The Chinese company Chengdu Aircraft Corporation has already manufactured between 200 and 250 J-20 Mighty Dragon stealth fighters.

Considering that most of these aircraft came off the production line in the last year or two, this demonstrates a significant increase in production capacity since the J-20 made its maiden flight in 2011.

What is the J-20?

The J-20 is the fourth fifth-generation fighter designed to date. It is the first highly advanced aircraft developed entirely in China, making it a historic achievement for that country’s aerospace and defense industry. Built to counter the US F-22 and F-35, the Mighty Dragon has all the hallmarks of a fifth-generation aircraft, from stealth technologies and super-maneuverability to super-cruise and advanced electronics and avionics.

The J-20 began development in the 1990s, and in 2008 Chengdu was awarded the final contract to design the fighter for the People’s Liberation Army. The main improvements came in 2021 when the domestically manufactured WS10 replaced the Russian-designed AL-31FM2 engine. This was further proof of the growing power of the Chinese aerospace industry, as the WS10 is noticeably more powerful than the one imported from Russia, allowing the J-20 to enter a supercruise regime while unlocking the supermaneuverability granted by the thrust vectoring.

Increase in production

As of last fall, more production lines for the WS10 and J-20 have been launched. Chinese leaders sought to counter the growing number of F-35s in the region. Currently, US allies Japan, South Korea and Singapore have the F-35 Lightning II, not to mention US F-35s and F-22s stationed in Japan.

China has considerably increased the number of units delivered using so-called pulsating production lines. This method involves moving all units in production simultaneously rather than allowing them to stack at workstations which can take longer. The method is not new – the German aircraft manufacturer Junkers was already using it in 1926 – but the sophistication of modern fighter aircraft makes it more difficult.

China against the West

Some experts have noted that there are currently more operational J-20s than F-22s. This conveniently ignores that F-22 production was discontinued after only four years due to the lack of a close competitor: only 30% of the initial planned order was produced. Had the J-20 existed at the time of F-22 production, it seems likely that the US would have met the Air Force’s plan for 750 of the airframes.

Additionally, while many comparisons are made between the J-20 and the F-35A – the US Air Force variant – it is important to remember that the naval services also operate the F-35 in B and C variants. The United States has more than 500 operational F-35s, more than double the number of J-20s.

Regarding F-35 production, Lockheed Martin planned to deliver 156 airframes per year. Although this year they have not reached their goal and have only produced between 100 and 120, if they are added to the F-35s that are already operational, there is still an almost insurmountable deficit of active fifth-generation fighters, especially if they are taken into account. Count allied countries that are starting to produce the Lightning II.

The rise in Chinese production is impressive: many experts did not expect Chengdu to deliver 100 J-20s until at least 2027. However, the Chinese aerospace industry still lags behind the West when it comes to delivering highly-rated fighter jets. 

Maya Carlin