China may not be able to produce enough J-20s to meet the PLA's demands

The nation's defence contractors are unable to deliver the fifth-generation fighters as fast as Beijing would like

Military observers can anticipate more J-20s taking part in People’s Liberation Army drills after China’s domestically designed and manufactured fifth-generation super-fighter officially entered service last year.

Official media report that in the PLA’s first war-games of 2018, in Inner Mongolia, an unspecified number of J-20s engaged in a mock dogfight with J-16s and versus a battalion of anti-aircraft missiles.

None of the reports answer the question of the exact number of J-20s already in service and where they are based, however, as the focus of international observers shifts from the fighter’s specifications and capabilities to its production and deployment.

Chinese military columnist Xi Yazhou speculates, on the Shanghai-based opinion site The Observer, that the J-20 may still be at a low-rate initial production stage. The fighters are being built at the Chengdu Aerospace Corp., where augmenting output “is never as simple as adding some extra assembly lines.”

It may take years to achieve mass production, especially for a highly integrated and sophisticated stealth fighter like the J-20.

“China’s manufacturing sector has the reputation of pumping out products at an impressive speed, but even Apple had to carefully time its product release as per production status in China for its new iPhones, and it’s not surprising to see crunches in supply for more sophisticated warplanes as a whole plethora of factors ranging from parts to manpower determine the actual output,” writes the expert.

More than 100 Chinese enterprises are involved in supplying homemade engines, parts and avionics for J-20s, according to a PLA Daily report.

China has the expertise to develop a cutting-edge fighter like the J-20, yet its workforce and defense contractors may have become overstretched as they juggle competing orders from the military.

Revving up J-20 production is a systemic undertaking that requires coordination from numerous suppliers and subcontractors and the PLA must navigate a raft of logistics and quality-control hurdles.

Until then, the Chinese military may not have sufficient J-20s to support its aims of superiority in the skies.

The Soviet Union encountered a similar production bottleneck after the supermaneuverable Su-27 fighter’s introduction in 1985, when Moscow was anxious to press ahead with the modernization of its fleet. F-15 and F-16 fighters had already become the backbone of the US Air Force.

Defence industries under the then Communist regime were never able to churn out enough components to meet Moscow’s demands for 100 Su-27s and MiG-29s per year.

The Pentagon’s placement of three B-2 heavy penetration strategic bombers along with a crew of 200 pilots, technicians and maintenance personnel at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam has again highlighted the conspicuous absence of China’s H-20 bombers in the area.

The US Air Force has provided scant details about the ad hoc deployment of the trio of ace warplanes, stating merely that the mission was aimed at sharpening the crew’s skills and familiarizing them with the potential combat environment in the Western Pacific.

The Chinese military has remained quiet so far after the US has in effect ramped up its conflict-ready stance from the outpost of Guam.

Prior to this development, four other US stealth warplanes – an F-22, an F-35, a B-1B and a B-2 – made their high-profile presence known above the Korean Peninsula during war games that simulated a swift rout of the North Korean regime, and it would be naive to assume that these warplanes were not meant to send a message to Beijing.

Chinese military observers are now exhorting the authorities to expedite the design and deployment of the H-20, a new indigenous super-bomber, as China’s answer to the B-2. According to previous reports, the H-20 is capable of flying close to the US mainland and firing missiles at US targets.

A China Daily report back in 2015 revealed that People’s Liberation Army officials had made clear that the H-20 must be able to fly well beyond the second island chain without aerial refueling, while carrying a payload of at least 10 tons.

The rather old-tech H-6s and their modernized versions, the H-6Ks, still represent the lion’s share of the PLA Air Force’s bomber fleet. While they may be suitable for symbolic flyovers close to Taiwan, they are clearly inferior to their US counterparts, especially when gauged by their capability to debilitate the enemy, because of their bulky, non-stealthy airframes and limited range.

In contrast to the ballyhoo over the new J-20 fighters by Chinese newspapers, there have been far fewer reports on the H-20. This is fueling suspicion that the fledging super-bomber on which the PLA has pinned high hopes may still be stuck in initial trial production at the Xian Aircraft Industrial Corporation, after its master design was finalized after five years of painstaking development.