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The People’s Liberation Army Air Force is pursuing a number of ambitious upgrades to its 5th-generation J-20 stealth fighter in a clear effort to keep pace with the U.S. F-22.
The upgrades include increasing the number of air-to-air missiles the jet can carry in “stealth mode” to improve air-attack range, precision and firepower, the Pentagon’s 2021 China report says.
The Pentagon’s 2021 “Report on Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China” also says the Chinese are installing a thrust-vectoring nozzle and adding an F-22-like “supercruise” ability with the installation of indigenous WS-15 engines.
Supercruise refers to the F-22s ability to achieve and sustain Mach-speed without having to use an afterburner, due to the power and thrust of the engine.
This means the attack jet can pursue longer and more detailed attack missions without having to return to refuel as quickly as most fighters need to.
Much like an F-22, a supercruise-enabled J-20 would be able to remain in high-speed engagements for much longer periods of time without having to quickly exit the fight, escape or return for refueling.
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Upgrading J-20 weapons to truly rival the F-22, however, is likely to be difficult. This is because Lockheed Martin and the Air Force have substantially upgraded the F-22s weapons ability through a software upgrade in recent years referred to as 3.2b.
This greatly improved the range, targeting precision and durability of several crucial air-to-air weapons such as the AIM-9X and AIM 120-D. The software upgrades, Lockheed weapons developers explain, improve the electronics on the weapons to increase reliability through hardening and enable mid-flight course corrections.
The AiM-9X, for example, can be fired “off boresight,” meaning it can change course in flight to attack a target on the side or behind the aircraft. There does not have to be a linear, straight ahead flight patch for the weapon to travel to and hit an enemy target.
The extent of weapons upgrades to the J-20 is likely difficult to discern, however the Pentagon report did mention something about preserving stealth mode which may be a reference to an internal weapons bay. This enables a stealth aircraft to carry and fire weapons while preserving a smooth, blended stealthy exterior absent protruding edges or sharp contours likely to generate a return radar signal to enemy air defenses.
Ultimately, these enhancements may not lead to much when it comes to truly rivaling a U.S. F-22 unless the range and guidance systems of the weapons themselves can equal or outmatch the Raptor or F-35.
The Chinese J-20 fleet will also remain vulnerable to U.S. 5th-generation aircraft in large measure because there simply are not that many J-20s.
Multiple news reports estimate that China operates roughly 50 J-20s, a very small number when compared to the 160-plus F-22s and planned F-35A fleet of 1,763 aircraft. At the same time, China is well known for its production infrastructure and blend of commercial and military production entities. This can expedite production and it would seem quite possible that China plans to greatly increase its fleet of J-20s.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox