China’s ongoing expansion of its J-20 stealth fighter jet fleet demonstrates its commitment to modernizing its air force. While the J-20 may not be on par with US stealth jets, experts believe it meets China’s immediate strategic requirements.
The J-20, China’s first stealth jet, has been in service for over six years and continues to receive enhancements. The Chinese military views it as a valuable asset to deter foreign military intervention in the Western Pacific, particularly around Taiwan.
With more than 200 J-20s built so far, China has quickly outpaced the US’s production of F-22s. The Chinese Air Force is investing in upgrades, including increased air-to-air missile capacity, thrust-vectoring engine nozzles for improved maneuverability, and domestically developed WS-15 engines for super-cruising capabilities.
The WS-15 engine marks a significant advancement for China, as it enhances the jet’s performance and expands its potential uses. China’s progress in developing advanced jet engines has been crucial to these improvements, as it was previously a bottleneck for its air force.
Despite these upgrades, top US Air Force officials remain confident in the capabilities of their own fifth-generation jets. General Kenneth Wilsbach, the head of US Pacific Air Forces, acknowledges China’s progress but believes that Chinese pilots and their jets lack the training and interoperability that make US fifth-generation aircraft formidable.
China is pursuing a “good enough” approach to meet its near-term goals of preventing foreign interference in regional conflicts, focusing on the capability to deter outside intervention in the Western Pacific.
These adaptations involve long-range missiles designed to disrupt aerial-refueling operations and substantial investment in anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles. The goal is to push US aircraft carriers back and limit the reach of Navy F-35s, enabling the PLA to operate in China’s vicinity effectively.
In response, the US Air Force is developing new concepts for dispersed basing, enhancing cargo planes, investing in efficient tankers and missile-resistant drones, and building longer-range missiles. While China continues to advance, the US maintains a clear advantage in pilot training and expertise.
China’s emphasis on rigorous and realistic training, coupled with its willingness to learn from former Western pilots, shows its commitment to enhancing its capabilities. Nonetheless, it remains behind the US and other Western air forces in terms of pilot prowess and overall readiness.
China’s focus is on adapting its forces to suit the specific challenges it faces, rather than attempting to match US capabilities in every area.
As China pursues its ambition of a “world-class” military by 2049, its progress in developing advanced jets like the J-20 marks a significant step forward in its overall military modernization strategy.
However, its immediate focus is on ensuring that its equipment and tactics are “good enough” to deter foreign military intervention in regional conflicts.
In the near term, these adaptations seem well-suited to China’s strategic requirements, especially given its proximity to potential conflict areas, such as Taiwan.
While the Chinese military’s advancements are noteworthy, the US maintains a lead in areas like pilot training and interoperability, elements that enhance the overall effectiveness of its military capabilities.
China is focusing on improving its training and combat readiness while being pragmatic about its equipment and strategies, aligning them with its current defense needs.
This approach reflects China’s strategy to play a “home game” when it comes to potential conflicts, having a strong position within its own borders, and developing capabilities that match its regional objectives, rather than competing directly with US military forces worldwide.