The Chinese air force saved the big guns for last at its biennial Zhuhai air show, flying its new stealth fighters with full missile loads Sunday for the first time in a public display.
The twin-engine J-20, seen as China’s answer to US F-22s and F-35s, entered the People Liberation Army Air Force fleet in February.
A report last year from the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies suggested the J-20 could pose a strategic challenge to key components of the US air fleet, such as aerial refueling tankers, as well as early warning and command and control aircraft, if armed with long-range air-to-air missiles.
Sunday, the J-20s showed off that capability in what state-run Xinhua news service described as a surprise “stunning aerial display” on the final day of the six-day Airshow China, where the PLA displays and markets its military hardware.
In a Xinhua video, two J-20s screamed over the huge crowds at Airshow China with bomb bay doors open, showing four long-range missiles mounted inside. Two missiles were also mounted under the jets’ wings.
In a post on the PLA’s English-language website earlier this year, Chinese military expert Song Zongping said the J-20 will “engage with rivals in the future who dare to provoke China in the air.”
The post claimed that the arrival of the J-20 would change the balance of air power in the Asia-Pacific region. “In the past, only the US and its allies like Japan were capable of arming stealth fighter jets. But now, their monopoly in this region has been broken by China’s J-20.”
The J-20 missile display was easily the highlight of the Zhuhai show, which the PLA often uses to unveil new military systems.
Other flights last week of the J-20, which was introduced to the public at the last Zhuhai show in 2016, generated little excitement.
Analysts noted that the fourth-generation fighters appeared to be powered by Russian rather than Chinese-built engines.
“The no-show of Chinese built-engines on the J-20 indicates that China is still having trouble mastering leading-edge jet engine technology,” said Peter Layton, a former Australian military officer and now fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute.
Following the completion of the Zhuhai air show, China touted its jet engine technology in a post on the PLA’s English-language website published Monday, citing a performance earlier in the Zhuhai show of its J-10B jet, a non-stealth fighter, using “thrust vector” technology.
Thrust vector technology uses a nozzle on a jet’s exhaust to change its direction. It allows a the plane to change direction quicker than using control surfaces on its wings and tail.
“China has mastered a field of cutting-edge aviation technology that is currently dominated by the United States and Russia, which is expected to give the nation’s fighter jets better combat capability,” said the post.
However, Layton said China remains 10 to 20 years behind the leaders in thrust vectoring.
“It would have been more impressive to have (thrust vectoring) shown already flying in the J-20 stealth fighter. But it wasn’t, lowering its impact on foreign observers,” he said.