Fighter jets in China’s air force and navy are catching up with the West

  • China’s air force and navy now line up with about 2,800 aircraft, about 2,250 of them fighter jets.
  • It gives China the largest aviation force in the region and the third largest in the world.
  • The building of this force means that China “is rapidly catching up with Western air forces,” the Pentagon said.

According to the U.S. Department of Defense’s annual report on China’s military, released in November, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) now constitute “the largest air force in the region and the third largest in the world.”

The Pentagon estimates that China has about 2,800 aircraft in these two forces, not including drones and trainer aircraft. About 2,250 of them are dedicated fighter jets, including 1,800 fighter jets, of which about 800 are considered fourth-generation jets.

In particular, the PLAAF has in recent years shifted from territorial air defense to “offensive and defensive operations” that build a force “capable of projecting long-range air power,” according to the report.

Expansion of the fighter fleet

Chinese J-8II fighter jets

Chinese J-8II fighter jets were built at Shenyang Aircraft Manufacturing Company in 1990.

Sovfoto / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

During the Cold War, the PLAAF relied on Chinese-built replicas of Soviet aircraft.

In the 1980s, China’s first native fighter jet, the J-8, was essentially an elongated version of one of these copied aircraft. Its successor, the J-8II, had a new nose and upgrades, but was largely outclassed by any potential rivals when it came into operation.

In the early 1990s, China began buying fourth-generation fighter jets from Russia to increase its stock and gain technical experience. China bought a number of Su-27, Su-30MKK and Su-35 fighter jets from Russia between 1992 and 2015 and started making its own versions of these jets as soon as it got them.

The first such jet, the J-11, was a licensed copy of the Su-27. It was intended to be a heavy fighter in air superiority and retained many of the Su-27’s features and characteristics, including a 30 mm cannon, 10 hardpoints for missiles, a top speed of around Mach 2 and an operational ceiling of around 60,000 feet.

Shenyang J-11 / Sukhoi Su-27

A Chinese J-11, left, and a Russian Su-27.

REUTERS / US Navy / Handout, AP Photo / Sergei Venyavsky

In 2004, China discontinued production of the J-11 and began producing a reverse engineered version, the J-11B, against the terms of its co-production agreement with Russia.

Some 297 J-11s in several variants are currently in operation with both PLAAF and PLAN Aviation.

In 2015, PLAAF introduced the J-16. A continuation of the J-11, it is also partly based on the Su-30MKK.

While the J-11 is designed for air superior tasks, the J-16 is a multi-role fighter capable of performing air strikes. It has 12 hardpoints for missiles and bombs in addition to a 30 mm cannon, as well as an active electronically scanned array radar.

More than 150 J-16s in several variants are in service with PLAAF, which in November began combat training of the J-16D, a variant of electronic warfare.

The most common model is the J-10, which is possibly based on the Israeli IAI Lavi. About 488 J-10 variants are believed to be in operation with PLAAF and PLAN Aviation.

china j-10 fighter jets

J-10 fighter jets will perform during an air show in Guangdong Province on November 11, 2014.


Introduced in 2005, the J-10 is a single-engine multi-role fighter with a delta wing and canard design.

The J-10 has 11 hardpoints, an active electronically scanned array radar and a 23 mm cannon. It is believed to be able to drive over Mach 2 and have an operating ceiling of around 60,000 feet.

The PLAN Aviation Force also has its own airline-based fighter aircraft known as the J-15. China based the J-15’s design on an unfinished prototype of a Su-33 aircraft purchased from Ukraine, as Russia was unwilling to sell its Su-33 to China.

At least 34 J-15s are in service with PLAN Aviation, and they are the only fixed-wing aircraft capable of operating on China’s two airlines. However, they face a number of problems, including the fact that they are the heaviest aircraft in operation in the world.

Increasingly skilled bombers

China JH-7A fighter jets

A Chinese JH-7A fighter bomber during an international counter-terrorism exercise, August 27, 2018.

