“We recently had, I wouldn’t call it an engagement, but we got relatively close to the J-20s with our F-35s in the East China Sea and were relatively impressed with the command and control that was associated with the J-20s,” Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, Commander of the Pacific Air Forces, said during a March 14 interview with the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
The F-35 and J-20 are the most advanced fighters in the U.S. and Chinese arsenals, respectively. The incident marks one of the first publicly disclosed direct encounters between the two countries, and Wilsbach noted that the Chinese military was proving to be capable with the technology.
“What we’re noticing is they are flying it pretty well,” Wilsbach said of the Chinese pilot’s performance during the encounter. He didn’t provide exact details about the time of the encounter.
Wilsbach said there were other Chinese aircraft in the region that also demonstrated a good amount of skill in command and control.
Relatively little is known of the J-20, popularly referred to as the “Mighty Dragon.” It entered service in 2017, and it’s a stealth fighter, like the F-35, but it’s unclear whether the Chinese military will seek to use the aircraft as an all-purpose, multi-mission aircraft or if it will specialize in one particular domain, such as air superiority.
“It’s a bit early to tell exactly what they want to do with the J-20,” Wilsbach said. “All we’ve really seen it do is air superiority.
“We’re seeing relatively professional flying. It’s still too early to tell exactly what they intend to do with it.”
The F-35 fulfills all types of roles, but the United States also uses other aircraft for more specific types of missions. For example, Wilsbach noted that the F-22 was specifically tailored for air superiority missions, but also had the capability to engage in limited air-to-ground attacks.
The encounter comes amid a low point in Sino–American relations. U.S. officials have accused the Chinese communist regime of considering providing military support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well preparing for an invasion of Taiwan in the coming years.
To that end, Wilsbach noted that understanding the Chinese military’s aerial capabilities was vital to ensuring adequate preparedness among the U.S. and allied forces.
He said large segments of the Chinese military’s capability to engage in long-range fires were dependent upon its airpower and particularly its ability to defend early warning aircraft such as the KJ-500.
As such, the U.S. ability to meet with and effectively engage Chinese aircraft in the sky would be a deciding factor in any future conflict.
“Being able to interrupt that kill chain is something that interests me greatly,” Wilsbach said.