Opinion: Should US be worried about China’s new J-20 stealth fighters?

By Justin Bronk Updated 0018 GMT November 2, 2016

Editor’s Note: Justin Bronk is a research fellow for combat air power and technology in the military sciences program at the Royal United Services Institute in London. The opinions in this article belong to the author.

(CNN) — The Chinese air force showed its new low-observable, or “stealth,” fighter in public for the first time Tuesday.

(Note: CNN provides here a short part of CCTV’s footage of J-20 flight show (48 seconds) cutting out its sharp U-turns, vertical climbup and looping. Those who want to see more can view the complete CCTV footage (84 seconds) at http://mil.huanqiu.com/milmovie/2016-11/9618930.html)

The aircraft has been the subject of heated debate in air power circles for many years as Chinese military bloggers leaked images of the various preproduction prototypes.

The main questions being asked now are how much of a threat does the J-20 pose to American dominance of the skies in the Asia-Pacific region, and how much of a shift does the aircraft represent in terms of China’s military capabilities?

Should the US be worried?

In terms of a direct comparison with the US Air Force’s own stealth fighters — the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter — the J-20 is undeniably less stealthy.

The forward-mounted canards, poorly shielded engines and underside vertical stabilizers all limit the amount that its radar cross section — which determines how visible the aircraft is to a radar — can be reduced.

China also has significantly less know-how in terms of radar-absorbent coatings compared with the United States. Most importantly, it is extremely unlikely that the J-20 is equipped with anything approaching the F-22’s and F-35’s sensor suite.

J-20 stealth fighters of the Bayi Aerobatic Team of PLA's (Peoples Liberation Army) Air Force perform on Tuesday.

J-20 stealth fighters of the Bayi Aerobatic Team of PLA’s (Peoples Liberation Army) Air Force perform on Tuesday.

This is crucial because it is not only the fact that they are hard to detect on radar that makes the F-22 and F-35 so deadly, but also the unrivaled situational awareness that their sensor-fusion capabilities give to their pilots.

However, despite the fact that the J-20 almost certainly cannot match the radar-evading properties or situational-awareness capabilities of US-made stealth fighters, it does have several advantages over them.

First, due to its larger size it will carry significantly more internal fuel, so it will have a longer range and be less dependent on vulnerable aerial refueling tankers in the vast Asia-Pacific. It also has larger internal weapons bays than either the F-22 or F-35, so it will be able to carry larger, longer-range missiles or a greater load of standard air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions than either of the US designs.

Finally, the J-20 is almost certainly going to be produced in far larger numbers than the F-22 and potentially even the F-35 if Chinese defense spending continues on current trajectories in relation to the United States and its allies.

What advantage does this give China?

Essentially, the J-20 will give the Chinese air force a long-range, hard-to-detect strike and interdiction fighter that can threaten the air bases, carriers, airborne warning and control systems, and refueling aircraft that the United States and its allies rely on to project air power over the vast distances of the Asia-Pacific.

The twin-engine F-22 stealth fighter, flown by a single pilot and armed with a 20mm cannon, heat-seeking missiles, radar-guided missiles and radar-guided bombs, can perform both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. The service has 183 of the Raptors, which went operational in 2005.

The twin-engine F-22 stealth fighter, flown by a single pilot and armed with a 20mm cannon, heat-seeking missiles, radar-guided missiles and radar-guided bombs, can perform both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. The service has 183 of the Raptors, which went operational in 2005.

While it is not as hard to detect as the F-35 and certainly the F-22, it would still be a lethal and evasive threat hidden within a mass of conventional aircraft and missile tracks in any flashpoint scenario.

The J-20, once in full scale production and service, will represent a significantly greater and fundamentally different threat to the Russian Su-30/35 Flanker family derivatives that currently form the leading edge of Chinese air power.

For the United States, it represents a serious threat in certain operational scenarios such as a confrontation over Taiwan or the contested Senkaku Islands.

For less capable militaries in the region such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, the J-20 represents a game-changing capability shift on the horizon from their primary military threat — the Chinese air force.


12 Comments on “Opinion: Should US be worried about China’s new J-20 stealth fighters?”

  1. johnleecan says:

    Remember the downed stealth fighter jet F-117A of US Air Force by the Serbians wherein experts have said Yugoslavia air defense system were obsolete. I would guess that more advance radars can definitely detect American stealth fighter.

