The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has invested heavily in heavy fighters in recent years.

China’s Air Force statistics for 2022 have just been released, significantly showing the potential of the country’s huge defense industry. Currently, all of the largest-scale manufactured fighters in the world (besides the US F-35) are Chinese products, including two lines of heavy fighters J-20 and J-16.

While China has long been known to possess a fleet of heavy fighters far larger than the United States or any of its allies, it is much more than that. At the 2022 Zhuhai Airshow, the media learned that China’s heavy fighter fleet could very well surpass not only the US, but also NATO and Russia combined.

PLAAF currently has 300 J-16s and over 200 J-20s, older models include 350 J-11s, 50 carrier-based J-15s, 98 Su-30s and 24 Russian-made Su-35. In addition, a small number of Su-27SK/UBK purchased long ago are believed to be still in service. Thus, the PLAAF has 1,000-1,100 heavy fighters in service, not counting interceptors and attack aircraft, which is larger in size than any other two countries combined.

The US Army has 510 heavy fighters, only about a dozen of which are the new generation F-15EX, the rest are Cold War-era F-15s, the last of which was purchased in 2001, as well as 185 F-22s slated to begin retirement in 2023. Although the F-22s use the same fifth-generation airframe as the J-20, the avionics of the 1990s are outdated and awaiting an upgrade.

Outside of the United States Air Force (USAF), there are no heavy fighters in service anywhere in Western militaries. Meanwhile, Russia has 400 heavy fighters, including 110 – 130 Su-35, Su-30SM/SM2 and Su-27 in the Soviet era. About 20 carrier-based Su-33 fighters are also in service, along with six Su-57 fifth-generation fighters. In addition to being superior in numbers, China’s heavy fighters are on average decades younger than the US, and are touted as more sophisticated than Russian-made products.

Heavy fighters are often equipped for the elite combat group of the world’s leading air forces today. Fighters dominate not only because of their ability to carry many weapons but also have good performance, long range, and are equipped with a more powerful sensor system than medium or light fighters.

The heavy fighter relies heavily on the role of air superiority as well as surface attack, with the ability to outpace light competitors. Even so, the high operating and manufacturing costs make them often put into service in much more limited numbers.

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