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Special Report: China inducts additional J-20 stealth fighters

Date Posted: 13-Jun-2024

Key points

  • China's air force is bolstering forward theatre commands with additional Chengdu J-20 fighter aircraft
  • Beijing claims that the latest version of the J-20 is capable of supercruise and data fusion capabilities

The Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is equipping additional combat units with the Chengdu J-20 ‘Mighty Dragon' fifth-generation stealth fighter.

Janes assesses that over 11 months from July 2023 the PLAAF inducted more than 70 J-20s, meaning that the service is operating a total of approximately 195 J-20 aircraft. The influx of these additional aircraft has allowed the PLAAF to replace some of its older fourth-generation combat aircraft, including Shenyang J-11s and Sukhoi Su-27SK/UKBs.

According to Janes Satellite Imagery Analysis (JSIA), up until July 2023 the PLAAF operated at least eight air brigades equipped with the J-20, out of which one brigade was wholly equipped with the type. As of May 2024 the PLAAF operated 12 air brigades with J-20s, out of which three brigades are wholly equipped with the type.

Since 2023 the PLAAF's 1st Air Brigade has replaced its line-up of Shenyang J-11B/BBG/BS aircraft with Chengdu J-20 fighters (pictured). (Wang Jingtian/VCG via Getty Images)

The expanding deployment of the J-20 is indicative of the type's growing importance to the PLAAF as a primary asset for combat and other capabilities.

China's state-owned Global Times newspaper reported in February 2024 that in addition to the aircraft's stealth combat characteristics the J-20 has been equipped to execute airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) operations, supported by its “advanced sensors, computing systems, and avionics”. Such a capability suggests the J-20 is also able to integrate data from multiple other PLAAF assets.

In addition, the deployment pattern of newly commissioned J-20s supports a September 2022 statement from the PLAAF in which it said it seeks to deploy new fifth-generation aircraft concurrently across its five theatre commands: northern, eastern, southern, western, and central.

As of May 2024 Janes assesses that the PLA has deployed additional J-20 aircraft to three of these command regions – eastern, western, and southern – all of which have added at least one J-20 air brigade to their orders of battle compared with May 2023.

Upgrading brigades

At least six J-20s were observed in satellite imagery – dated late November 2023 – of the PLAAF Eastern Theater Command's (ETC's) 41st Air Brigade at Wuyishan Airport.

The new J-20s could replace the older Shenyang J-11A and J-11BS aircraft operated by the brigade. The brigade could also potentially add some Shenyang J-16 multirole combat aircraft, Janes assesses.

The ETC operates two brigades of J-20s, including the 8th Air Brigade and the 9th ‘Wang Hai' Air Brigade, which is the PLAAF's oldest J-20 operator. According to Global Times , the 9th Air Brigade inducted its first J-20 in 2019.

The 9th Air Brigade subsequently appears to have also become the first PLAAF brigade to be fully equipped with J-20s, according to a state media report in January 2023. JSIA assesses that the brigade operates about 28 J-20s.

ETC's remit covers southeastern China (including the financial hub of Shanghai), the East China Sea, and Taiwan. The theatre command regularly conducts aerial operations around Taiwan and projects air power over the East China Sea towards the Western Pacific and Japan.

Global Times suggested ETC operated J-20s in drills around Taiwan in May 2024, during the PLA's ‘Joint Sword-2024A' military exercise. According to the newspaper, a series of ETC posters on ‘Cross-Straits Lethality' released to coincide with ‘Joint Sword-2024A' included imagery of the J-20.

This map shows all 12 known PLAAF air brigades equipped with the Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter aircraft. (Janes)

Beijing has also been strengthening its Southern Theater Command (STC), which exercises power over the South China Sea, with additional J-20s.

This theatre command operated just one air brigade with J-20s (the 5th Air Brigade) up until 2023. However, JSIA assesses that the PLAAF's 4th Air Brigade – located at Foshan, near China's southern coast – could be converting to the fifth-generation aircraft. J-20s appear to have replaced the 4th Air Brigade's erstwhile contingent of Su-27SK/UKB fighters.

In addition, a second air brigade in STC – possibly the 54th Air Brigade – could also be inducting J-20s. Janes has identified from satellite images J-20 serial numbers associated with this air brigade. This unit has possibly redeployed to Changsha Ningxiang, which is within STC, according JSIA.

In Western Theater Command (WTC), the PLAAF's 97th Air Brigade, which is based at Dazu in central China, appears to be inducting J-20s. This development was identified in March 2024 when a J-20 was seen with a corresponding serial number. However, WTC also operates a dedicated J-20 unit (the 111th Air Brigade) at Korla, in the Xinjiang autonomous region.

In 2023 JSIA assessed the 111th Air Brigade was equipped with at least 15 J-20s. These replaced older J-11s, which were last seen in satellite images in 2022. By 2024 the unit's potential strength was up to 28 J-20s, JSIA assesses.

The increasing number of available J-20s has also allowed China to deploy J-20s near India. Satellite imagery shows that a detachment of at least six J-20s arrived at Shigatse (Xigaze) Peace Airport in Tibet on 27 May 2024.

This detachment will supplement or possibly replace an existing detachment of fourth-generation Chengdu J-10 fighter aircraft, which was deployed at the airport.