    Yes, China should upgrade their old maps or else they might accidentally fire some cruise missiles into some American embassy mistaking them as target practice during their realistic combat drills.


  2. Steve says:

    This bronky author seems to contradict himself. Unlike the F35, China’s J-20 is neither Trick nor Flying Turkey. It’s just a 48 seconds Treat, please don’t expect more. Sharp turns, loops and vertical climbs are more than enough, the rest are either standard manoeuvres or stealth secrets.

    According to past reports, China has the world’s best radar absorbing coatings and the US F22s are easily detectable by Chinese radar, which means that US stealth jets radar absorbing coatings are questionable. How can the author says that the J-20 radar evading properties are inferior to the US. Since its secretive, who knows.?

    According to reports on rare encounters by Chinese fighter pilots over the ECS, the F22 appears to be just ordinary, lacking stealth nor fearful. The F22s has not being as vigorously tested as the F15s and F16s in the middle east, except for dropping bombs on easy targets. The report said its strange that given the opportunity, the F22 has not being used as vigorously as F15, F16s. One wonders the real reason why the production line for F22s have being terminated other than to be replaced by F35s.


  3. Simon says:

    Same old prejudice westerners make about China not being capable of making anything decent or original. They forget that China invented the compass, fireworks, printing, paper, clocks and astronomy, etc. More recently the BBC help produce a show about China’s Terracotta Army is not Chinese origin and must have been influenced or supervise by Greek artists in a attempt to white wash Chinese history. They tried to hide the fact there are fundamental different in techniques, those were clay warriors design for burial using moulding a very well known Chinese technique produced in many parts and assembled together in mass production somethng westerners did not do until modern times. Greek statues are carved from marbles and takes a long time. I’m waiting for the next Gwailo documentary claiming China’s Great Wall is built by the Romans who went on and built Hadrian’s Wall.


  4. Joseph says:

    If the American wants to worry, there’s no preventing them. What does it matter if the American worries or not. If they are not worry about Chinese J-20, they will be worry about something else, perhaps neighbor’s cat. China, after all, does not have the habit of bombing other countries. The same cannot be said for the American. However, the American has the habits of harassing China, they should know there risk. After all, there is no such thing like work cover insurance for the profession of thieves. And they should know that in SE Asia, there’s a communal punishment for thieves, we beat them up publicly. Savage? Perhaps. But that’s very effective. Right now, the American has something else to worry than Chinese J-20. In Indonesia, anger is brewing that the American is behind their latest planed anti-Chinese anarchy for Indonesia, it will be the 4 Nov riot, that is supposed to take place today. It was allegedly about Jakarta’s popular Chinese Indonesian government accused of ‘insulting’ Islam perpetrated by cut and paste video, that people believe, can only be the handiwork the American. Cut and paste video is common in American media, but not in Indonesia. Now we have two groups of Islam ready to clash, a remnants of pro-American ‘Islamic’ gangsters and the group who called themselves True Indonesian Moslem who want to protect the country’s unity. There are even rumors that American warplanes buzzing close to Indonesian territory on border with Philippines as intimidations. Never before, that Indonesia prepares and braces itself for anarchy like today. Whatever the outcomes, it won’t be good for the American. For us the American is still responsible for the actions of their collaborators. And we are all fed up with the American. That’s what the American should worry about, not some new shinny planes on airshow that never harass anyone.


    • Simon says:

      “Fear is the path to the Dark Side” Master Yoda.

      America fears about everything anyone else do because they want everyone to fear only them.


    • Steve says:

      With such coincidences, one wonders why Australia has cosy up to Indonesia lately. President Widodo visiting Australia and maybe negotiating on join FONOPs.? Why should Indonesia agree to it.


      • Joseph says:

        Last time Indonesian president Jokowi went to Australia on 2014 G-20, he was deeply insulted to be portrayed as a street vendor preparing satay for Western leaders on Australian media. The relationship was then sprawling down into the abyss because Australia demanded special treatment for its to be executed ‘reformed’ drug dealers. The Australian threatened to find any excuse, no matter how small, to impeach him for refusing their demand. Jokowi, after all, the guy who inspired Duterte to stand up against the American, and the first regional leader who Duterte first visited as president. He was said to be the one who endorsed the meeting between Xi Jinping and Duterte, which took place in such remarkably short notice. With Australian attitude toward Indonesia has not changed, I do not see how Jokowi would see eye to eye with Australia, let alone visiting Australia to discuss any FONOPs. After all, as Indonesia is on nationwide alert for possible CIA-perpetrated riots, he is not going anywhere abroad. Australia, on the other hand, would like very much to cozy up to Indonesia. The recent denial of FONOPs by Indonesian navy to Australian fishermen catching ‘Australian’ fish in Indonesian water has caused shortages of luxury fish supply to Australian high-end markets.


