China, particularly the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), is extremely proud of its beefy J-20 stealth fighter.

Significantly, the aircraft recently celebrated its tenth birthday as a flying machine within the world’s third-largest air force, though it remains one of the world’s most enigmatic fighters.

Kept under tight secrecy, the Chengdu Aerospace Corporation (CAC) fighter achieved its maiden flight on 11 January 2011, while US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was in China on an official visit.

Taking him by surprise, he later admitted that US intelligence agencies underestimated China’s ability to develop a new-generation fighter.

The J-20 formally entered PLAAF service in 2017, the same year the US military began deploying F-35 fighters to Japan. The first combat unit to adopt it from late 2018 or early 2019 was the 9th Air Brigade at Wuhu in the Eastern Theater Command. This base is some 280km inland from Shanghai, and hosts one of the PLAAF’s premier fighter units.

The J-20’s first deployment to the Eastern Theater Command emphasizes the strategic priority that the PLA places on Taiwan. This command also counters Japan and the USA.

Prior to that, the J-20 only deployed in two units dedicated to operational evaluation and tactical training (the 176th Air Brigade at Dingxin Air Base and 172nd Air Brigade at Cangzhou Air Base, respectively).

At least 40 J-20s have so far, but certainly no more than 60-70. It alleged that CAC set up a fourth J-20 production line in 2019.

Each line able to produce one fighter per month. At this rate, the J-20 should approach total production numbers of the American F-22 by 2027.

This would amount to at least 200 fighters, making it the world’s second-most common stealth fighter behind the F-35.

The 20.8m-long J-20 aircraft is intended as an air superiority fighter able to compete with the American-built F-22 or F-35.

The J-20 has achieved a credible combat capability, maturing over its ten-year lifespan.

It is typical for China to continuously update an interim product.

With fairly rapid spiral development, and this is true of the J-20.

A new and smaller beyond-visual-range missile could increase the payload from four missiles to six in the ventral weapon bay.

A relatively recent scale model features a right-shoulder protrusion, which could indicate an internal gun will soon be fitted too. Also expected are a small-diameter strike weapon and a cruise missile.

Despite the greater capabilities of the J-20, the type makes up less than several percent of the total PLAAF combat fleet. Most Chinese fighters are still quite dated. The Pentagon’s 2020 report stated: “The PLAAF and PLA Navy (PLAN) Aviation continue to field greater numbers of fourth-generation aircraft (now more than 800 of 1,500 total operational fighters, not including trainers).

And probably will become a majority fourth-generation force within the next several years.”