China has begun sending its most advanced fighter jet, the J-20, to patrol the East and South China Seas, Chinese state media have reported.
Early versions of the J-20 stealth jet used Russian engines, but those have since been replaced by domestically produced twin engines. The jets were shown to the public for the first time with the new Chinese engines at Airshow China last year.
The deployment is intended to “better protect China’s airspace security and maritime interests,” the state-run tabloid Global Times reported Wednesday, citing military experts.
Ren Yukun, a spokesman for the state manufacturer of the J-20, added that according to Global Times, it was a “training routine” for the J-20 to conduct patrols now that it is equipped with Chinese engines.
The announcement comes just weeks after US Pacific Air Forces commander General Kenneth Wilsbach said US F-35s and Chinese J-20s came close to each other over the East China Sea.
The East China Sea and South China Sea are both long-disputed regions, with overlapping territorial claims of numerous countries.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea as its sovereign territory. It built and militarized its facilities there, turned islands into military bases and airstrips, and reportedly created a maritime militia that could number hundreds of boats.
Meanwhile, in the East China Sea, China claims sovereignty over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, otherwise known as the Diaoyu Islands. In recent years, the US has reiterated its promise to defend the Japanese islands in the event of foreign aggression.
Experts say the deployment of the J-20s shows two things: China’s increased confidence in its military capabilities and its warning to other countries involved in the territorial dispute.
With reportedly some 200 J-20s in service, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) “now employs a fleet of advanced stealth fighters that are as good as the Americans, who remain the benchmark,” it said. Peter Layton, a visiting colleague at the Griffith Asia Institute in Australia. He added that China’s message to the world is: “Any foreign military aircraft entering China’s claimed airspace in the East and South China Seas can now be intercepted by J-20s.”
While such a move would be politically fraught, the J-20’s wide range of action means it can patrol further out to sea or stay longer in areas like the East China Sea, Layton said.
Small formations, such as a handful of jets, could also conduct occasional deep patrols in the South China Sea, land for refueling at one of China’s airbases in the Chinese islands, and then return to the mainland. The PLAAF could even launch missions to fly over US battlegroups entering the South China Sea.
The move from Russian to Chinese engines also shows China’s growing independence in military production, Layton said. “It’s not just that China no longer needs Russian aid, it’s that aircraft built in China are now superior to Russia.”
The fact that the J-20s now have more reliable twin engines than the Russians makes these patrols “a much more plausible option,” which could be why they weren’t sent on patrol earlier, Layton said.
The J-20 has long been touted as China’s answer to the US F-22 — considered the world’s premier stealth fighter jet — and the F-35.
A 2017 report from the China Power Project of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said the new Chinese engines would give the J-20 low supercruise power, meaning it could fly at supersonic speeds for extended periods.
US officials have long said the J-20 can’t match US stealth fighters – but Wilsbach, the commander of the US Pacific Air Forces, said last month that the J-20s made a strong impression when they flew over US F-35s. the East China Sea.
“We are relatively impressed with the command and control that has been associated with the J-20s,” Wilsbach said at a conference at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
The US observed “relatively professional flying” by the Chinese airmen, he said, but noted that the US was unsure how China would deploy the J-20s, whether in multi-mission roles like the F-35 or in an air superiority role. like the F-22.
Layton said the US, Japan and other countries will “barely collect electronic intelligence data” on all J-20s on coastal patrols, hoping to gather more information about their stealth characteristics, as well as radio and data link transmissions.