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Video: China’s 5th gen stealth fighter just got a game-changing upgrade

Chinese President Xi Jinping waves to deputies at the 13th National People's Congress in Beijing on Tuesday, March 20, 2018. (Lan Hongguang/Xinhua/Sipa USA/TNS)
October 07, 2022

China’s fifth generation J-20 fighter jet recently demonstrated its ability to perform mid-air refueling, a key ability that will expand the aircraft’s potential range throughout the Indo-Pacific region.

The J-20 took its first flight in 2011 and has been in service with the Chinese military since 2017, but it had not proven its ability to refuel in midair until just recently. Last week, the state-run China Central Television (CCTV) channel shared footage of a YU-20 providing aerial refueling to J-20 fighter jets.

One video shared to YouTube showed a YU-20 refeuling a J-20 and a J-16 fighter jet.

In another video CCTV shared on its Weibo social media account, a YU-20 tanker provided refueling to two J-20 fighter jets at the same time.

The ability to receive aerial refueling is a significant capability for the J-20 and a major step in China’s military modernization. Aerial refueling extends the potential effective range of the J-20, allowing it to strike targets further away from bases in Chinese-held territories.

Adding this capability will make China more competitive in a potential conflict with the U.S. and its allies. China currently has around 150 J-20s in service, according to the U.S. Air Force’s Air University.

By comparison, the U.S. has 183 fifth-generation F-22 stealth fighters in service. The U.S., Japan, South Korea, and Australia all also possess fifth-generation F-35s and could contribute dozens of the aircraft to any aerial conflict in the Indo-Pacific region.

The F-35B and C variants are also capable of being launched from amphibious assault ships and full-sized aircraft carriers, which significantly expands their potential strike range in the Indo-Pacific region.

If China can mass-produce enough J-20s, now with aerial-refueling capabilities, they could shift the odds in a potential conflict back in their favor.

While the J-20 is not a carrier-capable aircraft, China appears to be developing other fifth-generation aircraft that can launch from China’s three aircraft carriers. Photos taken near Chinese aircraft test facilities have shown progress on the J-31 (also known as the J-35 or FC-31), a potential first carrier-capable stealth fighter for China.