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J-20 vs F-35 – Who Wins?

China Claims J-20 ‘Overwhelmingly Superior’

Two recent events in Asia have brought the prospect of 5th-generation combat aircraft facing off against each other into sharper focus in the minds of defence planners: China’s claim to have fielded its J-20 stealth fighter with the 9th Air Brigade in Wuhu, and the 14 June announcement that two F-35As will be assigned to South Korean combat units from April or May – the first of 40 such aircraft. In parallel, Japan already has 10 F-35s, has 32 more on order and is planning procurement of a further 100, while Australia will eventually receive 100.

In a carefully-orchestrated series of press articles and interviews, Beijing is pointing to the creation of “an F-35 friend circle” enveloping China and rattling a technological sabre in response, with regard to its likely F-35 opponent, the Chengdu J-20.

Fielded since early 2018, the J-20 has a tactical range and a weapons payload capability considered by some to be better than those of the F-35. Thus China continues to claim an ability to achieve aerial superiority quickly in any future conflict scenario. However, interestingly – and perhaps somewhat worryingly for the F-35 Joint Program Office – the world’s most populous nation also seems to be hinting at having learned lessons from the initial fielding of its low observable combat aircraft and may even be sending coded messages to the West regarding its preparedness to invest in an upgraded version with better capabilities.

In interviews with external media, Beijing-based military analysts this week have referred to the probable “overwhelming superiority” of an upgraded J-20 compared with the current F-35 at some indeterminate future date. To a degree this is probably just the latest version of the ‘oneupmanship’ that has always characterised arms races. However – just as it was a mistake at the height of the Cold War to exaggerate and overemphasise Soviet military capability – it would be a huge, potentially catastrophic error to underestimate Chinese technological capability and industrial might. Even if ‘overwhelming’ might be a forgivable diplomatic fiction (which is by no means certain), numbers tend to bring a superiority all of their own.

To be continued…


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