Video Above: China Taiwan War
China is making a massive push to quickly produce large numbers of 5th-generation J-20 jets, a move which could further solidify the People’s Liberation Army Air Force as a dominant regional power.
J-20s and F-35s
Being without a carrier-launched 5th-generation fighter able to project power from the sea, China would likely rely upon its land-launched J-20 in any kind of regional engagement.
Clearly when it comes to projecting power beyond the Pacific in the air, it seems China might be quite challenged to compete with US airpower.
However, when it comes to regional power, they would likely be more of a factor. Both Japan and Taiwan are close enough for a land launched J-20 to reach from mainland China, without needing a tanker.
China may only have roughly 50 J-20s or so according to several news reports, a scenario which could make them vulnerable even in a regional confrontation in the Pacific.
The US is planning more than 2,000 F-35s across three services and Japan just made a multi-billion dollar F-35 buy, so Chinese air dominance in the Pacific is by no means a certainty. In fact it would seem entirely unlikely, given the fast arriving number of US and Japanese F-35s and forward-positioned 5th-generation assets in places like Guam.
These factors are likely a key reason why a Chinese-government-backed newspaper is reporting that the PLA Air Force is now surging into a mass production phase with J-20s. China is well known for having a large industrial base, something it is leveraging quickly to fast-track new carriers, destroyers and amphibs to force, and there are now indications that China is moving quickly to leverage this ability when it comes to aircraft production.
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The J-20 was recently upgraded with a Chinese-engineered WS-10 engine, so domestic production of the jet can become more streamlined and efficient with a higher optempo.
“The switch to domestically made WS-10 engines from imported ones has made mass production possible…. other systems on the J-20, including the avionics system, radar system and weapons systems, were already domestically developed,” the Global Times states.
The scope and pace of a J-20 production ramp up may not yet be clear, however the intent and industrial capacity both seem to be there. Given the consensus that Sun Tzu’s “mass matters” principle is still quite relevant and important in modern warfare, China would need much larger numbers of J-20s to truly compete for air superiority both globally and also in a purely regional sense.
Video Above: Comparing U.S. 5th Generation Fighter Jets, F35 & F22 to China's Fighter Jets, Including the J-20
At the same time, alongside what can be seen in terms of its external stealth configuration and resemblance to the F-22 and F-35, there is little to no information as to whether it could truly rival a US or Japanese 5th-generation aircraft.
Should the J-20 be unable to compete with a US F-35 when it comes to sensor range, targeting precision and multi-role air dominance, then having larger numbers of the aircraft might not necessarily make too much of a difference.
Finally, while being restricted to land-launched possibilities might not prevent J-20s from having a decisive impact against Japan or Taiwan, it certainly would limit China’s ability to project global air power without substantial forward basing.
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 News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.