Taiwan displayed today its most advanced fighter jet, the missile-equipped F-16V, in a rare nighttime demonstration in the wake of China's unprecedented military drills around the island. This comes on a day when a PLA publication boasted of the Chinese deployment of a Chengdu J-20 fighter, the pilot of which, Yang Chunlei, flew the warplane to identify foreign military aircraft that entered China’s East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in July.
While it is the first time Chinese official sources have confirmed the deployment of a J-20, claiming the plane is capable of detecting and recognising stealth fighter aircraft of other countries, according to China Daily, such Chinese military hardware has never participated in big wars whereas F-16V is an upgraded war veteran.
Beijing staged days of air and sea drills in the Taiwan Strait this month after visits by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a congressional delegation to the self-ruled island territory. Taipei has carried out its own drills to simulate defence against invasion by China and today air force personnel loaded an F-16V fighter with a US-made anti-ship missile in a "combat readiness" exercise at an airbase in eastern Hualien county.
Six F-16Vs later took off for night reconnaissance and training missions, including two armed with missiles, according to Taiwan's air force. "In the face of the threat from Chinese communist forces' recent military exercises, we have stayed vigilant while establishing the concept of 'battlefields everywhere and training anytime'… to ensure national security," it said in a statement.
Eurasian Times had reported in April that the J-20s were deployed to the East and the South China Sea for combat patrols. In addition, the fifth-generation stealth fighters also participated in the war games conducted in the aftermath of Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan earlier this month.
Taiwan lives under constant threat of an invasion by China, which claims the democratically-ruled island as part of its territory to be seized one day, by force if necessary. Taipei has accused Beijing of using the trip by Pelosi — the highest-ranking elected US official to visit in decades — as an excuse to kickstart drills that would allow it to rehearse for an invasion.
Taiwan has been upgrading its ageing fleet of fighters in recent years, as fear of military action by Beijing rises and as its air force is kept under constant pressure by more frequent Chinese incursions into its air defence zone.
In November, the island deployed its first squadron of US-made F-16Vs — an upgraded and much more sophisticated version of its other F-16 fighters, which date back to the 1990s. The F-16V deal was approved by the administration of then US President Donald Trump as he feuded with China on a host of issues, but his successor Joe Biden has maintained similar support for Taipei.
The air forces other than that of Taiwan that use F-16V are the Royal Bahraini Air Force, the Hellenic Air Force, the Republic of Korea Air Force, the Slovak Air Force. the Bulgarian Air Force, the Royal Moroccan Air Force, the Royal Jordanian Air Force and the Turkish Air Force.
"When we first started our patrols, there were protests from some countries and provocations by foreign military aircraft," J-20 pilot Yang Chunlei told PLA Daily in the context of the J-20s patrolling East China ADIZ. "Since our air and sea forces turned the management of the East China Sea ADIZ into a routine, aircraft from most countries now basically fly in accordance with our protocols."
The most interesting part about the pilot’s comments was the J-20's touted capability to search and identify other countries’ stealth fighters – a covert reference to the American F-22s and F-35s that often lurk over the Indo-Pacific.
In March, US Pacific Air Forces Commander General Kenneth Wilsbach said that the US F-35 stealth fighter jet had a close encounter with China’s J-20 stealth fighter jets over the East China Sea. At the time, the commander had sounded optimistic about the J-20’s capability. However, the J-20 pilot’s comment goes a step ahead.
According to the article, the J-20 has a photoelectric targeting system, a photoelectric distributed aperture system, and an airborne active phased array radar with a more extensive detection range. Both systems recognize foreign military aircraft, strengthening their capabilities when used together.
On paper, the J-20 should be better able to handle the problematic manoeuvres of stealth fighters like the F-22 and F-35 jets stationed in Japan and the Republic of Korea because it has significantly improved recognition of foreign stealth fighter aircraft.
China vs West: Assessments of J-20
American intelligence analyst and university president who served as the 22nd United States secretary of defence from 2006 to 2011, Robert Gates downplayed the significance of the aircraft by questioning how stealthy the J-20 may be but stated the J-20 would "put some of our capabilities at risk, and we have to pay attention to them, we have to respond appropriately with our own programs." The US Director of National Intelligence James R Clapper testified that the US knew about the programme for a long time and that the test flight was not a surprise.
In 2011, Loren B Thompson (Lexington Institute), echoed by a 2015 RAND Corporation report, felt that J-20's combination of forward stealth and long-range put America's surface assets at risk and that a long-range maritime strike capability might cause the US more concern than a short-range air-superiority fighter like the F-22.
