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

China’s 131st Air Brigade is the latest to add J-20A fifth-generation fighters to its fleet, marking the third unit in the past year to transition to this advanced combat aircraft.

The rapid expansion of the J-20 fighter fleet

Following the 8th and 55th Air Brigades, the 131st Brigade joins the ranks of the growing fleet of J-20 fighters, whose rapid development establishes China as one of the main competitors in the fighter arena. Fifth generation, behind only the United States.

New J-20A in Chinese Air Force
J-20

The number of J-20s in service currently exceeds 200 aircraft, with a production rate that dwarfs that of any other twin-engine fighter in the world. Conservative estimates point to the production of more than 40 units per year, although some sources suggest that this number could be as high as 50.

J-20 fighters, like their American counterparts, the F-35, are rapidly deploying in Northeast Asia. Both types of aircraft had their first confirmed encounter in March 2022 over the East China Sea.

Key differences between the J-20 and the F-35

Unlike the F-35, designed as a cheap, light single-engine fighter geared towards air-to-ground missions, the J-20A is a heavy twin-engine fighter optimized for air-to-air combat. With increased endurance, larger sensors, and a superior weapons loadout, the J-20 stands out sharply from the American model.

New J-20A in Chinese Air Force

Since entering production in 2019, the J-20 has undergone several upgrades, most notably the addition of indigenous WS-10C engines. These allow the J-20 to fly at supersonic speed without the need for afterburners, a critical feature for fifth-generation fighters that the F-35 does not possess.

Future models of the J-20 will likely feature the WS-15 engines, which were announced for series production in April. These engines promise to enhance the capabilities of the J-20 further, offering greater endurance, better flight performance, and lower maintenance and operating costs.

The strategic location of the 131st Air Brigade

Situated near the southernmost point of mainland China, the 131st Air Brigade is ideally placed to protect key cities such as Shanghai, Hangzhou, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, as well as significant naval installations on nearby Hainan Island.

Among these facilities, the Longpo Naval Base stands out, considered the main center of operations for nuclear submarines in China. In the event of a conflict in the Pacific, the Longpo Naval Base could be a priority target for Western forces, a situation in which the proximity of the 131st Air Brigade with its J-20s provides additional protection.

The J-20s have replaced the J-10C fighters in the 131st Air Brigade, a unit that had already led the transition to the J-10 and is now adopting the J-20, a larger aircraft and logistical requirement, but also of greater combat potential.

The J-20: a determining factor in the military balance in Asia

The rapid development of the J-20 fleet in China is a critical element to take into account in the region’s security scenario. As these advanced combat aircraft are deployed in more units across the country, the military balance in Asia is expected to continue to evolve.

New J-20A in Chinese Air Force
A J-20 stealth fighter performs in the sky during the 13th China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition (Airshow China 2021) on September 29, 2021, in Zhuhai, Guangdong province of China. (Photo by Chen Jimin/China News Service via Getty Images)

The growth of China’s fifth-generation fighter fleet poses a challenge to its competitors, primarily the United States. With its focus on air-to-air combat and its ability to fly at supersonic speeds without afterburners, the J-20A is a significant addition to China’s military capabilities.

With the transition of the 131st Air Brigade to the J-20A, China continues to strengthen its position in the global military arena, once again demonstrating its ambition to become a top-tier military power.

The growth of China’s fifth-generation fighter fleet poses a challenge to its competitors, primarily the United States. With its focus on air-to-air combat and its ability to fly at supersonic speeds without afterburners, the J-20 is a significant addition to China’s military capabilities.

With the transition of the 131st Air Brigade to the J-20, China continues to strengthen its position in the global military arena, once again demonstrating its ambition to become a top-tier military power.