Indications are that China's J-20 stealth fighter has joined an official combat unit of the PLA Air Force. Handout.

China’s J-20 stealth fighter has ended test trials and now become a potent airplane protecting the country. But how does it compare with its main adversary — the US Air Force’s multi-role fighter, the F-35?

According to one Chinese defense expert, the J-20 could be more advanced.

Earlier this week, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force released a photo of a J-20 bearing the serial number (62001) of a combat unit, with the caption “An Air Force J-20 fighter conducts real combat training,” along with a statement introducing its increasing strategic capability.

According to PLA tradition, numbers starting with “7” indicate aircraft attached to a trial unit, while the “6” indicates the J-20 is affiliated with a combat unit under the PLA Eastern Theater Command, said Ordnance Industry Science Technology, a Xi’an-based periodical on the national defense industry.

PLA officials later confirmed that the J-20 is on combat duty, becoming an important new force in safeguarding China’s skies.

They also took a swipe at Taiwan, warning that the fighter could easily fly close to region to fend off “adversaries from near and far” and reclaim the “Chinese island.”

Fu Qianshao, a Chinese air defense expert, told the Global Times that training under a combat unit is different than under a trial unit.

While exploring specific capabilities is likely emphasized in trial unit training, the focus of training under a combat unit includes tactical practice, Fu said, noting that a training syllabus and a maintenance manual have also likely been completed for the aircraft.

Fu believes that the J-20 is now more sophisticated than USAF’s F-35 — a rather tall claim by all accounts.

By comparison, the American F-35 program is now considered the most expensive, and possibly the most error ridden, project in the history of the US military.

The Department of Defense (DOD) has sunk so much money into the F-35 — which is expected to cost US$1.5 trillion over the 55-year life of the program — that the Air Force has taken steps to make sure that the unmitigated disaster that the F-35 has become does not happen again.

But despite these issues, US military pilots have given rave reviews to the F-35, claiming extraordinary battlefield situational awareness. Some experts say a wave of F-35s would decimate anything within an operational theater.

China’s secretive J-20 stealth fighter is drawing comparisons to the USAF’s F-35 jet fighter, shown above. File photo.

Meanwhile, Fu says that the J-20 will be mass produced and further enhanced in the future. Its engines, aerodynamic design, weapons and electronics systems including radar, avionics and flight control system could be upgraded, he added.

According to ChinaPower, the J-20 marks the first entry of a multirole stealth fighter into China’s armed forces.

DOD sources say China views stealth technology as a core component in the transformation of its air force from “a predominantly territorial air force to one capable of conducting both offensive and defensive operations.”

Designed for enhanced stealth and maneuverability, the J-20 has the potential to provide China with a variety of previously unavailable air combat options and enhance its capability to project power.

The J-20 is believed to be equipped with subsystems and field signature reduction technology that collectively meet the internationally-accepted classification of a “fifth-generation” aircraft, the ChinaPower report said.

General David L. Goldfein, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force, said information-age fighters like the J-20 are designed to link into national defense networks, which enables these cutting-edge fighters to access real-time information supplied by satellites and unmanned air vehicles.

As a result, the J-20, like the F-35, should be assessed as part of a “family of systems” instead of a standalone aircraft.

Opinions vary about the J-20’s comparative strengths as an air superiority (air-to-air) fighter or a strike (air-to-ground) aircraft. Some analysts believe that the J-20’s emphasis on frontal stealth makes it an effective long-range interceptor, meant for mid-air engagements.

Others see the J-20 as a long-range strike aircraft, best suited for penetrating enemy air defenses and damaging critical infrastructure on the ground.

Reports also differ regarding the J-20’s range, which is expected to fall between 1,200 and 2,700 kilometers.

Regardless of this uncertainty, the J-20’s combat radius is likely to extend well-beyond the Chinese mainland. The US Naval War College suggests that the J-20 could be an “effective surface-attack platform for out to several hundred nautical miles at sea.”

Air Power Australia notes that the J-20 would be a suitable choice of aircraft for operating within China’s “first island chain” and “second island chain.”

The Global Times reported on November 14, 2018 that the J-20 is capable of aerial refueling,  possibly further extending the stealth fighter’s operational range across the Asia-Pacific.

As for which aircraft would be better in a dogfight, Australian defence analyst Malcolm Davis says he leans toward the F-35.

Davis says the F-35 is better at data integration and has the ability to bring together multiple sources of information and to act as a node in the network to share information around.

“In a traditional one-on-one dogfight between the F-35 and the J-20, it’s hard to know but the F-35 has the advantage in stealth and in battlefield awareness. The J-20 is faster and has longer range and large payload,’’ he said.

Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said the question was not a simple one: “The bottom line is … I think they are premature in saying it is superior but we can’t afford to be glib about it.”

Unlike many other nations, where state-of-the-art jet fighters appear at local airshows, it might be a while before the Chinese public gets to see the latest version of the J-20 in action.

Aviation analysts say it might make a flyby over Tiananmen Square in Beijing during the planned parade to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic’s on October 1.

Sources: Global Times, CNBC, ChinaPower, TheAustralian

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