Take a look at the 'Mighty Dragon,' China's $120 million answer to the Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jet

·4 min read
A 3D render of Chinese stealth jet J-20.
A 3D rendering of the Chengdu J-20 Chinese stealth jet.bbevren/iStock/Getty Images Plus
  • The Chengdu J-20 is China's most advanced stealth fighter jet.

  • The jet's research and development cost more than 30 billion yuan, or about $4.4 billion.

  • The J-20 reportedly had several encounters with the US-made Lockheed Martin F-35 jets in 2020.

The Chengdu J-20 is China's most advanced stealth fighter jet.

J-20 stealth fighter jet flies in the sky before the upcoming Airshow China 2021 on September 25, 2021 in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province of China.
The J-20 stealth fighter jet on September 25 ahead of the 2021 air show in Zhuhai, China.Chen Chang/VCG/Getty Images

The jet, nicknamed the "Mighty Dragon," was introduced to China's People's Liberation Army Air Force in March 2017. Manufactured by the Sichuan-based Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group, the jet is one of China's most advanced military weapons.

It made its public debut in November 2016 at the Zhuhai air show in Guangdong, China.

The J-20 is only the third fifth-generation fighter jet in history, after the US-made Lockheed Martin F-22 and F-35 jets. The Chinese air force had a fleet of more than 50 J-20 jets in 2021.

The Chinese jet has drawn comparisons to the F-35 since the jets were locked in military encounters in 2020.

Chengdu J-20 (left) and Lockheed Martin F-35.
The Chengdu J-20 and the Lockheed Martin F-35.Ju Zhenhua/Xinhua/Getty Images; rancho_runner/iStock /Getty Images Plus

The F-35 jet was introduced to the US military in July 2015. There are three variants of the jet: the conventional takeoff and landing F-35A, the short takeoff and vertical landing F-35B, and the carrier F-35C. The variants are differentiated by how the jet takes off and lands.

Lockheed Martin touts the F-35 as the "most advanced fighter jet in the world," with very low observable stealth, advanced sensors, information fusion, and network connectivity.

But there's stiff competition from the J-20.

The F-35's encounters with the J-20 in the East China Sea impressed a top US Air Force general, the South China Morning Post reported.

In an interview with the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in March, Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, the head of US Pacific Air Forces, said China's ability to defend their nation is "robust."

"It's a bit early to tell exactly what they intend to do with the J-20, really all we've seen it do is air superiority," Wilsbach said in the interview. He added that the Chinese pilots were flying the jet "pretty well."


The J-20 is a long, wide aircraft: It has a length of 23 meters and a height of 5 meters.

J-20 stealth fighters in training.
J-20 stealth fighters in training.Xinhua/Li Shaopeng/Getty Images

The jet has a maximum speed of 2,468 kph and a travel range of 5,926 kilometers, according to the aviation website Aero Corner. By comparison, the F-35A has a maximum speed of 1,960 kph and a range of 2,200 kilometers, according to the Royal Australian Air Force.

There are several variants of the J-20.

A J-20 stealth fighter jet performs aerobatics during the 13th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition, or Airshow China 2021, in Zhuhai, south China's Guangdong Province, Sept. 28, 2021.
A J-20 stealth fighter jet on September 28.Liu Dawei/Xinhua/Getty Images

Some notable variants are the J-20A, the first version of the jet, and the J-20S, the first twin-seat stealth fighter jet.

China has the capacity develop the jet into several other variants, including a bomber, an electric-warfare aircraft, and a carrier-based variant, according to the military website Global Security.

The J-20 was initially fitted with Russian AL-31F engines.

J-20 stealth fighter jet flies in the sky before the upcoming Airshow China 2021 on September 25, 2021 in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province of China.
A J-20 stealth fighter jet on September 25.Chen Chang/VCG/Getty Images

The jets are upgrading their Russian-made engines to the WS-15 afterburning turbofan engine, the South China Morning Post reported in March. As part of China's localization program, all J-20s will be fitted with Chinese-made engines like the WS-15, a source told the outlet.

In a 2020 report, the Hong Kong newspaper said the engine upgrade was to "bring its performance closer" to the F-22. The WS-15 engines would increase maneuverability and combat capability.

The jet costs between $100 million and $120 million a unit, according to The EurAsian Times.

J-20 fighter jets fly in formation during a flight performance to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in Beijing, China, July 1, 2021.
J-20 fighter jets fly in formation on July 1.Costfoto/Future Publishing/Getty Images

In the early 2000s, the preliminary cost of the jet was quoted to be 450 million to 500 million Chinese renminbi, or about $60 million to $70 million, The Diplomat reported. According to estimates from multiple reports, the cost of the jet has increased significantly since then.

The jet's research-and-development cost was estimated to be over 30 billion renminbi, according to the South China Morning Post.

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