China's fighter jet fleet is growing in size and appears to have made a big jump in capability, new Pentagon report shows

  • US Department of Defense released its annual China Military Power Report to Congress last week.

  • The report highlights China's breakneck development of combat capability.

  • The Chinese fighter jet fleet appears to have not only grown in size but, more importantly, also in overall capability.

A new report from the Pentagon details China's expanding military power, including the growth of its fighter jet fleet, which appears to have also experienced a jump in capability.

Last week, the US Department of Defense released its annual China Military Power Report, a congressionally-mandated update of unclassified material and assessments on the People's Liberation Army. The latest report paints a picture of military developments in 2022 and notes that the People's Republic of China (PRC) has been turning to the PLA "as an increasingly capable instrument of statecraft" as it has become more coercive and aggressive in international affairs.

China, the report says, has accelerated "its development of capabilities and concepts to strengthen the PRC's ability to 'fight and win wars' against a 'strong enemy,'" a reference to Chinese leader Xi Jinping's expectations for the armed forces and rhetoric on China's primary rival: the United States.

The Pentagon's report notes that China's fighter jet fleet has both expanded and apparently improved. By the end of 2022, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and PLA Navy (PLAN) had 1,300 fourth-generation fighter jets out of its 1,900 total fighters compared to 800 fourth-generation fighters out of its 1,800 total at the end of 2021.

The implication is that not only did China's total fighter fleet expand by 100 aircraft, but it also seems to have replaced older aircraft with 500 more capable jets in the span of a year, a major jump.

"The PLAAF and PLAN Aviation continue to field greater numbers of fourth-generation aircraft," DoD said in its report, adding that the Chinese military will "probably will become a majority fourth-generation force within the next several years."

New flight cadets line up to board the Y-20 at an airport in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, China, July 20, 2023. The Air Force uses the Y-20 to welcome newly recruited Air cadets from six provinces and cities in Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui, Jiangxi and Fujian to the Air Force Aviation University.

Examples of China's fourth-generation fighter aircraft include the Chengdu J-10, Shenyang J-16, and Shenyang J-15.

The J-10 is a Chinese a single-engine multirole aircraft built for air combat but is capable of conducting other missions. It's development demonstrated China's ability to produce fourth-gen jets, and it has been described by Chinese media as the "backbone" of the PLAAF. The newest variant, the J-10C, entered service in 2018.

The twin-engine J-16 entered service around 2016 and marked a notable capability jump in Chinese aviation, as the PLAAF began relying less on Russian technology and instead developing jets that matched or surpassed it. As a multirole strike fighter, the J-16 are maneuverable and can carry more weapons than the fifth-gen J-20, including a variety of air-to-air missiles, anti-ship mis isles, and cruise missiles.

The J-15 is a heavy carrier-based fighter jet in service with the Chinese PLAN, which has three aircraft carriers, namely the Liaoning, Shenyang, and Fujian. While the J-15 has undergone upgrades since it entered service in 2014, China is believed to be in the process of developing a more advanced, next-generation carrier-based fighter.

A J-16 multirole fighter jet takes part in a flying display at the 14th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai, south China's Guangdong Province, on Nov. 8, 2022.
A J-16 multirole fighter jet takes part in a flying display at the 14th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai, south China's Guangdong Province, on Nov. 8, 2022,Liu Dawei/Xinhua via Getty Images

And China has been making other improvements. While China has "historically struggled to field domestically built engines," the Pentagon report indicates they've made significant progress in development and production, Matthew P. Funaiole, a senior fellow with the China Power Project and senior fellow for data analysis with the iDeas Lab at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank, told Insider.

Part of that includes switching out the Russian engines in its jets, such as the J-10 and J-20, to domestically produced WS-10 engines. According to the DoD report, although some Russian AL-31F engines likely remain in use, China has actively pushed to improve its domestic aircraft engine production and is now seeing better results as it upgrades its fighters.

First developed in the 1990s, the WS-10 turbofan engine has been tested in fighter jets, such as the J-11, for decades, but developers struggled with getting the engine to produce enough power for aircraft. The WS-10 also needed constant refurbishing and care that proved to be more of a hassle than it was worth. Since being enhanced a number of the times in recent years, the WS-10 is far more mature, giving China a domestically built engine it can install in aircraft. The J-10C was spotted with the engine during an exercise a couple years back.

"As is evident from the DoD report, the PLAAF is undergoing a comprehensive process of upgrading and expanding its assets, while also upskilling its personnel," Funaiole said, adding that "the build-up of aerial assets is supported by China's domestic industrial base and its ongoing military-civil fusion efforts."

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