State media in Beijing claimed Wednesday that one of the Chinese air force’s new J-20 stealth fighters shot down 17 “enemy” planes while also avoiding return fire during recent mock combat.
A 17-to-zero kill ratio isn’t unheard-of when a a new fighter type goes up against older types in a training exercise. Still, there are good reasons to doubt Chinese media’s claim.
For one, it’s not obvious how a single J-20 could “shoot down” 17 simulated enemies when the J-20’s standard maximum weapons load is just six missiles—and the J-20 doesn’t have a gun as back-up.
It however is obvious why Beijing in mid-September would push a story about the J-20’s supposed aerial prowess. As mountain standoff between Chinese and Indian troops enters its fifth month, New Delhi has been buying new fighters. The Chinese air force in response deployed at least two J-20s to western China.
Chinese state media is keen to highlight the stealth fighter’s purported capabilities. “Despite being heavily outnumbered, a Chinese People’s Liberation Army pilot scored a 17-to-zero victory against opponents with a newly commissioned fighter jet in a recent combat exercise,” Global Times reported on Tuesday, citing information from PLA Daily.
“Many clues suggest that the aircraft the pilot flew was likely the J-20, China’s most advanced stealth fighter jet,” Global Times continued. “If the speculation turns out to be true, the exercise result again demonstrated the absolute superiority the J-20 has over its previous generation counterparts.”
It’s not clear what types the J-20 flew against. The Chinese air force’s main fighters all are variants of the 1980s-vintage Russian Su-27. The radar-evading J-20 first flew in 2011. The PLAAF reportedly possesses around 40 of the new planes.
It’s equally unclear how a J-20 with its eight-missile load-out could shoot down 17 targets in a single event. It’s possible the war game’s rules allowed the J-20 pilot to fight for a period of time, “reload” with virtual munitions then return to the mock battle.
In any event, the lopsided tally isn’t unprecedented. U.S. Air Force F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters routinely rout less sophisticated planes in aerial exercises. Perhaps most famously, the U.S. Navy’s F-14, which left service in 2006, swept the skies when it first appeared.
“Shortly after the F-14 entered service in 1976, the U.S. Navy ran an exercise against the French and won 176 to zero,” said Tom Cooper, an aviation expert and author. “That’s why air forces want such advanced aircraft.”
Regardless of the veracity of Chinese state media’s stealth-fighter claim, the underlying intent of the messaging is apparent. “Indian media previously hyped that India’s newly-purchased Rafale fighter jets, which are one generation older than the J-20, were better than the Chinese aircraft,” Global Times noted.
Two J-20s appeared at Hotan air base in Xinjiangan, in China’s far west, in mid-August. Hotan lies some 200 miles from Ladakh, the region of northern India along which runs the Line of Actual Control, the demarcation between Indian and Chinese forces in the Himalayas. Diplomats drew that line as part of truce talks following a bitter, bloody border war in 1962.
Indian and Chinese warplanes and helicopters are patrolling the border zone as the stand-off continues. India has deployed Su-30, MiG-29 and MiG-29K fighters. In addition to the two J-20s, the PLAAF also staged at least six H-6 bombers with KD-63 cruise missiles to Kashgar airport, also in Xinjiangan, placing the bombers within striking distance of Indian forces.
The conflict has lit a fire under Indian bureaucrats. The Indian air force in recent months has announced new purchases of MiG-29s and Su-30s. New Delhi’s air arm also accepted, from France, the first five of 36 new Rafale fighters. The Rafale isn’t very stealthy, but it boasts highly-advanced sensors and weapons.
The story about the J-20’s supposed superiority over other types apparently is part of Beijing’s response to New Delhi’s own air-power acquisitions. “It does seem directed at India, given the fanfare with which the five Rafales were inducted into the [Indian air force] a few weeks ago amid the standoff at the LAC,” said Taylor Fravel, a security expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
But all this posturing and messaging doesn’t necessarily have any bearing on the actual aerial balance of power between India and China. Maybe a Chinese J-20 can shoot down many less-sophisticated enemies. Maybe an Indian Rafale can, too.