The development gap is due largely to US’s focus on fighting insurgencies instead of state actors.
“We took our foot of the gas for too long because of Iraq and Afghanistan,” Douglas Birkey, executive director for the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Power Studies, told Insider.
As a result, Birkey added, “you have fifth-generation aircraft hauling third-generation missiles, and that gap has got to close.”
In contrast, China — having seen the destruction US airpower wrought in Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Afghanistan — focused its efforts on creating systems capable of taking on US forces. “That was the baseline threat that they organized everything against,” Birkey said.
The J-20 is not designed or intended to fight a dogfight in the traditional sense — it doesn’t even have a cannon for close-range combat. Rather, it is intended to engage hostile aircraft from very long range with missiles.
“It’s almost like an aerial sniper,” Heath said. “Instead of two fighters punching each other, these aircraft are designed to fire from very long range, largely launching while undetected.”
They are also meant to be integrated into a larger system in which information is passed among aircraft, enabling the J-20 to engage enemies detected by other platforms, like friendly aircraft or ground and naval radars.
Its likely targets would be enemy fighters already engaged in dogfights with other Chinese fighters, unguarded bombers, or support assets like aerial refueling tankers, AWACS and JSTARS command and control aircraft, and surveillance drones.
The F-22 is designed to fight in a similar way.
“Any fifth-generation aircraft is not meant to get into a classic dogfight scenario,” Birkey said. “They are supposed to understand the threat environment ahead of the curve, going into it sufficiently such that they can take care of business, get a long-range shot, and get out of there.”
Keeping the advantage
Despite the development gap, the US is committing to keeping its advantage.
In addition to updating the AIM-120, a new long-range missile, the AIM-260, is in development. Although production may have ceased, the F-22 is still getting hardware and software upgrades.
Moreover, the F-22 will likely never go into battle alone. It will likely be accompanied by Air Force F-15s and F-16s, Navy F/A-18s, and, of course, the F-35 — the newest stealth fighter, variants of which are in service with the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.
“It’s good to try to imagine teams of stealth and non-stealth working together with other platforms to try and outmaneuver and defeat the enemy,” Heath said.
The US has also “built and flown” a prototype sixth-generation fighter, part of the Next Generation Air Dominance program, years ahead of schedule.
US Air Force pilots and aircraft also have far more experience. US pilots log 50% more flight hours every year on average than Chinese pilots, and the F-22 has actually operated in active war zones.
But China is just as committed. It is developing a lighter stealth fighter, the FC-31, and unlike the US, China’s leaders are not as constrained by domestic politics or questions about funding.
“They can develop technology cheaper. They can steal from about anybody with impunity, and they’ve got mass advantage that we don’t have,” Birkey said.
China’s larger industrial capability, combined with its commitment to become a dominant military power and the US focus elsewhere, may seriously change the calculus going forward.
“We’ve got to make up for 20 years of taking our eye off the ball,” Birkey said. “That was a really bad mistake.”