Could China's J-20 Stealth Fighter Become Their Very Own 'F-14 Tomcat'?

David Axe

The Chinese military reportedly has decided to develop the air force’s J-20 stealth fighter into a sea-based variant to fly from the navy’s growing fleet of aircraft carriers.

The Central Military Commission, the People’s Liberation Army’s top decision-making body, favors the J-20 over the smaller FC-31 stealth fighter design, according to the Hong Kong South China Morning Post.

The Chengdu Aerospace Corporation, which builds the J-20 for the air force, “will announce some new products, which will include a new version of their J-20,” an unnamed source told the newspaper. “You can guess what type it will be.”

As part of future Chinese carrier air wings, the J-20 most likely would perform beyond-visual-range air-superiority missions, firing heavy air-to-air missiles at distant targets much like the U.S. Navy’s now-retired F-14 fighter would have done.

The J-20 also could function as long-range strike aircraft, again like the F-14 did during the twilight of its four-decade career ending in 2006.

“Operating from a carrier would certainly enable the J-20 to better perform what many analysts envision to be its two primary missions, long-range strike and long-range air superiority,” Robert Farley wrote at The Diplomat.

“Using the PL-15 [beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile], a carrier battle group with J-20s could push U.S. tanker and early warning aircraft deep into the Pacific, as well as threaten installations such as Guam,” Farley added. “Of course, any [Chinese navy] carrier leaving the friendly confines of the first island chain [beyond Japan and The Philippines] would become extraordinarily vulnerable to attacks from U.S. submarines and aircraft.”

Selecting the J-20 “will mark the end of a lengthy debate between its supporters and advocates of the FC-31 as to which would make a better carrier-based fighter,” South China Morning Post reported. “Those who favored the J-20 said it was more advanced and reliable than the FC-31, but its supporters said it was more light and nimble.”

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