China air force plays up J-20 stealth strength as Taiwan tensions brew

The Chinese military has highlighted advances in stealth jet technology as tensions rise with Taiwan, reporting record results in a simulated combat exercise.

The PLA Daily, the official newspaper of the People’s Liberation Army, reported on Monday that a junior pilot in a J-20 stealth fighter “shot down” 17 enemy planes without taking any “hits” in the simulation exercise.

According to the report, the pilot, Chen Xinhao, had just 100 hours in the J-20 and is from the PLA Air Force’s elite Wang Hai Unit under the Eastern Theatre Command, which would spearhead any military campaign in a conflict with Taiwan.

Chen and his wingmen challenged “multiple waves of enemy planes from different directions” and knocked down a total of 17 with “0 damage” on his side, the report said.

The report did specify the opponents in the exercise but three J-16 multirole fighters were also pictured in the report.

Beijing views Taiwan as a breakaway province to be reunified with the mainland by force if necessary, and tensions have risen between the two in recent years, with the PLA mounting regular air patrols around the self-ruled island.

The single-seat twin-engine fighter is the air force’s first, and so far only, heavy stealth air superiority fighter in service. Its speed and ability to evade enemy radar and advanced avionics has made it the “backbone” of China’s air strength.

It has big advantages over older generations of aircraft but has been dogged by engine development problems.

The WS-15 engine designed for the fighter has long been behind schedule, forcing the air force to use inferior engines that limit the aircraft’s performance.

The J-20s are also in short supply. Although its maker, Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group, is believed to have a production line to build about one plane a month, only around 50 are thought to have been delivered.

Meanwhile, the Taiwanese air force is becoming the world’s biggest operator of fourth-generation aircraft, last month placing a US$8 billion order for 66 upgraded F-16V fighters.

The first two planes in the order are expected to be delivered in 2023 and will add to the 150 F-16A/B fighters the island bought in the 1990s.

China’s J-20s have also been spotted near the disputed border with India, where New Delhi deployed its new fourth-generation French Dassault Rafales.

India and China have engaged in the worst stand-off for decades on their Himalayan border and have sent reinforcements to the front line.

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