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Two Chinese J-20 stealth fighter jets perform at an air show in Guangdong province last year. Photo: AP

US Air Force gears up for aggressor drills to simulate combat with China’s J-20 fifth-generation fighters

  • American F-35As will be transferred to Nevada base to mimic role and tactics of Powerful Dragon fighters in ‘aggressor’ exercises
  • US to train pilots for confrontation with world’s most advanced warplanes as concern mounts in Washington about China’s growing military might

The United States Air Force will use its F-35A fifth-generation fighters to mimic the role of its Chinese counterpart, the J-20 “Powerful Dragon”, in “aggressor” training exercises amid rising concern in Washington about Beijing’s growing strength in strategically sensitive areas such as the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait.

Aggressor exercises are drills that seek to mimic the tactics and techniques of other forces to give its pilots the most realistic possible experience of high-level conflict.

A total of 11 F-35A Lightning II stealth fighters will be transferred to the recently reactivated 65th Aggressor Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, where they will play the role of the J-20, according to a report by, a US forces news site.

“The F-22 [Raptor] guys are hungry to get at a fifth-generation adversary like a J-20,” a US fighter pilot told the website.

“The problem is, no squadron can replicate it unless you have dedicated fighter [squadrons like the F-35 or F-22] acting as adversary air.”

The 65th Aggressor Squadron was reactivated last month after being stood down in 2014 due to budget constraints.

In an official statement, Chris Sukach, a spokesman for Nellis Air Force Base, said the decision was part of a larger initiative to “improve training for fifth-generation fighter aircraft”, adding that a total of 11 F-35As would be transferred to the base to play the role of enemy warplanes.

“This added capability will enhance the already robust adversary replication provided to US and partner nation air forces through multiple training and exercise scenarios,” Sukach said.

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Experts noted that the decision to use the F-35A to simulate the J-20 underscored growing American concerns about China’s military modernisation programme and its expanded operational strength.

Zhang Baohui, director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said: “The F-35 and J-20 are comparable fighter jets and it is no surprise that the US would use the F-35 to simulate the J-20 for training purposes.”

Zhang noted that fifth-generation fighter jets were considered a “game changer” in modern warfare, adding:“The US F-22 and F-35, China’s J-20, and Russia’s Su-57 are the only fifth-generation fighters in existence. This implies that the US has to treat the J-20 seriously.”

“Great powers all regularly train their militaries for scenarios that involve each others’ militaries … They [the US] just want to be prepared for the worst-case scenarios,” he added.

The US Air Force will use F-35As to simulate the role of Chinese fifth-generation fighters in training exercises. Photo: Reuters

In a report released earlier this year, the US Congress warned that the J-20 could pose a serious threat to the US military.

The J-20 features “high manoeuvrability, stealth characteristics and an internal weapons bay, as well as advanced avionics and sensors providing enhanced situational awareness, advanced radar tracking and targeting capabilities, and integrated EW [electronic warfare] systems”, the Congressional report said.

In December, a mock-up of a J-20 was spotted at a military facility on the perimeter of Savannah-Hilton Head Airport in Georgia, which is home to the US Air Dominance Centre.

Chinese military officers’ tough talk on the US is a product of fear and frustration, not a real threat

The Marine Corps Training and Education Command later told the Marine Corps Times that the replica jet had been involved in various experiments and military training while at the Savannah base.

Adam Ni, a China researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, said that as the US embarked on a new Indo-Pacific strategy, it would have to consider how China’s growing influence in the region was eroding its military advantage.

“The PLA has increasingly been called upon to defend and advance Chinese interests abroad, such as the protection of key sea routes, and Chinese overseas communities and investment,” Ni said.

“A more advanced bomber and fighter fleet will enable Beijing to better deter the US in regional interventions by raising the costs and risks for the American forces. Such scenarios include the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea.”

Last weekend Chinese Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe delivered an uncompromising message at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, saying the PLA would stand firm and defend China’s national interests in areas such as Taiwan and the South China Sea.

“In Beijing’s view, the intensifying strategic competition between China and the US calls for more resources to be directed at enhancing military capabilities and readiness so the PLA can deter conflict. Flashpoints such as Taiwan, and South and East China Seas are important to Chinese military planning,” Ni said.