Within the defense aerospace industry, it’s not uncommon to hear terms bandied about like “fifth generation fighter” when describing America’s two crown jewel air platforms: the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the F-22 Raptor. That “fifth generation” moniker is a standard naming convention allotted to the world’s next generation platforms, and while there has been some debate as to what specifically qualifies a new air frame as “next generation,” there has been no debate as to what nations are fielding them, because up until recently, only one nation on the planet has had any, and it’s the United States.
The People’s Liberation Army in China, however, is currently amid a massive reorganization and modernization effort, which has included the launch of a number of new Naval vessels (including the nation’s second ever aircraft carrier) and perhaps most importantly, a fifth generation fighter of their own … at least sort of.
On Friday, China announced that their next generation J-20 stealth fighter has official entered into combat service. Since its unveiling, rumors have swirled that the J-20 could potentially be a match for America’s most maneuverable dog fighter, the stealth F-22 … and with good reason. Much of the J-20’s design was stolen directly from F-22 plans that were smuggled into the country by a man named Su Bin. He is now serving a 46 month prison sentence for his hand in providing China the plans necessary to field not only an F-22 rip off, but an F-35 copy as well — set to enter service soon as the J-31.
Some have questioned the J-20’s stealth characteristics as compared to the F-22 it resembles, particularly due to the front stabilizing canards that appear to be the primary aesthetic difference between the two aircraft. In any regard, however, the J-20 does appear to be a formidable fighter, perhaps ranked third globally, though such rankings are notoriously difficult to assess without seeing it square off with an opponent.