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Video Above: What Role Would 5th Generation Stealthy Fighter Jets Play in a War with China?

*Article republished for viewer interest

By Kris Osborn - President & Editor-In-Chief, Warrior Maven

The United States operates 757 more fighter aircraft than the People’s Liberation Army Air Force and likely operates a higher number of 5th-generation stealth aircraft as well, a circumstance which undoubtedly impacts the balance of power and US deterrence posture in the Pacific theater.

This may be one reason why Chinese government-backed newspapers said the PLA Air Force conducted war drills, combat preparation exercises and interoperability training across all five “theater commands.” The Chinese Global Times newspaper said the “Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force units across all five theater commands recently conducted simultaneous exercises after the PLA Navy held concurrent drills in three major sea regions in a similar manner.”

The United States operates 1,957 fighter aircraft, as compared to China’s 1,200, and the margin of difference between an overall number of planes is even larger. 

Global Firepower says the US operates 13,247 aircraft, compared to China’s 3,285 planes, a discrepancy likely to place China at a tactical and strategic disadvantage in the air should it need to engage the US.

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While sheer numbers may in some respects matter less than the performance capabilities, specs and operational superiority of a given aircraft, China would be operating at a substantial deficit in the event of any kind of air war in the Pacific. 

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China J-20s and US F-35s

China is revving up production of its 5th-generation stealth J-20 aircraft which has now been upgraded with a domestically built engine, however multiple news reports indicate they do not operate as many J-20s when compared with the fast-growing fleet of US F-35s

US America-class amphibious assault ships can deploy with as many as 15 F-35s at one time, and the Marine Corps plans to acquire more than 350 F-35Bs. 

Two Chengdu J-20s

Two Chengdu J-20s

Added to this equation, the Navy plans to add more than 65 F-35Cs and the Air Force plans to operate 1,763 F-35As. It is not clear when, or if, China may have an ability to match this kind of fleet size in the near future, however the PLA is known for its fast-paced construction of airplanes and warships and does have a large and highly capable industrial base. 

A combination image shows the US Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, left, and the Chinese J-20. Photos: Alamy, Dickson Lee.

A combination image shows the US Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, left, and the Chinese J-20. Photos: Alamy, Dickson Lee.

Nonetheless, it will likely be difficult for the PLA to catch the F-35 pace when it comes to its own J-20 production despite Chinese news reports saying that the PLA will massively uptick its production rate of J-20s.

J-20

J-20 at Airshow

China J-31s and US F-35s

However, J-20s are not believed to be carrier capable aircraft, a key reason why the Chinese are known to be developing their own carrier-launched stealth 5th-generation fighter aircraft called the J-31. Given the expanse of vast oceans in the Pacific, it is not clear how formidable any Chinese fleet of land-launched J-20s would necessarily be as they would need to travel hundreds of miles off shore from mainland China to engage areas near Japan or the South China Sea.

J-31

Shenyang J-31 twin-engine fifth-generation fighter jet (Picture source: Chinese Internet)

However, while a J-31 may be under development by the PLA in large measure to equal, counter or rival the US F-35B, it does not appear as though the J-31 has any kind of short take off and landing or vertical landing capability. This means it would likely be restricted to being used on Chinese carriers and not able to transport on smaller ships in any way similar to how the Marine Corps F-35B can travel on amphibious assault ships.

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.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President - Center for Military Modernization