Beijing could declare its first stealth fighter squadron, likely to be comprised of Chinese-made J-20s, operational as soon as this year. It has also been test-flying its long-range bomber, the H-20, which will be capable of delivering nuclear weapons all the way to the US outpost of Guam and even Hawaii.

This news came in statements made this week by four-star General Charles Brown, commander of the Honolulu, Hawaii-based US Pacific Air Forces.

Brown told Bloomberg in a recent interview that the People’s Liberation Army’s stealth J-20 fighter could “possibly” be operational this year, a development that he said would signal “greater threat, greater capability” for China in the Asia-Pacific region. He said that the US would answer this with increased deployments of F-35 jets and their continued use in overflights of strategic areas such as the South China Sea.

Charles Brown, Commander of the US Pacific Air Forces. Photo: Handout

“My sense of the way the Chinese operate is somewhat incremental. They’ll continue to push the envelope to figure out does anybody say or do anything – if you don’t push back, it’ll keep coming,” Brown said, adding that the PLA fighters and bombers have recently demonstrated a greater propensity to fly beyond the nation’s littoral, or coastal, waters.

Brown, a veteran aviator who has logged 2,900 flight hours including more 130 in combat, was on the US east coast this week to speak with Asia experts about the challenges facing his command.

Fielding the J-20 would add more strength to what is already Asia’s largest air force. According to a recent US Defense Intelligence Agency report, the PLA currently has more than 2,500 aircraft including 1,700 combat fighters, strategic and tactical bombers and multi-mission tactical and attack warplanes.

The same report highlighted that the PLA’s J-20 was part of Beijing’s modernization imperative to close the gap on fifth-generation fighters like the F-35 across a spectrum including stealth performance, command and control and electronic warfare.

Brown also said China had been in a process to develop what he called “dual-use bombers” capable of carrying nuclear warheads and non-nuclear precision-guided weapons.

Brown’s remarks are in tune with a similar warning from the Acting US Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, who this week said in a statement to the US House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense that a Chinese long-range bomber “would make it only one of three nations” to “possess a nuclear triad of land, sea and air-based capabilities.”

Asymmetric advantage

China’s J-20 is formidable but may still lack data-crunching and data-sharing capabilities with other platforms. Photo: Twitter

Some experts insist that the US will continue to maintain an “asymmetric” advantage over potential adversaries in the Western Pacific even after the PLA brings the J-20 into operational service.

“When we apply fifth-generation technology, it’s no longer about a platform, it’s about a family of systems… It’s about a network and that’s what gives us an asymmetrical advantage, so that when I hear about an F-35 versus a J-20, it’s almost an irrelevant question,” Air Force chief of staff General David Goldfein said last year when asked to comment on the J-20.

Observers agree to a need for the adoption of a systems approach where networking and data crunching and sharing are key, instead of fixating on the performance of individual warplanes.

The National Interest magazine’s military editor Dave Majumdar also noted that while accurate information about the J-20 is scarce, there are indications that the Chinese aircraft is equipped with phased array radar, a robust electronic warfare system and an electro-optical/infrared sensor – similar in concept to what are aboard the F-35. However the J-20 may lack the “sensor fusion” and networking to be as effective as the F-22 or F-35.

He added that the F-22 and F-35 have cockpit displays that indicate to the pilot information to evade the enemy by making sure to avoid zones where they could be detected and engaged, something that is absent aboard the J-20.

Read more: 

Chinese papers hint at ‘upgraded J-20’ to match the F-35

Replica at US airbase an admission of J-20’s threat

PLA’s H-20 stealth bomber to take to the skies soon