A photo of the J-20 was recently released bore a serial number indicating it belonged to a frontline combat unit, marking a major milestone for the aircraft.
China’s J-20 stealth fighter jet may have entered mass-production following its induction into an “ace unit” of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF).
With the J-20 fighter jets, the ace unit, which enjoys the honor of shooting down or damaging 59 enemy aircraft, will be able to better perform their duties of safeguarding national sovereignty, security and territorial integrity, Global Times quoted Shen Jinke, the spokesperson for the PLA –AF as saying Sunday.
Rumors from late 2018 to early 2019 suggested the first regular frontline PLAAF unit to receive J-20s would be the 9th brigade located in Wuhu, under the Eastern Theater Command.
A few video clips and pictures were taken in early 2019 from the area suggested J-20s had indeed begun arriving at Wuhu, and satellite pictures taken of the 9th brigade in April demonstrated at least three J-20s were present at the unit.
However, the picture released from the PLA of a J-20 with serial 62001 was the first clear evidence of a J-20 belonging to 9th brigade, fully confirming J-20’s status in a combat unit after almost a year of snowballing rumors, pictures and videos.
While this is a significant milestone, the exact current strength of J-20s in PLAAF service is not known, let alone the total number of production J-20s that have been constructed.
Last month, a formation of seven J-20s flew over Beijing in PLAAF markings giving the clearest indication yet that the stealth jets, which Beijing considers a competitor to the US’ F-35, had completed its development program and was in active service with the nation’s air force.
The production number for the J-20s are not known but could run into hundreds over the next few years as China aims to retire older generation jets such as J-11 and stop imports of advanced jets from Russia.
Some erroneous reporting by certain media outlets has suggested that production J-20s in previous years were powered by WS-10 engines and that the J-20 has been preparing to receive WS-15 engines. This information is untrue, as current production and in-service J-20s have been powered by variants of Russian Al-31 engines. The J-20 has been test flown with WS-10 engines; however, the J-20 has not been test flown with WS-15 engines and the WS-15 is certainly not “approaching mass production.”
Going into the 2020s, J-20 production using interim engines (whether it be Al-31 variants or WS-10 variants as recently hinted) will likely be further expanded. The WS-15 is may be ready by the mid-2020s, at which point J-20 production will likely shift to using that powerplant. It is likely that a WS-15 powered J-20 may receive a new variant designation entirely (such as J-20B), but it is not known if such an aircraft will undergo any significant physical redesigns. It is also not known whether other physically different variants of the J-20 (such as a tandem-seat variant) may be produced, despite some unsubstantiated rumors over the years.
The 2020s will also raise the question of just how many J-20s the PLA will eventually seek to acquire. Currently, it is strongly indicated that the PLA Navy’s 5th generation carrier fighter will be derived from the FC-31, but it is not known if a future land-based variant may also be produced to provide a medium weight 5th generation complement to the J-20. Therefore, the exact composition of the PLA’s overall 5th generation fighter fleet into the late 2020s cannot be predicted.
That said, given the projected numbers of F-35s that will enter service with the United States and various nations in the western Pacific region, it is likely that the PLA recognizes the need to keep up with its own 5th generation fleet. The J-20 will remain the only in production 5th generation fighter for the PLA going into the mid-2020s at least (whereby a carrier variant FC-31 might finish development and begin production), and it currently seems unlikely the PLA will cease J-20 production before the early 2030s.
During the late Cold War the U.S. Air Force originally planned to procure 750 Advanced Tactical Fighters (the program that gave birth to the F-22); however, post-Cold War threat assessments, as well as the development of the F-35, gradually reduced 750 to the 187 F-22s ultimately produced for service.
It is difficult to envision the PLA would be content with only about 200 J-20s given the threat profile they will face into the late 2020s and early 2030s. But it is also rather early to seriously suggest what kind of production run the J-20 may ultimately enjoy going into that time period, not least due to the difficulty of predicting what future geopolitical and economic trajectories China and the region may undergo in the intervening period. Therefore, it is very difficult to predict the final production run of J-20s at this stage despite what we know about the PLA’s likely 5th generation requirements going forwards.