At an airshow held earlier yesterday in southern China, a pair of J-20 stealth fighters streaked across the sky as Beijing proudly debuted the latest edition to its military arsenal. A J-20 stealth fighter streaks across the sky at the 11th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai, China, 1 November 2016. (Xinhua/Liu Dawei)
The world has known about the Avic J-20 stealth fighters since their first test flights back in 2011, but this is the first time these fifth-generation planes were showcased to the public. Chinese air force pilots flew two of the twin-engine prototypes for several minutes at the International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in the southern city of Zhuhai, as crowds cheered on below.
Image: Xinhua/Liu Dawei
A spokesperson for the People's Liberation Army (CLA) said the J-20 - a long-range, radar-evading stealth fighter - will add a significant boost the fighting capacity of the Chinese air force, while "safeguarding national sovereignty, security and territorial integrity". Should all go according to plan, the J-20 will become fully operational in 2018.
— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) November 1, 2016
The J-20 is considered the answer to the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning, which will soon be deployed to the Pacific by the United States and Japan. The exact strategic purpose of the new Chinese fighters isn't entirely clear, but Aviation Weekly says the CLA could exploit their stealth and supersonic capabilities to "penetrate hostile defences and destroy valuable air targets in the rear, such as tankers". Another possibility is that the large design, with its long endurance, will offer more fighting power since the aircraft doesn't require constant refuelling.
As impressive as the J-20 appears to be, some US military officials aren't impressed. In a Breaking Defence article published earlier this year, Gen David Goldfein said, "[When] I hear about F-35 vs. J-20, it's almost an irrelevant comparison." By contrast, the F-35 is "about a family of systems and it's about a network - that's what gives us an asymmetric advantage". Goldfein believes it's more accurate to compare the J-20 to the F-117 Nighthawk, a stealth attack aircraft introduced in 1983 and retired in 2008.
That said, experts worry that the plane's forward stealth and long range could put some of America's surface assets at risk. Several years ago, the Pentagon described the J-20 as "a platform capable of long range, penetrating strikes into complex air defence environments". There's also concern that, with the addition of more powerful jets, the plane could start to rival the J-20, and legitimately threaten vulnerable tankers and radar facilities.