A top US Air Force (USAF) general says that Lockheed Martin F-35s have had at least one encounter with Chengdu J-20s, and that the Shaanxi KJ-500 airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft has a key role in long-range air-to-air kill chains.

USAF General Kenneth Wilsbach, Commander, Pacific Air Forces did not, however, divulge when the F-35/J-20 encounter took place, or if there have been more than one. He also touched on the role of the new Chinese fighter.

Chengdu J-20 at Zhuhai 2018

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Two J-20s doing a flyby at Airshow China in Zhuhai, November 2018

“It’s a bit early to say what they intend to do with the J-20, so really all we’ve seen it do is air superiority,” he says.

“But we notice that they are flying it pretty well. We recently had – I wouldn’t call it an engagement – where we got relatively close to the J-20s along with our F-35s in the East China Sea, and we’re relatively impressed with the command and control associated with the J-20.”

Wilsbach made the remarks during a discussion posted on the YouTube channel of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

“We’re seeing relatively professional flying and it’s still too early to tell exactly what they intend to do with [the J-20] – whether it’s going to be more like an F-35 that’s capable of doing many, many missions or more like an F-22 that is primarily an air superiority fighter that has an air-to-ground capability.”

Shaanxi KJ-500

Source: Greg Waldron/FlightGlobal

The Shaanxi KJ-500 at Airshow China in November 2018

Wilsbach also touched on the KJ-500, which in recent years has emerged as China’s key AEW&C platform.

Powered by four turboprops, the KJ-500 is based on the Y-9 tactical transport. The aircraft carries a three-panel active electronically scanned array radar in a fixed radome above the fuselage. This is understood to provide 360° radar coverage.

“The KJ-500 plays a significant role in some of their capability for long range fires,” says Wilsbach.

“Some of their very long range air-to-air missiles are aided by that KJ-500. Being able to interrupt that kill chain is something that interests me greatly.”

China’s PL-15 long range air-to-air missile is understood to have a range in excess of 107nm (200km). The radar-guided weapon is carried by types such as the Chengdu J-10C, Shenyang J-11B, J-15 and J-16, Islamabad’s Pakistan Aeronautical Complex JF-17 Block 3, and the J-20.

Wilsbach’s remarks hint that the KJ-500 may identify and assign targets for Chinese fighters, which can then launch the active radar homing PL-15 from great stand-off distances.