Donate Sorokin TASS via Getty Images

With the withdrawal of the Q-5 in 2017, China now operates only two dedicated bombers: the H-6 strategic bomber and the JH-7 fighter bomber.

A replica of the Soviet Tu-16, the H-6 is a two-engine jet bomber capable of carrying about 20,000 pounds of ammunition. It is believed to be capable of speeds of around 650 mph and to reach heights above 40,000 feet.

The H-6 bomber fleet is China’s largest, with more than 230 in service with PLAAF and PLAN, and consists of a number of variants.

The H-6K has upgraded engines and can carry six standoff land-attack cruise missiles that threaten enemy targets as far as the Second Island Chain, which includes the U.S. territory of Guam.

FILE PHOTO: A Chinese H-6 bomber flies over the East China Sea in this distribution image taken by the Japan Air Self-Defense Force and released by the Joint Staff Office of the Ministry of Defense of Japan on July 23, 2019. Joint Staff Office of the Ministry of Defense of Japan / HANDOUT via REUTERS

A Chinese H-6 bomber over the East China Sea.


H-6G and H-6J are fleet variants where the H-6J is capable of carrying six anti-ship cruise missiles like the YJ-12, posing a threat to aircraft carriers.

The H-6N, which was shown publicly for the first time in 2019, is of particular concern. Its hull is modified to carry an air-fired ballistic missile, which is likely capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. It is also China’s first nuclear-compatible bomber capable of refueling in the air.

In October 2020, an H-6N was seen with what is believed to be a hypersonic missile. With this capability, China “may have already established an incipient ‘nuclear triad,'” according to the Pentagon.

JH-7 is intended for bomb operations with shorter range. Introduced in 1992, it is armed with a 23 mm cannon and can carry over 7 tons of bombs at nine hardpoints. It has a ceiling of about 50.00 feet and a top speed of about Mach 1.

JH-7 can carry land-attack and anti-ship ammunition. About 260 are in service with PLAAF and PLAN Aviation.

The future of the fifth generation

China J 20 Stealth Fighter

A Chinese J-20 stealth fighter at an air show in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province, November 1, 2016.

REUTERS / Stringer

PLAAF’s proudest achievement has been its fifth generation stealth fighter – the J-20 “Mighty Dragon”.

The J-20 is likely based on plans stolen from the U.S. stealth program. Its exact specifications are not publicly known, but it is believed to be capable of a maximum speed close to Mach 2 with a ceiling of about 60,000 feet and a range of almost 700 miles.

Its main internal arsenal can accommodate four long-range air-to-air missiles, with two additional lateral compartments, each capable of accommodating a single shorter-range missile.

China has several stealth aircraft under development – including a nuclear-capable stealth bomber (probably called the H-20) that will have a range of 5,000 miles and be able to carry a payload of 10 tons.

A Chinese FC-31 J-31 stealth fighter

A Chinese J-31 stealth fighter jet at Airshow China 2014 in Zhuhai, November 11, 2014

JOHANNES EISELE / AFP via Getty Images

China is also developing another stealth fighter aircraft, the FC-31, which is likely to be its next airline-based fighter jet to replace the J-15. Pictures released in October appeared to show an FC-31 variant flying with a catapult launch bar on the nose landing gear as well as wing folding mechanisms.

China is developing other technologies and skills that will enable China to get more out of its aircraft. It is making progress with the engine problems that have plagued its jets, and is developing a more advanced air-to-air missile arsenal.

It has also shown improved air refueling capabilities, which the Pentagon says will allow its jets to operate longer and longer.

“The PLAAF is rapidly catching up with Western air forces,” the Pentagon said in its report, adding that China’s aggressive modernization and acquisition of advanced systems “gradually erodes” the “long-term and significant” benefits of the U.S. military in the air domain.

Leave a Comment