The J-20, the People’s Liberation Army’s indigenous stealth fighter, is a formidable warplane capable of wrestling air superiority from belligerents in aerial combats, an aircraft that has lifted the strength of the PLA much closer to the height of the US and Russian air forces.
Yet after several J-20 prototypes roared into the skies marking the start of low-rate initial production and eventually formal deployment with the PLA Air Force since September 2017, the Chinese military and its major contractor Aviation Industry Corp of China (AVIC) are nowhere near fielding a viable fleet of the nation’s first fifth-generation fighter that can give the armada of US warplanes a good run for their money.
PLA’s pressing demand for more J-20s to respond to the threat from the sizable squadrons of F-22 Raptors – the J-20’s closest US counterpart – and F-35s deployed in Japan and Guam and for the PLAAF’s now-routine aerial circumnavigation around Taiwan notwithstanding, it has been reported that AVIC’s plant in Chengdu, Sichuan province, has been scrambling to churn out more of the fighters as orders continue to pile up.
That is because the aerospace conglomerate is held back by a host of technical hurdles, parts-supply issues and a shortage of top-flight workers, so much so that producing such a cutting-edge aircraft is a remarkable logistical and engineering feat in itself under the current circumstances.
State broadcaster China Central Television once revealed in a feature program about the J-20 that some fuselage parts made of alloy materials could only be molded in a way reminiscent of the making of delicate handicrafts.
The J-20’s research and development cost was estimated to be more than 30 billion yuan (US$4.4 billion), with a cost per aircraft standing at $110 million.
Analysts estimate that six J-20s are in active service, with tail numbers 78271-78276 identified, and the fleet size may have already been doubled by the end of last year with newer aircraft that rolled off, albeit slowly, AVIC’s production line.
But the slow start of J-20’s production is not an unusual case.
It’s indeed a long flight from an aircraft’s entry of service to mass production, military commentator Andrei Chang wrote in his column.
The F-22 had its maiden flight in 1997 but small batch production didn’t begin until eight years later. The two manufacturers of the ace fighter of the US Air Force – Lockheed Martin and Boeing Defense, Space & Security – can only make “single digit” numbers of F-22s each year, according to Chang.
In 2011 F-22 production was terminated because of the high costs involved and the lack – at the time – of any aircraft that could challenge its dominance.
The F-35A, the conventional takeoff and landing variant, took even longer – 10 years to be exact – from test flights at the end of 2006 to mass production in 2016.