- A new brigade of upgraded J-20s deployed during a ceremony forming part of the Communist Party’s centenary.
- The deployment is aimed at telling South Korea and Japan that China is strengthening its air defence, one observer said.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
China has deployed its most advanced stealth fighter jet to air force units monitoring the Taiwan Strait and the East China Sea, state media said, in a move Chinese observers saw as a warning to South Korea and Japan, the US’s allies in the region.
The deployment indicated China had delivered at least four aviation brigades with a total of 150 J-20 fighter jets, including two training bases in Inner Mongolia and Hebei and two aviation brigades in the eastern and northern theatre commands, a military insider said.
“China will accelerate the deployment of the upgraded version J-20C, with probably at least one or two brigades in every theatre command to defend the country’s five strategic directions in the next five years,” the insider, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity, told the South China Morning Post.
The five directions referred to the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) five theatre commands, in the north, south, west, east and central.
“As one brigade needs at least 36 aircraft, it means the PLA Air Force will need more than 300 J-20s in the future,” they said. “But the progress will rely on the delivery of the home-built WS-10C engine and the latest development of the tailor-made WS-15 engine for the J-20s.”
China has stopped using Russian AL-31F engines originally fitted on the J-20s, replacing them with the upgraded home-built WS-10C, a stopgap choice, with development of the more powerful WS-15 engine affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The new aviation brigade, Military Development Vanguard Air Group, based in Anshan, Liaoning province, has been equipped with the upgraded J-20C jets in a ceremony, state broadcaster China Central Television reported last Friday.
That air group, under the Northern Theatre Command, became the second J-20 aviation brigade, after the Wuhu-based Wang Hai Flight Group under the Eastern Theatre Command in Anhui province, CCTV said.
The two brigades originated from the air force units of the People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) during the Korean war (1950-53).
“The J-20’s new deployment, announced ahead of the Communist Party’s 100th anniversary on July 1, is aimed at telling South Korea and Japan that China is strengthening its air defence along the coastal areas, warning them not to join Washington and intervene in the Taiwan issue,” Li Jie, a Beijing-based naval expert, said.
A ceremony for the deployment of J-20s was held on Friday at the former site of the air force’s cradle, the original Northeast China Democratic United Army Aviation School in Jilin province in the northeast, as part of the events marking the party centenary, CCTV said.
The PVA’s early pilots and engineers were trained at the school by Japanese pilots who surrendered to China after World War II. The Chinese pilots were trained for only dozens of hours before being sent to the Korean war to fight American counterparts, CCTV said.
Shanghai-based military expert Ni Lexiong said the deployment of J-20s to Wuhu and Anshan, respectively 800km (500 miles) and 1,700km from Taiwan, was aimed at preventing the bases there becoming targets for Taipei’s new home-built Hsiung Feng-2E (Brave Wing) cruise missile.
“The Hsiung Feng missile has a firing range of 600km, and its extended version could hit targets more than 1,000km away,” Ni said.
“The J-20 is the PLA’s most powerful and sophisticated weapon, and may become the first bombing target for Taipei if a war between mainland China and Taiwan were to happen.”
Beijing sees Taiwan as a breakaway province, to be brought under its control by force if necessary, and is opposed to other countries intervening in its “reunification mission,” planned for decades.
Li said the J-20s would not be the spearhead in a possible cross-strait war, with the mainland’s short and medium-range DF-11, DF-15 and DF-17 missiles expected to be deployed on the front line.
“None of the J-20s will be deployed near the coasts, because of their 2,000km-plus combat range, which is more than enough to cover the mainland coastal provinces and Taiwan,” Li said.
The upgraded version of the J-20C entered mass production last June, although Zhou Chenming, a researcher from the Yuan Wang military science institute in Beijing, said J-20s were currently believed to be in short supply.
“Once a war happens, the PLA needs to deal with all US allies in the region, meaning it needs at least 200 J-20s, given that Beijing expects Washington to deploy between 200 and 300 F-35s to Japan and South Korea by 2025,” Zhou said.
Beijing rushed the J-20, its first stealth fighter jet, into service ahead of schedule in 2017, when the US started deploying the F-35, its fifth-generation all-weather stealth multi-role fighter, to the Asia-Pacific region.