Earlier this year, China began inducting into its air force the indigenous Chengdu J-20 fighter aircraft, built by state-owned Chengdu Aerospace Corporation. Its flight and payload capabilities were recently demonstrated to the public for the first time in an air show in November. The J-20 is a fifth-generation fighter aircraft and first of its kind in not just China, but also Asia.

According to military aviation experts, war-fighting capabilities of the J-20, which has the latest airframe design armed with sophisticated weapons and state-of-the-art avionics, resemble its American counterparts, Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II.

One U.S. Air Force airmen directs the pilot of an F-35 Lighting II while another places chocks around the aircraft’s wheel at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., on March 6, 2013 | DoD photo by Lawrence Crespo, U.S. Air Force | Wikimedia Commons

What really is a fifth-generation fighter aircraft, after all? Five parameters qualify a fighter aircraft to be fifth-generation:

1) complete stealth capabilities, meaning invisibility to enemy radars;

2) advanced avionics, implying state-of-the-art radars, including active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars, and advance cockpits;

3) capable of carrying and firing all conventional and non-conventional weapons, including nuclear warheads;

4) supercruise speed without the use of engine afterburners;

5) high maneuverability and multirole combat capability, implying the flexibility to be used as an air-superiority aircraft that can engage in various warfighting formats, such as dogfighters, deep penetration strikers, light bombers, and for electronic warfare.

There is little doubt that the J-20, which has recently undergone trials in the revamped airfields of Tibet, has come as a migraine to India’s defence establishment. The emergence of this stealth aircraft in the South Asian skies raises concern not only in New Delhi, but also the Pentagon.

Currently, China has fourteen combat aircrafts in the Tibetan region, which is adjacent to India’s defensive positions. If China expands production of these aircrafts and stations them in Tibet, it could be the biggest security threat to India’s northeast in decades. As per leaked data, the J-20 can destroy critical strategic targets like military installations, airfields, oil tankers with much precision using it’s beyond-visual-range (BVR) armaments.

India’s frontline fighter aircraft, the Russian made and Indian assembled 4.5 generation Sukhoi Su-30MKI, lies in short competition with the Chinese. The J-20 has much better rate of climb, better avionics, maneuverability, speed, and most importantly, a stronger thrust to weight ratio (an essential trait in air-to-air combat). On the other hand, the Sukhoi Su-30MKI uses an obsolete passive electronically scanned array (PESA) radar that is vulnerable to Chinese electronic warfare tactics and stands no where near in detecting an stealth aircraft .

The Sukhoi Su-30 MKI (NATO reporting name Flanker-H) heavy class, long-range, multi-role, air superiority fighter and strike fighter. | Wikimedia Commons

Last year, a western military think tank published a report claiming China had developed technologies to divert the path of an aircraft or jam the radar. They also claimed that an Indian Sukhoi Su-30MKI flown from the airbase in Tezpur was downed by these technologies, wherein the Chinese jammed the radar system, causing the aircraft to crash. Even the pilot ejection seat was allegedly jammed, because of which the pilots could not eject and lost their lives. However, there have yet been no official statement about the crash from either party. There is little doubt, hence, that the J-20 is colossal threat to the security of India’s northeastern theatre.

The upcoming hydroelectric dams in Arunachal and Assam could come in the Chinese’s crosshairs easily during wartime. This could hamper India’s defensive and offensive designs. If a dam is torn asunder, it could trigger a calamitous flood, and in turn, disturb the brittle geo-strategic balance between New Delhi and Beijing. Such a devastating hydro calamity could severely hamper India’s troop mobilisation by cutting down the supply lines that provide the necessary rations, ammunition, and other equipments to the frontlines. This could ultimately give Beijing a stronger bargaining chip at the table.

Such bio-strategic tactics were also adopted during World War I by Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) when its No 617 bomber squadron consisting of Avro Lancaster heavy bombers – later called the “Dam Busters” – bombed the Mohne and Edersee Dams in Germany causing catastrophic flooding of the Ruhr Valley and severely damaging German defence production capacities.

The breached Möhne Dam, Germany | Photo taken by Flying Officer Jerry Fray of No. 542 Squadron from his Spitfire PR IX, six | Chris Staerck (editor), Allied Photo Reconnaissance of World War II (1998), PRC Publishing Ltd, ISBN 1571451617 | Wikimedia Commons

In this, the Chinese would be far ahead. Armed with sophisticated modern technology, the J-20 wouldn’t have to approach the target at close quarters for the bombing run. Rather, it could use its latest air-to-surface missiles to bust the Indian dams, while also simultaneously taking a lock on any enemy aircrafts flying towards them. For this, they have the sophisticated P-12 BVR missiles, which can turn concrete to dust in a blink of an eye when fired from the stealthy J-20. The outcome would surely be devastating for the region’s riparian communities and ecology.

If anything, history is testament to the Chinese’s affinity towards causing bio-environmental damage. They might have literally invented it when they opened the gates of one of their biggest dams in 1911 to prevent the Japanese invasion. Although it was successful in fending off the Japanese for some time, the destruction cost the Chinese the lives of many of their own people.

In modern strategic thought, deterrence remains a key element. In this regard, the Chinese J-20 aircraft poses a significant strategic deterrence challenge to Indian policymakers and defence planners, who will need to think out of their conventions to effectively counter the threat.  


Sumonta Saurav Kakati is a postgraduate student at Cotton University, Guwahati. He is a military and strategic affairs enthusiast, a quiz buff, and a Volleyball player. Sumonta tweets @KakatiSumonta.

If you have any questions on the article, direct them to the author at kakatisumonta9@gmail.com.

Featured image: Flypast of the Chengdu J-20 during the opening of Airshow China in Zhuhai | November 2016 | Wikimedia Commons

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