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Signs that China stealth jet is assigned to skies over South China Sea

China's J-20 Stealth Fighter (Alert5/WikiMedia)
December 15, 2021

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Chinese manufacturers may have started mass production of its most advanced stealth fighter jet, the J-20, and assigned a number of them to the air force unit responsible for the South China Sea.

State-run Chinese media cited a statement released on Dec. 10 by the Chengdu Aircraft Industrial Group Co Ltd, the fighter jet manufacturer, as saying that the company has ramped up the delivery of its military aircraft including the J-10 and the J-20 in the fourth quarter of 2021 due to high demand.

Meanwhile, Scramble, a European aviation magazine, said that a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) J-20A was spotted on a test flight from Huantianba production facility in Chengdu, and the serial number 61162 on its tail indicated that the jet was assigned to the 5th Air Brigade of the Southern Theater Command.

J-20A is one of the new variants of Chengdu J-20 fighter jet, also known as “Mighty Dragon.” The Southern Theater Command is one of PLA’s five regional commands and is responsible for the entire southern part of China and the South China Sea.

“A J-20 Air Brigade based in the Southern Command area of responsibility would put some of China’s most advanced fighters quite close to the South China Sea,” said David Cenciotti, a prominent military aviation blogger, told RFA.

Another well-known aviation author specializing in Chinese aircraft development, Andreas Rupprecht, said it would be an unusual move to assign the J-20 to the 5th Air Brigade which just changed to Chengdu J-10C, an older but still capable multirole fighter, a few years ago.

It may indicate that Chinese military planners seek to boost air defense capabilities in the South China Sea and the fighters will have combat roles rather than for training.

Mighty Dragon

“The creation of a J-20 unit in the Southern Theater Command, which is responsible for PLA ops in the South China Sea and Taiwan scenarios in recent years, isn’t surprising,” said Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“China has already started serial production of the J-20 with the aim of equipping more frontline units with the type as the PLA Air Force’s premier air superiority fighter,” Koh said, adding: “The J-20 was reported to be deployed close to the Indian border where there’s an ongoing flare up.”

The J-20 Mighty Dragon is China’s fifth-generation stealth fighter jet with precision strike capability. It made its first test flight 10 years ago and entered official service in 2017 as part of China’s military modernization plan.

The aircraft is the world’s third operational fifth-generation stealth fighter. Its appearance resembles the U.S. Air Force’s F-22 but experts say the American fighters are far superior.

Janes, a global intelligence company, reported that at the Airshow China 2021 in September, the PLA revealed for the first time a new variant of J-20A powered by indigenously developed engines.

It appeared that the new J-20A aircraft are fitted with Chinese domestically developed WS10C turbofans, which have replaced the type’s initial Russian-made Saturn AL-31FN-series engines.

It’s estimated there are 50 to 60 J-20s currently in service and the switch from traditionally imported engines to indigenous ones would enable mass production of the fighter jet. The production volume, however, remains unclear.

The PLA Air Force has deployed a range of military aircraft in the skies over the South China Sea. Recently, several H-6J strategic bombers conducted a live-fire exercise, dropping bombs and laying sea mines on islands at an undisclosed location in the sea.