The Chinese Communist Party’s centenary celebrations featured the largest display yet of its most advanced active stealth fighter, the J-20.
Fifteen of the jets, known as the “Mighty Dragon”, featured in Thursday’s performance above Tiananmen Square in Beijing, compared with the five that took part in the National Day parade in October 2019.
But that event featured nearly 170 aircraft – the country’s largest military fly-past – compared with the symbolically important total of 71 on display on Thursday.
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The aerial show also featured Z-8 and Z-19 transport and reconnaissance helicopters forming the number “100” in the sky, while the PLA’s August 1 aerobatic team formed the numbers “7” and “1” – a reference to the party’s official foundation date of July 1 – with its J-10 fighters.
“It’s the first time China gathered so many J-20s to make a public appearance,” Liang Guoliang, a Hong Kong-based military analyst, said.
“The 15 J-20s are similar in size to an aviation squadron, while there were at least three standby aircraft that didn’t appear.”
Military insiders estimate China has established at least four aviation brigades with a total of 150 J-20 fighter jets, consisting of two training bases in the north of the country and two aviation brigades in Anhui and Liaoning under the eastern and northern theatre commands.
Beijing decided to rush an earlier version of the J-20 into service ahead of schedule in 2017, because the United States started deploying its fifth-generation F-35s multi-role stealth fighter to South Korea and Japan that year.
But J-20s are currently believed to be in short supply, according to Zhou Chenming, a researcher from the Yuan Wang military science institute in Beijing.
“How many J-20s should be delivered and deployed will be decided by the developing situation surrounding China,” Zhou said.
State broadcaster CCTV has reported that mass production of an upgraded version of the J-20 started in June last year, but production has been hampered by long-standing problems in developing an engine that will maximise the fighter’s performance.
The planes are currently fitted with Russian-built engines or modified versions of Chinese engines designed for older fighters. Meanwhile, work on the high-thrust turbofan WS-15 designed for China’s next-generation fighters has fallen behind schedule.
One military insider said development of the WS-15 might be completed by the end of next year.
“If the WS-15 engine is ready, then the mass production of J-20 will reach a peak,” the insider, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic, said.
“China needs to deploy at least 300 J-20s to deal with the US’s increasing deployment of the F-35 to the region.”
Thursday’s display also featured five Z-8L helicopters, a model capable of lifting heavy objects such as all-terrain vehicles, that was unveiled last year.
The giant transporter has already been deployed at high altitudes near the contested border with India, according to the military source.
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