Friday, April 11, 2014

PLAN surface combatant fleet now and future

With the recent induction of No. 172 and the appearance of Type 055 full scale land simulation structure, there has been some questions about how many of these ships will join PLAN and the number of sailors that will need to be trained to operate them. This entry will focus on the hardware part, since that is an easier factor to quantify than the software part. Before all of that, I want to take a quick look at Type 055. Based on the dimensions of the land simulation structure, estimate for width of the ship have been 21+ m and length to be 175 m based on photos. That would make this ship larger than the neighboring Atago class and KDX-III class, which are both over 10,000 ton in displacement. It would be comparable in size to Slava class and only smaller than Kirov class and Zumwalt class. Based on work by online PLAN fans, it seems like Type 055 would be able to comfortably hold 128 VLS cells ¬¬¬and still have enough endurance long range missions. To the best of my knowledge, China has only built land based simulation structures for aircraft carrier and nuclear submarine. Therefore, the construction of such a structure shows the high regard that PLAN has for Type 055. Work for Type 055 is said to be starting at JN this year, so it’s quite interesting to me that they are building the training structure so early.

Looking at PLAN right now, we still have a good mix of Soviet-era ships and modern ships. Amongst what PLAN considers to be destroyers, we have the very old Type 051 class and the very new Type 052C/D class along with many interim classes in between (Type 052, Type 051B, Sov, Type 051C and Type 052B). About half of Type 051 Luda class ships have already been decommissioned and the remaining ones should be retiring over the rest of the next few years as they come up to 30 years in service. After that, it will be interesting to see what PLAN does with those interim classes. Type 052 Luhu class have been in service for 20 years, but just receive mid life upgrade in 2011, so will probably service until next decade. Similarly, No. 167 of Type 051B Luhai class has been active since entering service in 1998, but looks to be getting a mid life upgrade very soon, so will probably stay in service until middle of next decade. The 4 Sov destroyers have the problem that they are using combat system and data link that simply don’t work that well with PLA’s new inter-service data link protocol. Even though they are still relatively new, their combat system and electronics are so backward that the smaller Type 054A frigates are more effective in combat and leading fleet. I had previously advocated that PLAN just retire all 4 of them early, but now it looks like China will put them through extensive mid life upgrade with indigenous parts replacing the older Russian systems. At least, that should allow these ships to communicate better with the rest of the fleet. The 2 Type 051C destroyers have the same problem as the Sovs. They are the last PLAN destroyers to use steam turbine propulsion and also use a different type of VLS (and Air defense system) that needs its own industrial support. Since the latter 2 Sovs and Type 051C ships joined service at the same time as the first Type 052C ships, they will remain in service for a while serving minor roles while Type 052C/D form the backbone of air defense for PLAN. The production run for Type 052C will stop at 6, while Type 052D will probably hit 12 ships. If we add in the 2 Type 052B, 2 Type 051C and 2 recent Sov destroyers, that will total 24 destroyers or 2 flotilla of 4 destroyers for each of PLAN’s 3 fleets. In reality, PLAN will probably have more destroyers than that in service in order to form a permanent blue water fleet, but this provides a simple breakdown for 2020 to 2030.

PLAN’s frigates do not have nearly the number of interim classes. Nearly every jianghu-1 class ships have already been decommissioned as Type 054A have been joining the fleet in mass. By the end of this decade, I would think all of the remaining Jianghu ships will be either be decommissioned or refurbished/upgraded for export or coast guard. The 4 Jiangwei-I frigates should also be close to decommissioning. Aside from that, PLAN has 16 Type 054As (which will become 20 over the next 2 years), 2 Type 054 and 10 Type 053H3 Jiangwei-II frigates. By the end of this decade, these 36 frigates (22 054/A + 14 Jiangwei) will form 3 flotillas for each of the 3 fleet. In order to replace the retiring Jiangwei class and provide escort for the new blue water fleet, a new class of frigates will likely start construction in the next few years using the new universal VLS. It could also be argued that with the induction of the Type 056 class, PLAN no longer needs as many frigates for the nearby waters. In that case, the class that comes after Type 054A will be closer in size to 052B/C and the European “frigates” than the 4000-ton class frigates we see today.

It’s always interesting to speculate how a rapidly modernizing naval force like PLAN will look like in 5 or 10 years time. With most of the older Soviet era ships are close to retiring, we finally have a good idea to project into future, because they are no longer just building interim classes. For me, a major symbolic milestone will hit once all Luda and Jianghu class ships retire. The majority of PLAN’s main fleet will be modernized by then. On the other hand, questions about modernization in software are a lot harder to answer and quantify.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

China's military expenditure

China's annual announcement of its military expenditure is often met with a lot of alarm. The question has often been why China needs to be constantly increasing its military expenditure so much. Here is a chart showing China's military expenditure vs treasury income vs GDP from 1999 to 2013.

