China's People's Liberation Army Air Force has carried out large scale live fire military exercises which tested the capabilities of its two newest and most advanced fighter platforms - the Chengdu J-20 and Shenyang J-16. Both fighters, in service since 2013 and 2017 respectively, are new additions to the Chinese fleet, and are set to be game changers in the country's operational capabilities.
The J-20 entered service in March 2017, and is the first fifth generation fighter to be produced outside the United States. A heavy air superiority fighter, it is analogous in its role to the United States Air Force's F-22 Raptor - an advanced and highly manoeuvrable stealth platform specialised in beyond visual range air to air combat. Unlike the F-22 however, which was designed specifically for war with the Warsaw Pact in Europe during the Cold War, the J-20 has been designed specifically for combat in the Asia Pacific. The fighter's has also been designed with significantly lower maintenance requirements, the Achilles heel of the Raptor.
Chen Liu, a J-20 pilot and grandson of air marshal Liu Yuti, a MiG-15 pilot who shot down eight U.S. jets during the Korean War, compared the task of J-20 pilots over the past several months to “white hat” hackers and video game testers. They were to identify mechanical and software glitches for fixing or debugged before the next mission or drill, breaking the J-20 into service. Pilots were also tasked with compiling manuals for other PLA units, with hundreds of new pilots being trained to operate China's new fighter as J-20 production rapidly expands. Testing and expanded production come amidst reports that large hangars have been built to house a sizeable fleet of J-20 fighters.
The coordinated exercises under which the fighters simultaneous deployed from airbases across the country showed the extent to which both of the Air Force's new fighters were integrated into the military, fully operational and ready for combat. With the J-16 serving as a heavily armed fourth generation strike fighter based on the Su-27 airframe, carrying either twelve missiles or 36 quarter ton bombs, the fighter represents the Air Force's for most capable strike platform just as the J-20 represents its foremost air superiority platform. The two fighters are set to be joined by another next generation fighter, the lighter J-31, which will effectively perform a complementary supporting role for its heavier counterparts. Exercises demonstrating the capabilities of the J-20 and J-16 shown the extent of China's success in its military modernisation program as well as the Air Force's newfound reliance on modern indigenous platforms and emergence from its decades long reliance on foreign technology.