Updated 11:29 AM EDT, Tue, Jun 16, 2020

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China’s J-20 Stealth Jet isn’t an Air Superiority Fighter; will Attack US Warships Instead

Low observable

(Photo : PLAAF) Chengdu J-20 in war paint.

China's much-hyped Chengdu J-20 fifth generation stealth fighter seems doomed to a career attacking U.S. Navy warships and U. S. Air Force aerial refueling tankers because of its crippling disabilities as an air superiority fighter.

The J-20, which made its first flight only in 2011, was never intended as an air superiority fighter armed with the stealth and advanced electronics that will allow it to prevail against its two premier antagonists: the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II and the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor.

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In Asia, however, the J-20 will see battle against the F-35, a squadron of which is already operational in Japan with the United States Marines.

It seems China isn't certain of the J-20's true calling. This 5th gen jet is billed as a long-range air superiority fighter that's also a multirole combat aircraft. But its design points more towards the J-20 being a long-range maritime strike jet than an aerial superiority fighter.

The jet's huge size (20 meters long with a wingspan of 13 meters) means it can carry more fuel for longer range patrols. It also means it's less stealthy since this massiveness compared to the F-35 (which is five meters shorter in length) will reveal it faster to an F-35.

More tellingly, the J-20's design is what called "forward stealth," meaning the J-20 is only truly stealthy when seen by radar head-on. From the side, the rear and because of its larger size, the J-20 has a radar cross section that's not that of a stealth aircraft.

Some analysts feel the J-20 is more accurately described as a "low observable" (LO) aircraft instead of a true stealth aircraft because of its many design deficits. These include its forward stealth design and its use of canards that sacrifice stealth.

An American analyst believes the J-20's combination of forward stealth and long range is more of a danger to the U.S. Navy than the U.S. Air Force. The jet's long-range maritime strike capability should also concern the U.S. military more that its capability as an air-superiority fighter.

Its unreliable engines also preclude the J-20 from taking on either of the American stealth fighters on anything approaching equal terms. The J-20 prototypes are underpowered because their twin Saturn AL-31F engines produce about 30,000 lbs of thrust each compared to the 35,000 lbs delivered by the F-35's engines.

It's not clear if the jets now in low rate initial production will have this engine or the more powerful WS-15. This new engine,  however, remains under development.

The availability of more powerful and reliable engines should transform the J-20 into a credible air superiority fighter. But without these new engines, the J-20 is at its best when attacking huge and practically defenseless aircraft such as aerial tankers and airborne early warning aircraft.

The J-20 is expected to enter service with the People's Liberation Army Air Force in 2018 at the earliest.

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