China accelerates 'Mighty Dragon' stealth fighters' production to counterbalance US supremacy

'Air superiority of PLA over China – possibly. Over the western Pacific – questionable,' says a US military expert.
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Representational image: 3d rendered image of a jet fighter pilot during air battle.
Representational image: 3d rendered image of a jet fighter pilot during air battle.

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China has accelerated its Mighty Dragon, J-20 stealth fighter jet production at top-notch manufacturing facilities in the country to match the U.S.'s air-power technology in the region. 

The People's Liberation Army (PLA) is utilizing "world-class" pulsating production lines to hasten the delivery of its advanced fighter jets, according to Chinese military insiders and defense experts, South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported on Sunday. 

"The increased production of J-20s was aimed at balancing the United States' increasing deployment of its dominant air-superiority aircraft, the F-22, and another fifth-generation stealth jet fighter, the F-35, to the region," said a military insider. 

"The application of the new pulsating production lines and domestic engines had pushed the number of J-20s to equal, or even exceed, the number of US F-22 Raptors."

China accelerates 'Mighty Dragon' stealth fighters' production to counterbalance US supremacy
J-20 chengdu Chinese fighting falcon fighter jet in dark background view, 3D render.

Based on the serial and running numbers painted on the aircraft on display at this month's air show in Zhuhai, Guangdong province, earlier estimates suggested China may have constructed at least 200 J-20s.

The serial numbers painted on two of the four J-20s on display at the air show revealed that Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group, the aircraft's developer, had delivered at least 140 in its most recent blocks, the third and fourth, U.S. Defence News claimed earlier this month, citing military aviation expert Andreas Rupprecht. 

U.S. deployment of over 100 F-35s to Japan and South Korea in 2017 is claimed to have led to the induction of J-20s in PLA.

Pulsating production lines

An airplane can be put together using a pulsating production line once it has reached the final assembly stage, which requires the accurate assembly of the large structural components and flight control systems, including the cockpit, engines, wings, tail, landing gear, and weapons system. 

According to Lockheed Martin, the fact that the standardized electronic mate and alignment system stations are all vertically arranged with movable platforms allows for the completion of more work in a shorter amount of time.

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Pulsating production lines were frequently employed in China's production of both military and commercial aircraft, according to Fu Qianshao, a retired equipment specialist at PLA's Air Force.

"China never announces the exact number of its warplanes, but I believe the combat capability of the J-20 is on par with the F-22, and even more advanced than the F-35, given it was designed and developed in the new century," he claimed.

However, a U.S. expert disagrees. 

Because the PLA, unlike the U.S. Air Force and Navy, lacks systematic joint operations between different fighting wings, Stephen Burgess, a professor in the department of international security studies at the U.S. Air War College, believes it is too early to draw any conclusions about the J-20's potential air superiority.

"Air superiority of [the PLA] over China – possibly. Over the western Pacific – questionable," he said. 

"There are several variables to take into account – pilots, network-centric warfare, aerial refueling, the technological advantages of the F-22 and the U.S. Navy's F-35C, etc."

F-35s inspired J-20s

China accelerates 'Mighty Dragon' stealth fighters' production to counterbalance US supremacy
Three F-35 fighter jets flying over clouds in formation, 3D render.

Chinese aircraft manufacturers were motivated to create their own pulsating production lines by the development of the F-35, according to Zhou Chenming, a researcher at the Yuan Wang military science and technology think tank in Beijing.

"Now both CAIG and other state-owned aircraft developers have all adopted the technology to produce their jet fighters," said Zhou. 

"That's why the PLA has been able to step up its warplane replacement progress in recent years."

J-20 costs roughly US$110 million to construct, which is less than half the price of an F-22 Raptor, according to a report published on the PLA's social media account in 2018. 

Regardless, both demand pricey upkeep and training.

The KJ-500 early-warning aircraft for the PLA was manufactured by Shaanxi Aircraft Corporation on thumping production lines at Asia's largest aircraft facility in Hanzhong, Shaanxi province, in a series of recordings that were shown by the government-run China Central Television in December 2019.

Seven years after Lockheed Martin released video clips of their use at its F-35 factory, it was the first time China had confirmed the use of pulsating manufacturing lines.

142 F-35s were delivered last year due to the effects of the Covid-19 epidemic, and 156 are expected this year, according to Lockheed Martin's annual report.

The defense company once boasted that its inventive production method could build 300 F-35s a year at maximum capacity.