Anumber of Chinese and Hong Kong media outlets have reported that a new variant of the country’s first fifth generation fighter jet, the Chengdu J-20, has entered mass production. Citing anonymous military sources, it was reported that the new fighter, known as the J-20B, was officially unveiled on July 8th at a ceremony attended by senior military leaders including the Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission General Zhang Youxia, who is in charge of weapons development. The original J-20 fighter entered service in China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force in March 2017, and remains until today the only fifth generation fighter developed outside the United States to enter active service. The fighter is a twin engine heavyweight platform specialised in air to air combat, making it analogous to the American F-22 Raptor and considerably heavier and more specialised than the newer F-35. The J-20 boasts a range of advanced capabilities, many of which were not found on its American analogue, including a heads up display, AESA radar guided air to air missiles and a distributed aperture system among others which all served to provide advantages over the F-22. All other fifth generation fighters including the upcoming Russian Su-57 notably rely on air to air missiles with passively scanned radars and considerably shorter ranges than the PL-15 missiles deployed by J-20, with the Chinese missiles’ more modern sensor suites better at locking onto stealth targets and much more difficult to jam.
It remains uncertain what new capabilities the J-20B variant has, when or if the original J-20 ceased mass production, and when the new variant will enter frontline service. The only new capability reported is the addition of thrust vectoring engines for added manoeuvrability, making it the second Chinese fighter to integrate such technologies after the J-10C which entered service in 2018.