China Likely Stepping Up Stealth Fighter Production

Chinese manufacture of the J-20 Mighty Dragon, touted by China as a stealth fighter, will likely increase, based on comments offered at the recent Zhuhai air show (Airshow China 2021) by program officials, who nevertheless did not disclose any production ramp rates.

Some 15 J-20s flew in formation at Zhuhai, which took place in late September and early October, and observers reported an additional group of the aircraft parked on the runway.

Global Times, a state-run news organization, quoted J-20 deputy designer Wang Hitao as saying Chinese industry can “satisfy any level of demand from the People’s Liberation Army Air Force for the J-20.”

Wang said advanced aircraft development usually takes a long time, but “particularly for equipment like the J-20, we need to do it faster in all aspects, including designing, production, testing, and crafting.” He reported the fighter has turned in “outstanding” performance in stealth, sensors, and firepower, Global Times said.

Chinese officials said the J-20 is flying with indigenous WS-10C engines, and aircraft made a number of flying demonstrations at the air show. Engines have long been a sore spot in Chinese aviation, and early versions of the Mighty Dragon depended on Russian-designed powerplants.

In a separate article, Global Times quoted Sun Cong, chief designer of the FC-31, deployed on carriers—an F-35 lookalike—as saying “people will … see good news on the next-generation aircraft carrier-based fighter jet” in the coming year.

Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said in a confirmation hearing Oct. 5 that “Our commanders tell us that by 2025, the Chinese will have more fifth-generation stealth fighters on the front line than we do.” Asked for context, a spokesperson for Inhofe said the information was based on testimony provided by U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s commander, now-retired Adm. Philip Davidson, during a March posture testimony.

The South China Morning Post, another state-run media outlet, has reported that China fields 150 J-20s in four air regiments, most operating in the interior of the country, which are reportedly dedicated to training and tactics development.

To match just the USAF—not counting Navy and Marine Corps inventories—China would have to build 500 fifth-generation J-20s and FC-31s between now and 2025, or 125 aircraft per year.

Just before Zhuhai, Lockheed Martin and the F-35 Joint Program Office announced that peak production of the Lightning II will occur in 2023, at a rate of 156 aircraft per year, and stay at that level “for the foreseeable future.” That figure will, however, meet the demands of more than a dozen partners and foreign military sales customers.

For calendar 2021, Lockheed Martin plans to deliver 133-139 F-35s, ramping up to 151-153 of the aircraft in 2022. The company has fallen short of planned deliveries because of supply chain problems stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Air Force acquisition objectives for the F-35 have not changed since the program’s inception. The service plans to buy 1,763 F-35s, of which it has already taken delivery of about 300. At the current rate of production, the Air Force would take delivery of its last F-35 in the 2050s.

The Air Force has not disclosed plans to buy more than 43 or so F-35s annually until after the Block 4 version starts coming off the production line in 2023, meaning the service will likely have about 652 fifth-generation fighters in the 2025 time frame, counting F-35s and 180 F-22s, but not counting inventories with the Navy and Marine Corps. Those services plan to acquire 273 F-35Cs and 420 F-35B/Cs, respectively, in total.