Since entry into service in March 2017, when it became the first non-U.S. fifth generation fighter operational anywhere in the world, China’s J-20 heavyweight stealth jet has been surrounded by considerable speculation in Japan and the Western world in particular. Estimates for the number of J-20 is in service have varied widely, and while only on the 30 of the fighters have been seen based on their serial numbers the possibility that over 100 are in service, many of them in training units to familiarise the Air Force with complex new fifth-generation technologies, has been raised for some time. Most recently a report from Air Force Magazine speculated not only that China was increasing the scale of production for the J-20, but also that over 150 of the fighters could now be in service. The magazine is published by the Virginia-based professional military and aerospace education association, Air Force Association, which is closely linked to the U.S. Air Force and has a scholarship program for members of the service as well as the Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve.
New estimates of the number of J-20s operational follows a flight of 15 of the aircraft in formation at the Zhuhai Airshow (Airshow China 2021) which was held from September to October, with an additional group of the aircraft parked on the runway at the time. The ability to deploy the high value assets to an airshow in such numbers, which even with around 100 in service would represent close to one fifth of the fleet, was one indicator that there are significant numbers in service. The state run Global Times paper quoted J-20 deputy designer, Wang Hitao, saying industry could “satisfy any level of demand from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force for the J-20,” and that regarding development “particularly for equipment like the J-20, we need to do it faster in all aspects, including designing, production, testing, and crafting.” The Zhuhai Airshow saw the J-20A variant unveiled with indigenous new WS-10C engines and a number of avionics upgrades, and follows the entry of the more capable J-20B variant into production 15 months prior in July 2020.
A figure of 150 J-20 stealth fighters in service, although higher than most estimates, is highly possible for a number of reasons. Comparing it to the only other heavyweight fifth generation fighter to enter large scale production, the American F-22 Raptor, the J-20 production run after entry into service is coming close to five years. The F-22 saw a production run of 187 airframes excluding prototypes despite production being terminated just six years after the aircraft entered service. Assuming a similar production rate, a figure of around 150 J-20s having left production lines is highly possible. A notable difference between the J-20 and F-22 programs is that China has long placed a much stronger emphasis on heavyweight twin engine fighters, and fields considerably more of these than the U.S. Air Force does while the American fleet outnumbers that of China in light weight low-cost single engine jets.
The possibility that China is producing or intends to produce the J-20 at a much higher rate than the U.S. produced the F-22 is highly possible, with the U.S. relying on the cheaper single engine F-35 to form the bulk of its fifth-generation fleet while China will likely rely more on heavyweight twin engine jets. The possibility that China is holding out on expanding J-20 production until more capable variance of the flights are available, possibly the new J-20B or a future variant using the revolutionary WS-15 engine, is also significant. China notably surpassed the United States in 2020 in the budget allocated to military acquisitions, which combined with its defence sector’s significant advantages in efficiency, which make its fighters considerably more cost-effective, means a J-20 production run several times as large as that of the F-22 and likely comfortably exceeding 500 fighters is very possible. Unlike the F-22, which had all variants other than the original F-22A cancelled, the J-20 is expected to enter service in a wide range of variants including possibly strike, electronic warfare and even command and control variants as it enjoys a much longer production run and service life and receives growing investments over time.