It was surely not a coincidence that China’s first stealth fighter performed its maiden test flight on 11 January while US Defence Secretary Robert Gates was in Beijing on an official three-day visit. Despite Chinese officials claiming the J-20 test was “not targeted at any country or any specific objective,” the Chinese are past masters at sending oblique political messages such as this. Thus far the USA is the only country to operate a stealth fighter – the F-22 Raptor – but China will join that exclusive club once development of the secretive J-20 fighter is completed.

This milestone for the J-20 is emblematic of the great progress China is making militarily, and this article looks at the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) in particular. China’s land borders are well protected, but it sees its maritime surroundings as strategically vulnerable, especially as its economic power and dependence on foreign trade grows. For this reason China is focused on developing new area-denial weapons such as DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles, indigenous aircraft carriers, submarines and stealth fighters to protect interests in the East China Sea, South China Sea and beyond. Tied to the issue of regaining control of Taiwan, China is especially wary of an American-led blockade of its coast. It wishes to keep US naval and air power as far away from its shores as possible, so it is producing weapons to achieve this. In the early 1980s China’s massive army was designed solely for territorial defence, but now the PLA is transforming into a force that emphasises air and naval power.

Rejuvenating the fighter fleet

Although the 20-minute maiden flight of the J-20 was a landmark event for the Chinese military, the twin-engine fighter’s introduction into service remains some time off, certainly not before 2017-19, predicts General He Weirong, Deputy Commander of the PLAAF. When Lockheed Martin developed the F-22A, there was nearly a decade between the first flight and its introduction into the US Air Force (USAF) in December 2005.

The single-seat J-20 is larger and heavier than the F-22A, with an estimated length of 23m and empty weight of 36,000kg. The J-20’s estimated cruising speed is Mach 1.5. The two test aircraft appear to be fitted with WS-10G turbofan engines with thrust vector controlled (TVC) nozzles that generate 13,200kgf of thrust. However, it is likely the J-20 will eventually use more powerful 16,500kgf WS-15 engines. The heavyweight fighter’s size will allow internal stowage of weapons and fuel, and the aircraft will possess a combat radius that brings US bases in Guam within reach once an aerial refuelling capability is added.

The J-20’s maiden flight took Western intelligence communities by surprise, with Defence Secretary Gates saying the design had potential to “put some of our capabilities at risk, and we have to pay attention to them. We have to respond appropriately with our own programmes.” Production of the F-22A was capped at 187, so it will be interesting to see whether the USA considers restarting production in light of this new competitor. China is lauding the J-20 from the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group (CAC) as a fifth-generation fighter, but it is unlikely to match the performance of its American equivalent or the forthcoming PAK FA from Russia. The J-20 will possess an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar system, but this will not be ready for another seven or eight years. Commentators speculate the J-20 design sacrifices some stealth in favour of attaining higher manoeuvrability. (KYM TO TASHA, BPS)

The appearance of the J-20 demonstrates the rapid maturing of China’s aerospace industry, raising questions as to why China still finds it necessary to copy foreign designs. China bought 70 or so Sukhoi Su-27 fighters from Russia before signing an agreement in 1998 to build the Su-27SK under license as the J-11. Subsequently, about 100 J-11 fighters were built locally before the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC) started independently producing the J-11B, a blatant copy of the Su-27UBK. This illegal imitation greatly inflamed tensions between Russia and China, and Russia has consequently refused to sell further Su-27 or Su-33 fighters.

With attempts to buy Su-33s from Russia continually thwarted, SAC has been developing the J-15 as China’s new carrier-borne fighter. (KYM TO TASHA, BPS)The J-15 is based on an incomplete Su-33 prototype obtained from Ukraine in 2001. The J-15’s maiden flight occurred in 2009, but China’s penchant for cloning continues to infuriate Russian officials. Perhaps the J-20 will initiate a new period when China will no longer feel the need to reverse-engineer foreign designs. One of China’s most capable combat aircraft is again Russian, the Sukhoi Su-30. A total of 76 Su-30MKK and 24 Su-30MK2 multirole fighters were acquired from Russia in 2000-04.

