China’s Stealth Jet Fleet

When the squadron has enough planes and trained pilots and maintainers, the air force can declare the first J-20 unit “combat-ready”—a milestone most analysts expect sometime in 2017. At that time, China will join an exclusive club—as only the second country to field a fleet of frontline radar-evading jets. The American F-117, the world’s first stealth warplane, entered service with the U.S. Air Force in 1983. The U.S. B-2 stealth bomber followed in 1997, the supersonic F-22 stealth fighter in 2005, and the F-22’s smaller cousin the F-35 in July 2015.

By the 2030s, the Pentagon could possess as many as 1,700 F-35s plus 180 or so F-22s and 20 B-2s.

No other country has war-ready stealth warplanes, although Russia is working on one—and eight U.S. allies have ordered the F-35, with several more planning on also buying the plane in the near future. But while it’s pretty certain China will soon deploy J-20s, it’s not clear why—or how effectively—it will do so.

Beijing has never explained exactly what the J-20 is for. Is it a ground-attack plane like the F-117? A high- and fast-flying dogfighter like the F-22 or a multi-role attack plane anddogfighter like the F-35? And how does the J-20 fit into the Chinese government’s strategy for steadily exanding its sphere of influence into the East and South China Seas and the Indian Ocean?

China Assembles Its Stealth Jet Fleet