In a candid assessment, a senior US Air Force official challenges the prevailing fears surrounding China’s J-20 fighter jet against American fighters, shedding new light on the Asia-Pacific power debate.
In a recent statement at the 2023 Air & Space Forces Association’s annual symposium, General Kenneth S. Wilsbach, the head of Pacific Air Forces, provided a unique and insightful perspective on the Chinese J-20 stealth fighter jet.
Amid concerns about the burgeoning capabilities of the Chinese Air Force and the rapid production of the J-20, General Wilsbach shared his assessment that the J-20 is not a “dominating aircraft” compared to its American counterparts, the F-22 Raptors and F-35 Lightnings.
Assessing the J-20 Threat
The J-20 stealth aircraft, China’s sole operational fifth-generation fighter, has long been perceived as a substantial threat to the United States and its allies. Reports from Chinese state media outlets have indicated increased production capacity, intensifying concerns.
However, General Wilsbach’s comments shed light on the capabilities of the J-20 in comparison to American aircraft.
Wilsbach asserted that a significant portion of the J-20’s technology is derived from stolen US designs, a point that has been raised in the past. He emphasized that the capabilities of US aircraft, combined with those of allies and partners, create a formidable challenge for any potential adversary, including China.
The multinational coalition of partners regularly engages in training exercises tailored to high-threat scenarios, making it exceedingly challenging for Chinese aircraft to counter.
General Wilsbach’s remarks echo sentiments he expressed last year, where he characterized the J-20 as “okay” and not something to lose sleep over.
He acknowledged China’s production of these fifth-generation fighter jets but remained confident in the superiority of US and allied capabilities.
The Training and Interoperability Advantage: US and Allies vs. China
Apart from the aircraft themselves, General Wilsbach believes that the interoperability and training methods of the United States and its allies set them apart from China. This advantage, he argues, places China in a highly disadvantageous position in any potential confrontation.
Over the years, experts have consistently pointed out that the J-20 fighter jet does not match the capabilities of the American fifth-generation fighters. Its stealthy design, influenced by the F-35 and F-22, lacks the comprehensive stealth capabilities of its American counterparts.
Billie Flynn, a senior F-35 test pilot, explained in an interview that making an aircraft look stealthy from certain angles is only part of what it takes to create a truly advanced fifth-generation fighter. To be truly advanced, it should be difficult to detect by radar or other sensing methods from any angle or perspective.
Moreover, several key specifications and characteristics highlight the differences between these stealth fighter aircraft, including stealth and design, performance, avionics and sensors, weapons systems, and operational status and quantity, all of which the American fighters have a dominating edge—with the F-22 focusing on air superiority and the F-35 on multi-role versatility.
While a substantial threat is floating around the J-20, it may take time for it to achieve the same level of, especially in operational experience, as the US fighter jets.
Taiwan’s Defense Dilemma: Balancing the J-20 Threat with Broader Challenges
A recurring concern regarding the J-20 fighter jet is its potential threat to Taiwanese military forces in the event of a Chinese invasion.
General Wilsbach urged Taiwan to invest in systems capable of countering the J-20 but noted that the broader threat landscape includes aircraft like H-6 bombers and formidable ballistic and cruise missiles.
While acknowledging the seriousness of the J-20, Wilsbach advised Taiwan to prioritize defense against a wide range of threats to become a formidable and resilient target.
In recent years, discussions about a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan have centered around 2027, a projection that Wilsbach himself had previously supported. However, he argued that the events in Ukraine should make Chinese leadership reconsider the feasibility of such an endeavor.
High-Stakes Skies: Escalating Tensions and Unsafe Intercepts
General Wilsbach also addressed escalating tensions between US and Chinese pilots in the region. He expressed concern over Chinese pilots’ risky behavior, including unsafe intercepts of American aircraft, which could potentially lead to a catastrophic incident.
US military aircraft frequently operate close to China, with reports of intercepts occurring up to ten times daily.
Wilsbach clarified that most of these intercepts are considered “safe” by the US military as they happen in international airspace. However, occasional incidents are deemed risky by the Pentagon.
In response to these concerns, the US and its allies have started publicly disclosing some of these incidents, seemingly as a way to draw attention to what they perceive as reckless behavior by the People’s Liberation Army.
In conclusion, General Kenneth S. Wilsbach’s assessment of the Chinese J-20 fighter jet offers a unique perspective on the current state of military aviation in the Pacific region.
While the J-20 is widely perceived as a significant threat, his remarks emphasize the continuing superiority of US and allied capabilities, both in terms of technology and training. However, the evolving dynamics in the region and the need for vigilance in response to potential threats should not be underestimated, and Taiwan’s defense strategy must address a spectrum of challenges beyond the J-20 alone.
The delicate balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region continues to be a topic of global concern, with the capabilities of aircraft like the J-20 playing a significant role in shaping this landscape.