Little over a year after the fighters first entered service, the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force has deployed its elite Chengdu J-20 heavy stealth platforms to conduct maritime combat training missions for the first time. While the fighter entered service years before the majority of Western analysts predicted, it has demonstrated high levels of combat readiness in a number of exercises - of which this is but the most recent. PLA Air Force spokesperson Shen Jinke stated on May 9th regarding the exercises: "The J-20 has conducted a combat training mission in sea areas for the first time, and this has further strengthened the comprehensive combat capability of the People's Liberation Army Air Force. The J-20's combat training at sea will help the PLAAF better execute its duty to safeguard national sovereignty, security and territorial integrity.”
The J-20 is the first fifth generation combat aircraft to be developed anywhere in the world outside the United States, and provides the PLA with an analogue to the U.S. F-22 Raptor. While the F-22 program has long since been terminated however, leaving the small American Raptor fleet struggling to upgrade and modernise its capabilities, the combat performance of the J-20 has continued to improve rapidly - leading to concerns in the West that the Chinese platform is set to soon surpass the combat capabilities of its American analogue. The fighter has since its induction already integrated advanced indigenous fifth generation engines, the WS-15, as well as the latest Chinese Air to Air missile platforms such as the PL-15.
The J-20’s maritime combat tests hold particular significance in light of China’s growing tensions at sea with the United States and a number of its Western partners. The fighter’s induction was noted with particular apprehension in the U.S. for its ability to seriously hinder the Navy and Air Force’s ability to operate combat aircraft at sea, with its long range air to air missiles such as the PL-12D, PL-15 and PL-21 optimised to destroy U.S. aircraft at ranges beyond their retaliation range. Long range missile platforms, estimated to be capable of targeting aircraft at ranges well over 300km, are particularly valued for their ability to neutralise U.S heavy aerial tankers and AWACS platforms, the former which are essential to ferry American combat aircraft such as the F-22 and F-15 across the vast distances of the Pacific. With these support aircraft essential to facilitate U.S. offensive operations against China from the air, the importance of a new combat aircraft specialised to destroy them and thus serving as an inhibitor to American attacks cannot be overstated.
The J-20’s maritime combat tests come just days after Beijing deployed advanced YJ-12 anti ship missiles and HQ-9B air defence systems to island outposts in the South China Sea, and a few weeks after advanced electronic warfare systems were deployed to fortify these positions. The PLA Air Force had deployed advanced Su-35 '4++ generation' fighters, another elite heavy platform performing a similar role to the J-20, for overflights of the South China Sea shortly beforehand. The J-20 provides a significant enhancement to Chinese anti access area denial (A2AD) capabilities in the South China Sea - giving the PLA the ability to deny hostile aircraft and warships access to the strategically critical region in the event of war. The U.S. and European militaries have significantly enhanced their military presence in this region, where Beijing maintains significant territorial claims, and they have conducted several patrols in waters claimed by China under the pretext of protecting freedom of navigation. Beijing has viewed these actions as highly provocative and responded accordingly. Demonstrating the J-20’s ability to operate at sea, particularly given its long range, advanced strike capabilities and high survivability in beyond visual range engagements, sends a strong signal to the Western bloc regarding China’s intentions to protect its territorial claims and continue to expand its A2AD capabilities. As the J-20 enters service in the PLA in growing numbers its combat readiness is no longer in doubt, and this is cause for great concern among China’s potential adversaries.