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China can’t rely on its stealthy J-20 fighter to rule the skies, experts say

  • A Chinese military publication suggests the J-20, dubbed Mighty Dragon, will likely join more exercises in future.
  • But the fighter jet’s Russian engine and a lack of strategic transporters will limit its influence, observers say.

An influential Chinese military magazine has said that the Chengdu J-20 is likely to appear in more training exercises — but analysts say its inferior engine and the air force’s lack of strategic transporters will limit the country’s ambitions.

The magazine, Ordnance Industry Science Technology, said in a report that the J-20, also known as Mighty Dragon, had enhanced the Chinese air force’s offensive and defensive abilities, and could serve as a “grinding stone” to test group troops’ anti-air abilities.

The article said previous Chinese aircraft could not lead the Chinese air force in a fighting scenario because of their limited range and versatility — a situation it said began to shift in the mid-1990s.

“In a real combat, the J-20 can take advantage of its stealthy capabilities and breach the rival’s defence line, paving the way for other aircraft to perform other operations,” the article said. “For ground troops, the J-20 can test the combat readiness of radar troops, ground-to-air missile troops, anti-aircraft artillery troops and so on.”

China J 20 Stealth Fighter

A Chinese J-20 stealth fighter during an air show in Zhuhai, China, November 1, 2016.

REUTERS/Stringer


The report said the aircraft had entered mass production and output would increase year by year, without giving numbers.

China in August deployed a large sortie of planes, including J-20 stealth fighters and H-6K bombers, to join a large-scale strategic military exercise with Russia. Y-20 large transport planes also took part, according to media reports.

“Because of an increase in production and the experience of the Sino-Russian drill, the J-20 is likely to join more exercises in the future,” the article said.

The J-20 made its debut in 2011, making China the second country, after the US, to develop an advanced fifth-generation fighter with stealth and supersonic cruise capabilities, as well as super manoeuvrability and super avionics.

The jet was finalised and commissioned in 2017, and has since evolved into the modified version J-20B, with thrust vector controls.

Its maker, the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China, revealed this month that a twin-seat version was under development. Debates continue over whether it should be modified for loading on aircraft carriers.

But analysts doubt whether the J-20 alone can enable China’s air force to compete with other countries, especially the United States.

J-20 stealth fighter china



Reuters


Ridzwan Rahmat, principal defence analyst at Janes, said a major weakness of the J-20 remained unresolved: its engine.

“A significant number of airframes in service still rely on Russia-supplied engines,” Rahmat said. “This engine can produce only about 125 kilonewtons of thrust, which pales in comparison with fifth-generation fighters operated by China’s rivals, such as the F-22 and the F-35.”

“The thrust produced is an important parameter because it determines the types of manoeuvres that can be performed by the aircraft, and the number and types of weapons that it can carry. When caught in a dogfight, the aircraft with better thrust will be in a better position to come out on top.”

Beijing-based military expert Zhou Chenming said China needed more types of aircraft, especially transport planes and bombers, to support its long-term goals.

“China cannot rely only on J-20s to rule the sky, which can only be achieved if Beijing has enough transport aircraft and bombers,” he said. “Without these vital aircraft, China won’t have long-distance attacking and logistics capabilities.”

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