Chinese J-20 stealth fighter jets carry out first sea training mission

Drill was conducted in ‘actual war conditions’, China’s air force says

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 May, 2018, 8:25pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 May, 2018, 11:31pm

China’s home-grown Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter has carried out sea training for the first time as the air force seeks to boost its combat readiness amid rising tensions with Taiwan and a regional arms race.

It comes three months after the fighter jet was deployed to combat units as part of Beijing’s huge military modernisation programme.

The PLA air force announced on Wednesday that the training had taken place, without specifying where or when. The drill was conducted over the sea in “actual war conditions” to “further upgrade the air force’s combat capabilities”, Senior Colonel Shen Jinke said on the air force’s official microblog.

“It will enable the [PLA air force] to better defend national sovereignty, security and territorial integrity,” he said, without elaborating.

Beijing-based military analyst Zhou Chenming said the sea training indicated that the fighter jet would be sent to Taiwan and the contested South China Sea in the future.

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The People’s Liberation Army has stepped up military operations targeting Taiwan recently, including conducting strategic bomber flights close to the island and a live-fire drill in the Taiwan Strait last month. They followed pro-Taiwan gestures from Washington amid a spiralling trade dispute between China and the US, and as ties between Taipei and Beijing have deteriorated since President Tsai Ing-wen, of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, came to power in 2016. 

Beijing sees self-ruled Taiwan as a wayward province to be brought under mainland Chinese rule, by force if necessary.

“The J-20 drill is another warning message because it went unseen by the Taiwanese air force and these stealth fighters are capable of a precision strike on the leadership,” Zhou said. “The PLA air force jets will enter the Taiwan [air defence identification zone] sooner or later.”

The fifth-generation fighter jet’s stealth, supersonic and manoeuvring capabilities give it a clear advantage over Taiwan’s third-generation jets such as the F-16 and the Mirage 2000, according to Li Jie, a military analyst in Beijing. But he said the J-20’s real opponents in the region would be the US F-22 and F-35A in Japan and South Korea.

“The J-20’s main task will be to gain superiority in the air. In practice, the air force will have to take their stronger adversaries into consideration,” Li said. “And they will need to get used to the actual environment, with the heat, humidity and salt over the sea.”

Japan received the first of its order of 42 F-35As in January and it plans to buy another 20 of the jets in the next six years. It also wants Lockheed Martin to develop a hybrid fighter jet based on both the F-22 and F-35A.

South Korea’s first F-35A made its public debut at a ceremony at Lockheed Martin’s assembly line in Texas in March. It will take delivery of 40 of the stealth fighter jets next year, and could order 20 more.

The United States added the fighter jet to its bases in Japan last year, and plans to deploy the shipborne version to its aircraft carriers in the region.

A report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute earlier this month said China’s expanding defence spending and military modernisation could be driving a regional arms race. 

China’s defence budget increased by 8.1 per cent this year to 1.1 trillion yuan (US$173 billion). But manufacturing problems with the J-20, especially with its engines, mean the air force does not have the number of the stealth fighters it needs at present. 

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A photo accompanying the air force announcement showed two of the older J-10 fighter jets in flight, which Li said would also have been involved in the drill.

“Given that there is still a limited number of J-20s available, there would be a number of aircraft used together for an effective combat force to complete various missions,” Li said.