In its 2011 Annual Report to Congress, the Pentagon described the J-20 as "a platform capable of long-range, penetrating strikes into complex air defence environments."
A 2012 report by the US‐China Economic and Security Review Commission suggests that the US may have underestimated the speed of development of the J-20 and several other Chinese military development projects.
Observers were not able to reach a consensus on J-20's primary role.
After the deployment announcement, several analysts noted that the experience that the PLAAF would gain with the J-20 would give China a significant edge over India, Japan, and South Korea, which have struggled to design and produce their own fifth-generation fighters on schedule. However, despite the failure of their indigenous projects, Japan and South Korea operate the imported F-35A, negating this potential technological disparity.
US Marine Corps created a full-scale replica (FSR) of a Chengdu J-20 in December 2018. The replica was spotted parked outside the Air Dominance Center at Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport in Georgia. The US Marine Corps later confirmed that the aircraft was built for training.
Aviation researchers believe that the J-20 signifies that China had surpassed Russia in the application of contemporary aviation technologies such as composite materials, advanced avionics, and long-range weapons systems. According to Justin Bronk of the Royal United Services Institute, the J-20 is one of the examples of how China has transitioned from dependency on Russian technology to developing indigenous sensors and weapons that are superior to those of Russia; and how China is beginning to build a clear lead over Russia in most aspects of combat aircraft development in the 2020s. The J-20 also symbolises that the Western Bloc is losing the monopoly on stealth fighter technologies.
Western media sources contribute the idea that J-20 is optimised for anti-access/aerial denial (A2/AD) engagements while Chinese sources universally describe J-20 as an air-superiority fighter meant to engage other fighters. Rod Lee, research director at the China Aerospace Studies Institute of the Air University, believes J-20 is intended to be primarily used for destroying high-value airborne assets, which is an alternative way of establishing air superiority. Supplemental missions may include launching anti-radiation missiles and air-to-ground munitions. Rod Lee believes J-20 has the manoeuvrability to engage in air superiority combat with other aircraft, but PLAAF has de-emphasized the traditional attrition warfare while advocating the "systems destruction" approach because they believe it is more effective.
Matthew Jouppi of Aviation Week noted the ill-informed assumptions that existed in defence circles and argued that the US has not adequately addressed threats posed by the increasing Chinese airpower.
The visual physical configuration and stealth shaping have been claimed to be influenced by foreign aircraft, including the F-22, F-35, F-117, MiG 1.44, MiG-31, Rafale, and Eurofighter Typhoon, according to an opinion piece published in The Diplomat by Rick Joe. Joe adds that the J-20's external physical configuration is a logical development of Chengdu's previous canard-delta designs: the Chengdu J-9 – particularly the "twin tail, side intake, canard delta" J-9V-II – from the 1960s and 1970s, and the Chengdu J-10.
Furthermore, Joe said that stealth shaping was a much more universal and consistent trait that left limited room for variety and that future international designs would likely reflect this.
J-20 vs F-16V
The F-16V fighter remains Taiwan’s biggest hope of fending off an air attack from the mainland – especially against the PLA’s J-20 stealth fighter jet – despite Tuesday’s crash during a combat training mission.
The island is in the process of upgrading 141 outdated F-16A/B block 20s to the new generation US fighter – and has 66 brand new F-16V block 70s on order – in a bid to match up to the J-20, only the third fifth-generation stealth fighter in service in the world.
The J-20’s advanced radar and electronics, along with its integrated weapons management systems, are believed to be similar in concept to the US F-35. Its long-range missiles can travel 300 km (186 miles) and its radar system can detect targets up to 135km away.
The upgraded F-16V has a better chance than its predecessors of detecting the J-20. Unlike earlier versions, it is fitted with an APG-83 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar and other up-to-date avionics.
It is also capable of carrying advanced air-to-air AIM-9X missiles and the block 70s, which are expected to start arriving in 2023, will be driven by powerful F-110-GE132 engines, for better manoeuvrability in dogfights.
The F-16V is regarded as a fourth or even 4.5-generation fighter. It can share intelligence with consort planes through its detection system, while its superior night vision and automatic ground collision avoidance system make it capable of close and long-distance combat with the J-20.
When Taiwan takes delivery of the new planes – expected to start in 2023 and finish in 2026 – it will become the world’s biggest F-16 operator.
But military analysts said that if the F-16V were to take on the J-20, much would depend on the pilot’s ability to effectively operate the aircraft’s weapons and electronic warfare systems.