China, particularly the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), is extremely proud of its beefy J-20 stealth fighter. Significantly, the aircraft recently celebrated its tenth birthday as a flying machine within the world’s third-largest air force, though it remains one of the world’s most enigmatic fighters.
Kept under tight secrecy, the Chengdu Aerospace Corporation (CAC) fighter achieved its maiden flight on 11 January 2011, while US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was in China on an official visit. Taking him by surprise, he later admitted that US intelligence agencies underestimated China’s ability to develop a new-generation fighter.
The J-20 formally entered PLAAF service in 2017, the same year the US military began deploying F-35 fighters to Japan. The first combat unit to adopt it from late 2018 or early 2019 was the 9th Air Brigade at Wuhu in the Eastern Theater Command. This base is some 280km inland from Shanghai, and hosts one of the PLAAF’s premier fighter units. The J-20’s first deployment to the Eastern Theater Command emphasizes the strategic priority that the PLA places on Taiwan. This command also counters Japan and the USA.
Prior to that, the J-20 was only deployed in two units dedicated to operational evaluation and tactical training (the 176th Air Brigade at Dingxin Air Base and 172nd Air Brigade at Cangzhou Air Base, respectively).