China has released video of a flight of seven Chengdu J-20 stealth fighters, the largest formation seen so far, suggesting that the fifth-generation warplane has gone into production as an arms race with the United States mounts in the region.
In the latest publicity video, released by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force on Tuesday and aired on state television, seven J-20s were shown during a training operation.
Introduced in 2017, the heavyweight twin-engine J-20 is China’s most advanced warplane. With its low radar profile airframe, a skin covered in energy-absorbent stealth material, and weapons that can engage targets out of visual range, the J-20 is a rival to the American F-35 Lightning.
The second-largest J-20 flight was disclosed in an air force video for PLA Day on August 1, when five of the jets were shown. At four minutes long, the latest video is part of a documentary series to mark the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic and its air force. Another flight of J-20s is expected to take part in a commemorative military parade on October 1.
“This video is to say that a number of mass-produced J-20s have entered service and are ready to do battle,” said Song Zhongping, a military commentator based in Hong Kong. The Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group is thought to have built about 20 J-20s by the end of last year, but problems with the jets’ engines delayed production.
Chinese engineers have been developing high-thrust turbofan WS-15 engines for the J-20, but work fell behind schedule.
As a result it was expected that the jets would not start rolling off the production line before next year.
Before the WS-15 engines – code name Emei – were ready, the J-20 used either the Chinese WS-10B or the Russian-made AL-31FM2/3 power plants, which reduced its manoeuvrability and stealth capabilities at supersonic speeds.
The latest video came days after the US announced that it would sell 66 F-16V fighter jets to Taiwan. Meanwhile, the US has been deploying F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II stealth fighters in the Asia-Pacific region and selling the F-35 to friendly countries. By 2025, the US and its allies will have 200 F-35s in service in the region, according to General Charles Brown, commander of the US Pacific Air Forces.
Earlier this year, Brown said that China, which has been rapidly expanding its military power, posed an “existential” threat to the US, and that the F-35s were a countermeasure.
Japan has bought a total of 105 F-35As, and 42 short take-off and vertical landing variant F-35Bs, which made Tokyo the largest overseas buyer of the Lockheed Martin jet.
By April, Japan’s air force had received 13 F-35As. One crashed that month, killing the pilot in what investigators said was a spatial disorientation incident.
The South Korean air force ordered 40 F-35As. Eight have been delivered, with a goal of 10 in service by the end of the year.