MELBOURNE, Australia — China has at least 200 stealthy J-20 fighters and more than 240 J-16 multirole strike aircraft in service, based on analysis of construction numbers painted on the jets by a Chinese military aviation expert.
Andreas Rupprecht, who has authored several books on China’s military aviation industry and the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, told Defense News that based on the construction numbers seen on the jets at the Zhuhai Airshow, there have been four production batches of the J-20 and 11 batches of J-16s.
He noted that two of the Chengdu J-20 fighters at the show had “CB0369″ and “CB0370″ painted in small letters behind the canopy of the jets. Based on previous examples seen in public or on photos and videos released by China, “CB03″ would indicate the jets were from the fourth production batch, with “CB00″ being the first.
The last two digits of the construction number indicate the running number of that particular batch, with the jets at the air show being the 69th and 70th aircraft in the fourth production batch of J-20s.
He added that, based on his previous research, his “conservative estimate” is that the previous three production batches of J-20s had at least 18, 46 and 56 airframes, respectively. And adding 70 aircraft to the fourth batch and approximately 18 low-rate production platforms would bring the total J-20 production to 208 aircraft.
The presence of J-20s on static display at the air show has allowed photographers to obtain better resolution images of the aircraft than previously possible. The jets at the show, which runs Nov. 8-13, were powered by indigenous WS-10C engines and features low-observable sawtooth edges on their afterburner nozzles.
Justin Bronk, a senior research fellow for air power and technology at the U.K.-based think tank Royal United Services Institute, said “the surface detail shots show just how much progress the Chinese aircraft industry has made on manufacturing tolerance and quality control.”
Bronk told Defense News that based on photos of the J-20 low-rate initial production aircraft, which took part in the flying display at the 2018 Zhuhai Airshow, “China continues to make progress in closing the gap with U.S. low-observable designs.”
Meanwhile, the J-16 on static display this year carried the construction number “1105″ on the outside of its air intakes. According to Rupprecht, this indicates the aircraft was the fifth one of the 11th production batch.
He added that Shenyang Aircraft Corp., which manufactures the J-16, uses a more straightforward construction number and production batch system, with each batch numbering 24 aircraft. This means the aircraft at the show — which is assigned to the 172nd Air Brigade of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force — is the 245th production J-16.
The J-16 started entering PLAAF service in 2015. It is based on the Chinese J-11B interceptor and the Russian Sukhoi Su-30MK series, both of which can trace their lineage back to the Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker interceptor.
China has developed an electronic-attack version of the J-16 known as the J-16D. The type made its debut at the last Zhuhai Airshow in 2021 and appeared again at this year’s show.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.