      • Joseph says:

        It is very bizarre, actually,that the news of Jokowi’s possible visit to Australia was reported by Western media but treated as a mere rumor in Indonesia, announced only by Indonesian pro-American political opposition leader, and not by official announcement.


        • Steve says:

          Compared to Malaysia, both are strong Muslim nations, its surprising Indonesia has a much stronger pro-US stance than Malaysia. If Indonesia agrees to a joint FONOPs with Australia should automatically involve a threesome with US. Almost like a replacement for Philippines.


          • Joseph says:

            There is nothing to suggest that Jokowi would agree to joint any American FONOPs. Western media, of course, would like to find replacement for Philippines to prolong the SCS debacle. On recent Australian ABC interview, the reporter was coercing Jokowi to make anti-Chinese statement. But Jokowi skillfully reiterated Indonesia’s position as a non-claimant on the SCS which do not need any help from Australia, America or any other troublemakers to defend its sovereignty. In the end, ABC Australia has to settle with cut and paste scene of the interview to imply that Jokowi as a Chinese hostile. The interview has also failed to make Jokowi to condemn Philippines Duterte whom he recently made best buddy. Ridiculously, the interview also failed to make Jokowi to ‘feel bad’ for executing Australian drug dealers. In the end, the ABC can only make him to commit working together with Australia to settle unresolved differences. Forget about some Western FONOP nonsense, Australia is lucky to be able to resolve the cattle trade debacle that Australia badly needs, among other trade issues.


    • Sentinel says:

      Looks like Obama and Washington has decided that between Indonesia and the Philippines, Indonesia is the more strategic “asset” they MUST control.

      Philippines has nothing but just geographical advantage to “garrison” China which in itself is a worthless exercise in this age of missiles and tactical nuclear warheads.Such garrisons would be a futile waste of “precious” white American lives if ever conflict ensued. At the same time, the Philippines has virtually no natural resources save its overly large human labor of 100 million people who are still 40 – 60 years behind the developed countries.

      Indonesia, on the other hand, has more natural resources, geographically and strategically closer to its precious white skin “5-eye” brother member – Australia. It is not inconceivable therefore that just as Canberra would put pressure on Washington to protect Australia’s flanks from a modernizing and strengthening Far East Asia, especially Indonesia, Washington too, would naturally and logically deem Australia as a permanent and reliable bulwark against China, Indonesia, and maybe Japan in the future, and therefore a priority in terms of propping it it up as a “garrison” in defence of its global empire. Canberra and Washington will seek to ensure, after the Filipino debacle, that Indonesia is not to be “lost”; That any regime in Jakarta should not be so nationalistic and look after it’s own people and interest first. It must be controlled and the regime friendly to Washington and Canberra and its Western World Order.

      Canberra is perennially in danger of becoming like the current neocon controlled Washington and America. Their narrow shortsighted neocon philosophy – if indeed they have one – behoves neocons like Tony Abbot – if ever such “D” class student were ever to take over the reins of power again in Canberra, to take similar immoral and unscrupulous levying of chaos, death and destruction upon on Indonesia and other Far East Asian countries, as Obamaa and Washington wreaked upon prosperous and relatively successful states like Libya, Syria, and Iraq. So whither Far East Asian countries? What lessons is there for it to learn?

      The answer is – When you are facing an advanced hostile belligerent alien, you do what the Middle Eastern countries do – especially those which have the luxury of time and able to, turn to a regional power like Russia for protection. So, inevitably too, if Far Eastern countries must defend and free themselves from a hostile advanced alien nation like America, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, etc., needs to turn to regional power China to help ward off such aggression from Washington and possibly Canberra if it remains under Washington’d thumb. Even better when you can link your economies to their prosperous economy to develop even faster and thereby strengthen your defences.


  5. johnleecan says:

    Articles like this should boost the deteriorating and declining confidence of American military especially after navy destroyers USS Donald Cook and USS Ross were scared off running by buzzing of Russian unarmed fighter jets because of their illegal entry into the Black Sea and Iran’s navy interception and capturing of US navy intruders into Iranian territorial waters.