China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s three most advanced serving combat aircraft, the ‘4++ generation’ J-10C and J-16 and the fifth generation J-20, took part in joint nighttime combat exercises in the early June 2018. The exercises saw the three platforms each perform the specialised role which it was designed to fulfil, and gives valuable insights into the future of the PLA’s aerial warfare capabilities. An attack on enemy targets, eliminating aerial threats before carrying out strikes, was simulated and made use of the complementary strengths of each aircraft to perform various tasks.
The J-20, designed as a stealth heavy air superiority platform with an analogous role to the U.S. F-22 Raptor, used its advanced sensors to detect incoming hostile aircraft and and relied on its air to air combat capabilities to eliminate these threats. The J-16, a long range heavy strike fighter, used its advanced air to ground offensive capabilities to carry out precision strikes on land based targets. The J-10C meanwhile, highly capable in both air to air and air to ground engagements as a multirole fighter but lighter and more restricted in its range and payload than either of the two specialised variants, supported the J-16 in carrying out strikes. The light single engine platform could have been used equally capably to support the J-20 in air to air combat if needed.
While most states’ armed forces make use of only a few types of aircraft of similar weights, and rely on lighter multirole fighters exclusively to perform all manner of tasks, China’s fleet’s use of heavily specialised elite fighters supported by a smaller number of multirole platforms gives the PLA Air Force some of the most elite capabilities in the world. It is the ability to operate various fighter classes in unison and take advantage of the strengths of each platform which as long set apart major aerial powers from minor ones. While European, Middle Eastern, African and South American air forces lack such capabilities, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine and Algeria being notable exceptions, major aerial powers such as China, the United States Russia and Japan are capable of deploying fighters in complementary roles - with their synergy making them a far more formidable asset than the sum of their parts deployed separately.
The J-10C entered active service April 2017, and is rivalled only by the U.S. F-35 in its sophistication for a single engine fighter. While its lack of a stealth airframe means it cannot be designated a fifth generation fighter, the ‘4++’ generation aircraft incorporates a number of fifth generation features including thrust vectoring, stealth coatings, an AESA radar and cutting edge air to air missiles among others making it in many ways superior to the F-35 in its capabilities. Alongside the J-16, the fighter represents the future of the PLA Air Force’s combat capabilities and will fly alongside the stealthy J-20 and J-31 for decades to come, replacing older aircraft such as the J-11B, J-10B, Su-30, and JH-7 as the country's foremost platforms. With such advanced fourth generation fighters retaining a number of advantages over fifth generation counterparts, including easier accommodation of upgrades, a higher payload, external fuel storage and greater ease of maintenance, the PLA has chosen to continue to field these cutting edge fighters alongside its new stealth aircraft. This new generation will by 2020 be accompanied by the J-11D, a ‘4++ generation’ heavy twin engine air superiority fighter incorporating many of the same advanced technologies of the J-10C, and the J-31 twin engine stealth platform - the role of which remains unknown.