China's J-20: The fighter that “stole” the attention and then some

Although the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor is arguably the most “superior” air superiority fighter in the world, by the end of this year, China will likely have more of its Chengdu J-20 Mighty Dragons in service.

According to a London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) report, Beijing has ramped up production of its domestically-made fifth-generation fighter, and the inventory of the J-20A will surpass that of the Air Force’s F-22 from the United States.

John Chipman, IISS Director General, and CEO, told reporters at an online launch event on Wednesday of The Military Balance 2023 that China’s fighter aircraft inventory has increased dramatically in just the past five years.

“China’s military modernization remains the main concern for Washington. China’s defense spending increase of 7.0% in the 2022 budget, over 2021 figures, is the largest in absolute terms. 

While the new aircraft carrier garnered headlines, its investments in additional and more complex naval vessels continue apace, while its air force is also upgrading its capabilities: the number of J-20A fighter jets has risen further. China has begun to deploy advanced military aircraft with domestically produced jet engines,” the IISS announced ahead of its report.

“In Asia, as in Europe, China’s military modernization and security policy concerns are accelerating regional states’ military modernization plans,” the IISS added.

More J-20 fighters are on the way

The Military Balance database shows that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), across all its branches, has 150 J-20A fighters.

“If deliveries continue at the same rate, by 2023, the number of J-20As will dwarf the inventory of the US Air Force’s other fifth-generation fighter, the F-22,” Chipman explained.

Of course, it should be said that the F-22 Raptor, the world’s first fifth-generation fighter, had fewer of them made because they were so expensive.

 A total of 195 were produced, including eight test aircraft and 187 operational, but significantly fewer than the 750 the US Air Force had originally planned to purchase.

Switch to F-35

The United States has redirected its efforts towards the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, which is more cost-effective and adaptable. Even though the Air Force has started getting rid of some of the older F-22s, the platform is still likely to be around until at least the 2030s.

The US has been increasing the number of F-35s it produces, but Chipman warned: “The pace of China’s defense industrial production means it is catching up.”

From J-20 to the 6th generation

The United States, China, and Russia are the only countries to have created  “fifth generation” fighters. Russia has created the Sukhoi Su-57, which is a fighter jet comparable to the American F-22 and F-35 and the Chinese J-20 

As previously reported, however, several military aviation specialists have questioned whether the J-20 or Su-57 can be classified as fifth-generation aircraft, given that neither is considered as proficient as the Raptor or Lightning II. Many nations, notably the United States and China, are developing aircraft of the sixth generation.