Video Above: If China Invades Taiwan, how will the U.S. React?
China is making a specific point to deploy its J-20 5th-Generation stealth fighter in the South and East China Sea as a counter to the US F-35 and F-22, seeking to challenge US air dominance in the Pacific.
J-20, F-35 and F-22
The People’s Liberation Army Air Force has recently conducted several patrol flight deployments of its J-20 with the intent to counterbalance the growing presence of F-35s in the region.
“It is certain that the J-20, as advanced new equipment, will appear on potential battlefields, including at sea, particularly when advanced warplanes of the US like the F-35 and the F-22 have been flying near China,” the Chinese government-backed Global Times newspaper reports, quoting a Chinese expert.
China’s push to extol the J-20 could, at least to some extent, seem to be a transparent effort to mask several glaring Chinese deficiencies when it comes to air power in the Pacific.
China does not have an F-35B-like short take off and landing equivalent and is only now starting to produce its first 5th-generation stealthy carrier launched fighter. When it comes to the ability to project 5th-generation air power from the Sea, China is far behind the US in terms of both development and numbers.
J-31 and F-35
It’s not clear how soon China’s carrier-launched J-31 might be operational, and there will be a need to produce large numbers of them to rival the US F-35B and F-35C. Aside from this imbalance, China also suffers a numbers deficit when it comes to 5th-Gen air power, as the US already operates hundreds of F-35s and Japan is acquiring a large number of F-35s as well.
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Chinese officials say they are massively revving up production of the J-20 and highlight its recently upgraded, domestically-built WS-10C engine. It is not clear exactly how many J-20s the PLA has already produced, but multiple accounts suggest the number is much smaller than the hundreds of F-35s operated by the US.
Video Above: Comparing U.S. 5th Generation Fighter Jets, F-35 & F-22 to China's Fighter Jets, Including the J-20
Apart from a numbers deficit, the Chinese land-launched J-20 may also suffer a range problem, certainly when it comes to the South China Sea. One reason China is drawing attention to its J-20 may be because the land-launched aircraft would be able to reach Taiwan on single sorties, given that the island is only 100 miles away from mainland China.
This proximity could allow the J-20 to fly attack missions over or near Taiwan and still be able to return without having to refuel. Essentially, the J-20 could present a clear threat to Taiwan and create a circumstance wherein the US would need to forward position carriers and amphibious assault ships to ensure the F-35 could counter it.
The South China Sea may be different, as the Spratly islands are roughly 500 miles off the coast of mainland China, a distance which might make it extremely difficult to reach and conduct operations near without substantial aerial refueling assets.
A single J-20 sortie is unlikely to be able to reach the South China Sea and perform missions without having a ship to land on for refueling or a tanker to refuel it. The J-20 is not built to land on ships, and flying large tankers can present great risks and increase the likelihood of attack.
Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization and 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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.