China’s first stealth fighter made its official, public debut at the annual Zhuhai air show in southeast China Tuesday, bringing the plane one step closer to frontline service with the Chinese air force—and a step closer to presenting America’s own stealth warplanes their first high-tech opponent.
But there’s no reason for the Pentagon to panic. The U.S. military is still way, way ahead when it comes to radar-evading warplanes.
Two twin-engine, twin-tail J-20s flew a brief, minute-long display in the smoggy gray sky over Guangdong province, showing off their superb low-speed maneuverability in front of a crowd of thousands of Chinese citizens plus hundreds of foreign reporters and aerospace professionals.
With their gray camouflage paint jobs, the J-20s at Zhuhai were clearly combat-ready, production examples of the single-seat, supersonic fighter—as opposed to the 10 prototype test jets that have hogged the media spotlight since the very first J-20 made its unofficial debut in grainy photos leaked by the Chinese government in late December 2010.
The J-20s’ appearance in Guangdong was no surprise—an air show schedule listing the jets’ aerobatic routine leaked in early October. All the same, the jets’ performance underscored just how close the J-20 is to being war-ready. Very close.
Shortly after the J-20 flew for the first time in January 2011, then-U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates insisted the Chinese fighter wouldn’t be operational before 2020. A year later in 2012, David Helvey, then the deputy secretary of defense for East Asia and Asia Pacific Security Affairs, told reporters the J-20 could be war-ready by 2018.
The Zhuhai demonstration up-ended those expectations. Andreas Rupprecht, an aviation expert and the author of several books about Chinese warplanes, wrote that he now expects the first J-20 squadron to be ready for combat with a dozen planes or so “around the year’s end or early 2017—much earlier than expected.”
Of course, by then the United States will have as many as three different kinds of stealth fighters in service, depending on how you count them. Officially, the Pentagon possesses just two types of radar-evading fighters—the twin-engine F-22 and the single-engine F-35.
Back in March, Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the U.S. Air Force officer overseeing the F-35 program, admitted that the three models of the F-35, one each for the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy, are only 20 percent identical. In other words, they’re practically three different warplanes.
The Air Force announced the F-22 to be combat-ready in late 2005. The Marines followed with their vertically-landing “B” version of the F-35, declaring the first squadron operational in July 2015. A little over a year later in August 2016, the Air Force said its own F-35A model was ready for war. The Navy expects its aircraft carrier-compatible F-35C to be operational in 2018.
And while the Chinese might have a dozen or so J-20s on hand when the plane is finally war-ready, the Americans already possess more than 180 F-22s and about 200 F-35s. F-22 production has ended, but the Pentagon wants to buy another 1,500 F-35s over the next 20 years.
What’s more, the U.S. Air Force operates 20 B-2 stealth bombers and is currently developing the new B-21 stealth bomber to complement it. The Air Force and Navy are also beginning to draw up plans for two new warplane types to eventually follow the F-35.
For its own part, China has been tinkering with a stealth fighter called the FC-31 that’s apparently cheaper and less capable than the J-20 is—and would be strictly for export, as Beijing reportedly does not want to sell the J-20 abroad.
There have also been rumors that China is working on a bigger J-20 model for bombing missions, plus a separate, vertical-landing fighter similar to the F-35B.
China’s wide-ranging efforts to build a stealthy air arm puts it firmly in second place after the United States when it comes to stealth technology. Third-place Russia is struggling to get its new twin-engine T-50 fighter to work—and to afford it. Japan has just begun experimenting with a prototype plane that could evolve into a front-line, radar-evading fighting sometime in the 2020s.
The truth is, developing and building stealth fighters is hard, as anyone following the F-35’s many travails knows. In that context, China’s rapid progress with the J-20 is all the more impressive.
By the same token, it’s important not to underestimate the challenges Beijing’s plane-designers must still overcome to ensure the J-20 can do more than simply buzz around at an air show. For one, it’s likely that the J-20s at Zhuhai were still fitted with Russian-made AL-31 engines, rather than the WS-15 engines that Chinese engineers custom-designed for the J-20, but have since run into developmental problems.
With Russian engines, the first J-20 squadron could be “limited in its capabilities,” according to Rupprecht. Indeed, while Beijing might declare the J-20 to be officially combat-ready as early as this year, it’s possible the first squadron will mostly “explore operational tactics and procedures,” in Rupprecht’s estimation.
In that case, older fighters would have to handle front-line patrols over the dangerous China Seas…at least for a few more years.