Like the J-20, the J-10 is an indigenous design. This medium-weight fighter entered PLAAF service in 2005, although it was not publicly unveiled until the 2008 China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai. The PLAAF is expected to procure around 300 J-10 single-engine multirole fighters from CAC, with at least 120 already in service. The J-10 still relies on Russian Lyulka-Saturn AL-31FN turbofans because of developmental problems with the WS-10A engine. The upgraded version currently under development is the J-10B, which has a modified nose for AESA radar, diverterless supersonic inlet (DSI), and an infrared search-and-track (IRST) sensor. Pakistan is expected to eventually acquire 36 J-10B fighters.

CAC also designed the JF-17 Thunder now in domestic production for the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), with 58% of components manufactured at the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC). The JF-17 is powered by Russian Klimov RD-93 engines. With designs like the JF-17 and J-10, China is increasingly vying for export contracts. (KYM TO TASHA, BPS) A China National Aero-Technology Import and Export Corporation (CATIC) official stated, “We’re talking with six to eight countries about the JF-17. It’s a low-cost solution for developing countries.” Thus, military aircraft exports are becoming a useful tool in Chinese foreign policy.

Hongdu Aviation Industry Corporation (HAIC) is developing an advanced jet trainer (AJT) in the form of the L-15, its maiden flight occurring in March 2006. Powered by Ukrainian AI-222K-25F turbofan engines with afterburner, HAIC has also developed the L-15 Falcon into a lead-in fighter trainer (LIFT). This supersonic aircraft first flew on 20 October 2010, and it is being marketed internationally as a direct competitor to the Russian Yak-130 and South Korean T-50. The Xian Aircraft Industry Corporation (XAC) JH-7 fighter-bomber forms the backbone of China’s strike fleet. Around 192 JH-7s are operational with the PLAAF and PLA Navy (PLAN). Introduced in 2004, the JH-7A is the newest model, though a stealthier JH-7B is believed to be in development.

China may be inducting new aircraft, but its weapons lag behind those of the West. (KYM TO TASHA, BPS)For example, the PLAAF did not receive beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles (BVRAAM) like the SD-10 until 2002. The SD-10 is an active radar-guided missile from the Luoyang Electro-Optical Technology Development Centre, with a claimed range of 100km. The SD-10 is also used by the PAF on the JF-17. The new CM-802AKG air-to-ground land attack cruise missile (LACM) debuted in Zhuhai last year. Based on the C-802A anti-ship missile, its alleged range of 220km surpasses that of similar Western weapons.

However, despite these developments and the new aircraft being inducted, the estimated PLAAF fleet of 1,600 combat aircraft is largely made up of outdated MiG-19 (Shenyang J-6) and MiG-21 (Chengdu J-7) fighters. The elderly Shenyang J-8 is also still used as a high-altitude interceptor. Nevertheless, a rejuvenation of the PLAAF inventory is clearly occurring. This is worrying the USA, which will rely on the F-22 and forthcoming F-35 Lightning II to assure superiority for the USAF in the coming decades.

Creating a network

China may be good at copying airframes, but it is quite another thing to make reliable engines, data-links or AESA radar systems. (KYM TO TASHA, BPS)
The issue of a durable high-performance engine is a key one, and for now the country remains dependent on Russian-made engines. Until the production of such subsystems is mastered, China’s aerospace ambitions will be thwarted. Similarly, the PLAAF must develop integrated digital command-and-control capabilities otherwise it will have just a collection of good-looking planes. Airborne and ground sensors must be linked via an integrated network-centric system. China has only recently fielded an airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) platform. The first was the KJ-2000 based on the Russian Il-76MD airframe. It has a non-rotating dome containing active phased-array radar. Four KJ-2000 aircraft were commissioned in 2006-07, but insufficient airframes are available to produce more.

