After ‘Ever Evolving’ J-20 Fighter, Debut Of China’s Next-Gen Aircraft Expected Shortly – PLAAF Test Pilot

After projecting its air power against adversaries like Taiwan and India, a fighter pilot of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) announced that the stealthy J-20 Mighty Dragon is receiving “constant” upgrades to achieve “expected combat objectives.”

The state-owned publication Global Times reported that an ace test pilot of China’s J-20 stealth fighter jet recently disclosed that the aircraft was undergoing continuous upgrades and that the debut of a next-generation warplane was anticipated shortly.

“The J-20 is constantly improving, keeping pace with the times, and continuously perfecting its mission system to achieve its expected combat objectives,” said Li Gang, the test pilot. He was reportedly speaking at a China Central Television (CCTV) broadcast.

The pilot also told the media, “As the technology of our country’s aviation industry continues to develop, the next generation will come out soon.” Li stopped short of naming the next-generation aircraft he was referring to. However, we know China is working on a sixth-generation fighter, like the US and Europe.

In February 2023, the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) shared its six-generation fighter aircraft concept on social media. The featured concept included diamond-shaped wings and a tailless design, which correlated to earlier images released through various AVIC presentations. However, as recently reported by EurAsian Times, China is still trying to improve base radar, avionics, and engine technologies.

Chinese commentators speaking to Global Times categorically noted that China would not sit on the J-20 since nations, such as the US, have already begun working on sixth-generation fighter jet development. The US is developing the next-generation Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) system.

So, while a next-generation Chinese aircraft seems at least a few years away, the J-20 has already become the mainstay of the Chinese PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and has been deployed to all five theatres.

The aircraft has been stationed close to the contentious border with India and pressed into military drills aimed at “punishing” the self-ruled island of Taiwan earlier this month, underscoring its utility in any potential combat of the future.

The J-20 has, then, emerged as the elephant in the room rather than a futuristic next-gen aircraft, as Li stated.

Chinese military aviation specialist Fu Qianshao told Global Times that China’s aviation technologies had advanced faster and far beyond other nations since the J-20’s initial test flight. While the Western naysayers have cast doubt on the J-20’s stealth capabilities, Fu emphasized that the J-20 was equipped with the newest technologies, including new engines and modifications to its aerodynamic design, avionics, radar systems, software, and materials.

The Chinese analyst compared the J-20 with the US Air Force F-22 Raptors and stated that the F-22 had no significant updates since its development and that its technology was aging. The J-20, he emphasized, was currently the most advanced fighter jet globally.

While the Chinese analysts maintain that the F-22 Raptors had not received any significant enhancements since their development, the aircraft has certainly seen upgrades. EurAsian Times understands that the Chinese assertion may be based on the older variants of the aircraft. That number, however, is smaller than those in service and combat-ready.

Technically speaking, upgrades have been relatively limited compared to the numerous upgrades received by older fourth-generation aircraft like the F-15 and F-16. However, older F-22 Raptors Block 20 have been converted to Block 30/35.

File: USAF F-22 Raptor at Kadena Air Base, Japan.

The Block 30/35 aircraft, for instance, boasts a host of enhancements. These include APG-77v1 radar that provides improved air-to-ground capabilities, such as synthetic aperture mapping and moving target indicators, and an expanded 400-kilometer narrow-beam search range.

Now that the U.S. Air Force (USAF) wants to phase out the older Block 22 aircraft that would be too expensive, the Air Force has hinted that it will modernize other F-22s until the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) system is ready.

The F-22 will remain a cornerstone of the USAF’s fighter fleet, as hinted by Andrew P. Hunter, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, who described the fifth-generation air superiority fighter as having “critical capability”. He added, “So what’s my highest priority in the near term for that great power competition? I’d probably put F-22 at the top.”

That does not diminish the significance of the constant upgrades that the J-20 is receiving. China has far too many fighter jets, and production is only expected to see an uptick while the number of F-22 Raptors is limited, as production lines shuttered several years ago.

Upgrades To J-20 To Make It More Lethal

The recent comments made by the Chinese pilots and experts are significant, given that the F-22 Raptors and J-20 Mighty Dragons are deployed a few kilometers apart in the Indo-Pacific theatre.

The US has deployed its Raptors at Japan’s Kaduna Air Base, replacing the F-15 Eagles previously stationed there. However, earlier this month, China’s Wuyishan Air Base in China’s Fujian province, barely 600 miles from Kadena, received six J-20s.

For several years, Chinese analysts have projected the J-20 as an answer to the US F-22 Raptors. Chinese engineers have been working relentlessly to add capabilities to their Mighty Dragons that would put them on equal footing with the Raptor, the first fifth-generation stealth aircraft known for its super-maneuverability.

According to the Pentagon’s most recent assessment of Chinese military power, the PLAAF is modernizing the Chengdu J-20 Mighty Dragon and experimenting with manned-unmanned teaming concepts, much like the US Air Force is doing.

According to the Pentagon’s annual China Military Power Report, published in mid-October last year, the PLAAF “is preparing upgrades for the J-20, which may include increasing the number of air-to-air missiles (AAM) the fighter can carry in its low-observable configuration, installing thrust-vectoring engine nozzles, and adding supercruise capability by installing higher-thrust Indigenous WS-15 engines.”

Additionally, a twin-seater J-20 aircraft is also underway. Experts believe the twin-seater J-20S is being considered for use in autonomous escort aircraft control. Previous reports indicated that the twin-seater model could be used as a tactical electronic jammer and an advanced early warning aircraft in the future battlefield.

J-20S Twin-Seat Aircraft (via Platform X)

Some reports have conjectured that the J-20 could have a distinct advantage over the F-22 due to its ability to launch several missiles like the F-22, especially since it can carry the PL-15, China’s version of the AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile.

Senior USAF officials have stated that the PL-15’s range surpasses that of the AMRAAM, providing the Chinese stealth fighter with a potential first-look/first-shot capability versus the American fighter, even though the range of the most recent version of AMRAAM is classified and the PL-15’s range is uncertain.

You can read a previous EurAsian Times’ in-depth analysis of how a J-20 and F-22 would fare against each other in combat here.

As officials have been warning about the threat of a confrontation between the US and China, the J-20 could be paired with the F-22 Raptor. The other US aircraft in the arsenal is the F-35 Lightning II.

The US has acknowledged the J-20’s upgrade as a threat that cannot be ignored. With about 200 J-20 fighters in China’s arsenal and others under production, the aircraft poses a distinct challenge for the US and its allies in a war.