Chengdu Aircraft Industrial Group Co has increased the scale of production of J-20 heavyweight fifth generation fighters for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force, announcing that this increase began in the fourth quarter of 2021. The firm announced that it broke records in the quantities of J-20s delivered due to high demand from the Air Force, with experts announcing on December 12 that the fighter entered a mass production phase. The decision was reportedly influenced by advances in the program including the development of the indigenous WS-10B engine, which was integrated onto the new J-20A and J-20B variants and replaced Russian engines which had powered earlier variants. Estimates for the number of J-20 fighters in service have varied widely, from around 50-60 to over 100. The J-20 is one of just two post-fourth generation fighters fielded at squadron level strength and in serial production, alongside the American F-35 which is a much lighter and shorter ranged single engine aircraft. China’s Global Times state media outlet cited military aviation expert Fu Qianshao projecting regarding the future of the program: “In a short time, we will be able to see J-20s operated by all eastern, southern, western, northern and central theatre commands, and become the main force to safeguard China’s sovereignty and territorial airspace security.”
The J-20 has evolved considerably since entering service in March 2017, and integrates a range of groundbreaking technologies including distributed aperture systems for greater situational awareness and AESA radar guided air to air missiles which provide advantages over any foreign heavyweight aircraft. Future variants are expected to integrate the much improved WS-15 engine which will not only reduce maintenance requirements, but also provide a greater endurance and much improved flight performance over units using the WS-10B. The J-20 program has been a symbol of China’s emergence as one of the world’s two leaders in fighter aviation alongside the United States, with no other country fielding a similarly capable domestically developed fighter. The J-20 succeeded the J-11 series which ended production in 2018, and which was a fourth generation design with a similar emphasis on range and air superiority capabilities. Over 200 J-11s of various variants are currently in service, although it is expected that the J-20 will see a longer production run and enter service in greater numbers. The fighter is currently being acquired by the PLA Air Force alongside ‘4++ generation’ J-16 heavyweight and J-10C lightweight jets, the former which is derived from the J-11. The possibility of reduced J-16 acquisitions, or even a termination of production, remains significant as the J-20 program gains momentum and the new stealth fighter is fielded on a larger scale.