To overcome this shortage of force-multiplying AEW&C assets, China pursued a parallel track in the form of the KJ-200 based on the Shaanxi Y-8 turboprop (a copy of the Antonov An-12). The KJ-200 carries a linear AESA radar system atop the fuselage, not unlike the Saab Erieye in appearance. Only four such KJ-200 aircraft are thought to be in existence, and the system is not fully operational yet. The AEW&C programme suffered a severe setback in 2006 when a test aircraft crashed, killing 40 crewmen and technicians. China’s ability to create a robust airborne battle management network is distant, as many aircraft lack even a basic data-link capacity. A learning curve thus lies ahead for the PLAAF as it seeks to integrate its many new ‘toys’ into an efficiently functioning system. Air force guidance, navigation and communication systems will be aided by the BeiDou-2 navigation satellite system. A complete global system of 35 satellites is slated for completion in 2020, with six satellites already in orbit.

Unmanned technologies will also play an important role in the future PLAAF. At the recent Airshow China 2010, companies displayed a swathe of futuristic unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Many of these were unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV), for example the jet-powered WJ-600 from China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC). Xi’an ASN Technology Group is China’s largest UAV manufacturer, and it is developing the missile-armed ASN-229A Reconnaissance and Precise Attack UAV with 20-hour endurance and 180km/h cruising speed. Another design is the CH-3 from China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). The PLAAF does not operate UCAVs at the moment, but it will be only a matter of time before it is operating Predator-like unmanned drones.

Airlift capability

The devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake revealed serious shortcomings in PLAAF capabilities, particularly in terms of transport aircraft and helicopters. (KYM TO TASHA, BPS)The staples of its tactical airlift fleet are about 20 Il-76MD and 120 Y-8 transport aircraft. The PLAAF had planned to buy 30 Il-76 and eight Il-78 transport aircraft, but this deal was stalled by sharp price hikes and tensions in Sino-Russian relations. Two new transport aircraft designs are being developed domestically to alleviate this shortcoming in airlift capacity. The heavy-lift Y-20 from XAC is alleged to be in the same league as the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III. The Shaanxi Y-9, destined to replace the Y-8, is a medium-size and medium-range transport aircraft. With a 25-ton payload, it is in a similar class to the C-130 Hercules.

Presently the PLAAF relies on the H-6U for the air-to-air refuelling role, this being a conversion of standard H-6 (Tu-16 Badger) bombers. Only ten H-6Us are believed to be in service, although a new refueller based on the Y-20 or on the commercial Comac C919 airliner could become the future platform. Debuting at the 60th Anniversary Parade in Beijing, the latest re-engined version of the elderly H-6 bomber is the H-6K, which carries up to six CJ-10A LACMs. These missiles are reckoned to have a range of up to 2,200km, thus giving China a strategic strike capability within the Asia-Pacific region. This is certainly worrying to countries like the USA and Japan.

In the area of rotorcraft, the PLAAF relies heavily on about 200 examples of the Harbin Z-9, a license-built version of Eurocopter’s Dauphin. However, China has developed Z-9 variants for other uses too. The Z-9C is used on PLAN naval vessels, while the newest light attack version is the Z-9WA. As well as pylon-mounted weapons, the Z-9WA has a night-fighting capability via a nose-mounted FLIR. China is busy developing a dedicated attack helicopter known as the Z-10. Although it first flew in 2003, series production has been stymied due to difficulties in obtaining a locally made engine. The PLAAF also widely uses 240 Russian-built Mi-17 transport helicopters, with local production taking place through Sichuan Lantian Helicopter Company Limited in Chengdu.

The PLAAF’s heaviest helicopter is the Z-8, a reverse-engineered SA321 Aérospatiale Super Frelon. (KYM TO TASHA, BPS)
However, China recently publicly unveiled the AC313 from Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) at Airshow China 2010. The 13-ton design is slated for civilian use, but it could easily be acquired by the military. The first production craft of China’s largest ever helicopter design will be delivered from the Tianjin factory later this year. AVIC is also co-developing the 7-ton EC175 with Eurocopter, with its maiden flight occurring in December 2009. Known as the Z-15, it could well provide a versatile utility platform for the PLAAF after production commences in 2012. China is short of helicopters, and it is desperate to develop indigenous designs that will not be affected by foreign arms embargoes.

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