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By Kris Osborn, President, Center for Military Modernization

(Washington D.C.) The People’s Liberation Army - Air Force is moving quickly to expand its 5th-gen reach throughout the Pacific theater in a massive way by demonstrating that its new YU-20 tanker aircraft can refuel J-20s in flight.

A Chinese video cited in the Chinese government-backed Global Times newspaper reportedly shows the J-20 being refueled in the air by the YU-20 tankers.

“The YU-20 can conduct aerial refueling for warplanes including the J-20, the J-16 and the J-10C, and such aerial refueling exercises have been carried out multiple times in high-altitude plateau regions and above the sea,” the Chinese newspaper said.

This development is of great significance given that China has a known deficit in the area of sea-launched 5th-generation aircraft. Unlike the US Navy, which is armed with both Carrier-launched F-35Cs and amphib-launched F-35Bs, the Chinese Navy has little to no ability to launch 5th-generation stealth air power from the ocean. Chinese J-20s are land-launched airplanes, and while the PLA-Navy is fast developing the carrier-launched J-31 stealth fighter, they do not exist in sufficient numbers. Perhaps most of all, the Chinese lack a Marine Corps F-35B-like vertical-take-off-and-landing 5th-generation fighter capable of operating from a Chinese amphibious assault ship. This means the US Navy, not to mention Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Australia, could potentially mount an overwhelming force of F-35s for operations in the Pacific, potentially placing China at a significant air-superiority deficit.

However, if China’s fast-emerging J-20, which is now being mass produced in greater numbers, can be successfully refueled in the air, it might place much greater areas of the Pacific expanse at risk of being attacked by Chinese 5th-Generation stealth air power. While Taiwan is roughly 100 miles from mainland China and arguably within reach of land-launched J-20s, an ability to refuel the aircraft would more than double their range throughout the region and potentially place areas near and around Japan and islands in the South China Sea at risk of Chinese air attack.

However, a large YU-20 tanker converted from some of China’s emerging Y-20 cargo planes is certainly not a stealthy aircraft and would likely be vulnerable to attack from the air and surface throughout parts of the Pacific. US Navy and allied ship-fired anti-aircraft weapons and of course ship-launched 5th-generation stealth aircraft would certainly be capable of tracking and destroying large Chinese Yu-20s. This would place China’s 5th-generation stealth fighter attack at great risk of being destroyed, slowed down or stopped by US and allied forces in the Pacific.

J-20s & F-35s

China is ramping up mass production of its J-20 5th-generation stealth fighter at a pace which seems to reflect a desire to compete with or rival the US Navy’s 5th-generation air power projection capacity.

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“More J-20s have been commissioned across all the eastern, southern, western, northern and central parts of China, have flown greater distances, and are playing increasingly important roles,” the Chinese Government-backed Global Times newspaper says.

While only a land-launched stealth fighter, a J-20 would certainly be within reach of Taiwan and other critical areas throughout the Pacific theater, something which would be massively extended by the use of PLA-Air Force YU-20 tanker aircraft able to refuel J-20s launched from mainland China.

“With the successful development of the domestic engine, the J-20 has entered mass production, and it is only a matter of time before PLA Air Force units in all parts of the country get the advanced stealth fighter jet,” the Global Times writes.

While the exact number of Chinese J-20s may not be known or available, a story last year in the South China Morning Post reports that China operates roughly 150 J-20s with many more in production. If true, this would certainly give the Chinese an ability to project 5th-generation air power, however it may still operate at quite a deficit should it need to confront US, South Korean and Japanese F-35s. The US can not only deploy large numbers of F-35Cs from forward operating aircraft carriers in the Pacific, but the US Marine Corps can deploy America-class amphibious assault ships armed with as many as 15 F-35s each. The US Navy’s ability to launch 5th-generation air power from the sea, when viewed in the context of Japan’s recent multi-billion F-35 buy and South Korea’s F-35s, would seem positioned to do quite well against a smaller, land-launched Chinese J-20 force.

At the same time, the Pentagon is certainly aware of China’s production capacity and the country’s ability to rev up full scale manufacturing of new J-20s, so it may not be clear how much longer the US and its allies can sustain its now distinct 5th-generation airpower advantage. Large numbers of J-20s, coupled with the arrival of impactful numbers of carrier-launched J-31s at some point in coming years, could help China evolve into a more credible air threat operating in the Pacific. As far as a global footprint is concerned, China clearly lacks an ability to project 5th-generation air power from the sea in areas throughout the world, as there are not many carrier-launched J-31s just yet. It is also not clear how many forward bases China may have in strategic hotspots throughout the European and African continents. China has recently built a large military base in Djibouti, Africa which might have a capacity to launch J-20s throughout some places in or near the Middle East, yet without a credible sea-launched 5th-generation capacity, China’s ability to truly project global power from the sea is likely to be quite limited.

As a regional threat, however, the J-20s could potentially create problems for Taiwan, parts of Japan or certainly disputed areas within the South China sea which would be within reach of a land-launched 5th-gen stealth jet. An inability to operate from the seas, however, would substantially limit the range and dwell-time capacity of J-20s looking to project power from mainland China.

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.

Kris