Key point: The J-20 poses a threat to the F-35, but is badly outclassed by the F-22.
In January 2011, the maiden flight of a large, dagger-like grey jet announced that China had developed its first stealth aircraft—the Chengdu J-20 “Mighty Dragon.” Six years later, after several substantial revisions, J-20s entered operational service with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force.
As radar-guided missiles from fighters and ground-based launchers threaten aircraft from dozens, or even hundreds of miles away, stealth capabilities are increasingly perceived as necessary for keeping fighter pilots alive on the modern battlefield.
But just how good is the J-20? And what is its intended role? After all, America’s first stealth fighter, the F-117 Nighthawk, was not even really a fighter and lacked any air-to-air capability whatsoever.
The PLA has, true to custom, kept its cards close to the chest, and has not shared performance specifications to the public. Thus, there are broad estimates of the J-20’s top speed (around Mach 2), and considerable-seeming range (1,200 to 2,000 miles), but those remain just that—estimates. For years, analysts even over-estimated the aircraft’s length by two meters. It’s broad but relatively shallow weapons bay can accommodate four to six long-range missiles or bombs, though not munitions with especially heavy warheads.
International observers generally concluded the large twin-engine jet possessed high speed and long operational range, but that the Mighty Dragon lacked the maneuverability necessary to prevail in close engagements with enemy fighters. Relatively modest aerobatic displays in the Zhuhai 2016 and 2018 airshows (you can see some of the latter here) reinforced the narrative in certain quarters that the J-20 isn’t optimized for gut-wrenching air combat maneuvers.