The South Korean Air Force is set to take delivery of the first batch of F-35 stealth fighters from Lockheed Martin, closing what some media have described as a “friends circle” of F-35s in the Asia-Pacific region after Japan and Australia’s procurement of the formidable warplane for air defense and patrols.
Seoul shelled out about US$4 billion for 40 F-35As in a deal signed in 2014, while Japan operates 10 F-35As, with 32 more due, and may place orders for the F-35Bs, the short take-off and vertical landing model to be deployed on its Izumo-class quasi-aircraft carriers.
Beijing is concerned that the US, Japan, South Korea and Australia may conduct more joint drills near China using the F-35, making it easier for air forces and navies to coordinate their patrols and air defense.
Equipped with an advanced weapons system and capable of stealth and supersonic cruising, the F-35 is regarded as one of the most advanced fighter jets across the globe.
But Chinese papers have made reference to an “upgraded J-20 fighter” and claim the latest variant of the People’s Liberation Army’s ace stealth fighter, which entered service in 2017, will grab “overwhelming superiority over the F-35.”
Already, the combat range and weapons payload of the PLA’s J-20 is considered to be superior to the F-35’s.
While accurate information about the J-20 is still scarce, more than a year after its formal deployment, there are indications that the Chinese aircraft is equipped with a phased array radar, a robust electronic warfare system as well as an electro-optical/infrared sensor, all similar in concept to those on board the F-35.
The Global Times also noted that the PLA’s passive radars and meter wave radars could detect F-35s before they could pierce China’s airspace, and could in turn guide the PLA’s anti-aircraft missiles such as the HQ-9 and HQ-16 to fend off the F-35s.
Furthermore, the F-35’s outstanding stealth capability requires costly maintenance, as the radar wave-absorbing coating wears off and needs to be reapplied after each flight, and the aircraft has to be serviced inside constant temperature and humidity hangars.
By comparison, it has been revealed by China Central Television that the J-20 could now be stored in common hangars. But the CCTV report was also questioned by some military observers, who said unless the PLA had developed a novel type of stealth coating for the J-20, the warplane must also be parked inside fully enclosed facilities.
Asked if the PLA’s J-20 would give the F-35 a good run for its money, US Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein said: “When we apply fifth-generation technology, it’s no longer about a platform, it’s about a family of systems … It’s about a network and that’s what gives us an asymmetrical advantage [over the PLA]”.
He said questions about an F-35 versus a J-20 were “irrelevant” as far more attention is put on the family of systems and how to connect them together.
The National Interest also pointed out that the J-20 may lack the “sensor fusion” networking and data integration and analyses to be as effective as the F-22 or F-35.