Over this period, the military expenditure has generally been between 1.2% to 1.5% of the GDP and 9.5% to 5.5% of the treasury income. so in real RMB terms, military expenditure has not gone up as a percentage of GDP. In comparison to the treasury income, military expenditure has decreased a lot due to improved tax collection in China. The question is why the military expenditure has remained steady when the reported year to year increased is greater than GDP growth. The answer seems to be that GDP is inflation adjusted whereas military expenditure is not. There are 3 other charts similar to this which shows military expenditures going back to 1950. Seems like China maintained higher military expenditure % (4.5% to 9%) up until when Deng Xiaoping took over in 1978. After which, PLA saw its spending vs GDP drop all the way to 1% in the mid 90s. Now, China's definition of military expenditure can be different from that of the west, so there is no reason to compare China to Japan or US here. The important take away here is that China is not in any kind of expansion mode when it comes to military expenditure.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The commissioning of the lead ship of 052D class

Yesterday, China officially commissioned the lead ship in its new class of destroyers. From this article, you can see that this first Type 052D class ship is named after the city of Kunming and given the hull number 172. The ceremony was attended to by Chinese Navy commander Wu Shengli. Videos of the commissioning can be found on youtube.

I have covered Type 052D in numerous entries like this before. In some ways, it represents the final step in the modernization of China's surface combatant. Starting from the early 90s when Type 052 was launched until today, the Chinese naval destroyers have incrementally improved with Type 051B, Type 052B and Type 052C before finally reaching Type 052D. It is equipped with China's first universal VLS capable of launching HHQ-9 series of long range SAM, quad packed medium SAM, YJ-18 anti-ship missiles, LACM and Yu-8 (or similar ASROC). It is also carrying PJ-38 130 mm main gun, 24-cell version of HQ-10 CIWS and PJ-12 7-barreled 30 mm CIWS. A lot of the radar, ESM suite, communication antenna and other electronic installations look like the ones we have seen on 052C, but it is carrying a flat second generation multifunctional radar given the designation Type 346A and a new type of variable depth sonar at back. Whereas Type 052C placed heavy emphasis on AAW as China's first area air defense ship, Type 052D not only improves in that area, but should also become capable in ASW (with the long range anti submarine missile + improved sonar), ASuW, long range missile strikes and amphibious landing support. As the hull of 052D has already been "maxed" out, the next generation of Chinese destroyer would be larger and equipped with more advanced propulsion unit. Here are some of the photos.

The commissioning of No. 172 was surprising for many followers even after its hull number was recently painted. The last 2 052Cs, which were launched before No. 172 have yet to be commissioned. The recent batch of 052Cs have generally taken over 2 years to be commissioned after launching. It appears that the Chinese naval brass rushed No. 172 into service so that it can participate in its 65th anniversary celebration at Qingdao on April 23rd. Now that it has been commissioned into the South Sea Fleet, they can start the process of training and developing tactics for this new class of ships. At present, we have 3 052D launched with a 4th that looks to soon be launched. The production run is likely to reach 12 ships with JiangNan shipyard building 8 of them and Dalian shipyard building the remaining.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The status of Project 310

As we've seen the J-20 project proceed to the pre-production prototype stage, Project 310 (Shenyang AC's 5th gen design) is continuing its flight testing. Although, I and many other have called it J-31, it really hasn't become an official PLAAF project yet, so it has no J designation Many have called it the J-21 project, because they expect it to receive that designation once it becomes official.

There have been a lot of discussions online about where this project is at and how is it funded, so I will give me take here. At this stage, project 310 only has one flying prototype in No. 31001. Some would compare it to No. 2001 of J-20 project, but I consider more as a proof of concept aircraft similar to X-35. For example, I think the pre-production prototypes should not longer see the gap between the engine nozzle and nacelle. From what I observed online, it seems to at least have received some funding from PLAAF to arrive at this stage, although SAC does has enough resource/funding to get here by itself. I think we are unlikely to see a second flying prototype until it becomes an official PLAAF project, since No. 31001 and a possible static prototype can give all the data PLAAF would need to make its decision. Based on all I have read, it seems to be foregone conclusion that will happen. Once it does get designation and full funding from PLAAF, SAC is likely to make numerous changes on the next flying prototype and also start conducting radar and weapon testing.

Just looking from front, Project 310 has the contours that one would expect out a stealth aircraft. One does not need to look far before seeing comparison to F-35 and reading articles about "stolen technology" from F-35. Whether this jet will turn out to really be a stealth aircraft depends on all the little details that the designers have to look through to minimize returns from all around. Until we get to a later prototype, it's really hard to say how well Project 310 will do in that area.

I am generally not too concerned about the electronics on the new Chinese aircraft, because I think they have really made huge progress here. I think they can achieve comparable target identification and situation awareness as F-22/35, since it will come into service at a later point when newer technology will become available. I think the biggest concern for this aircraft is its engine. This is a problem with all new PLAAF aircraft. Clearly, RD-93 will not be powering Project 310 in production. The 9.5t class "Medium Thrust" engine models have been around for several Zhuhai airshows. I would imagine that engine will be used on Project 310 and other projects like UAVs. Even though it has great important, it will not be as high priority as the WS-15 project. Since it began at a later point and has lower priority than WS-15, it definitely won't be ready before WS-15. If we estimate that serial production of WS-15 will be under way by 2020, this medium thrust engine won't be ready for serial production until 2025. PLAAF would have to either wait until then or find an interim selection. A large part of its test flight program may need to be done with a different engine.

The other question is what is the expected market for Project 310 outside of China. Unlike J-20, models resembling Project 310 have appeared in air shows since 2011 indicating that it should be available for export sooner rather than later. The problem is who can they sell it to. Ten years from now, most of the Western countries will probably go for F-35. The remaining ones will either go for the eurocanards or for super hornets if they are still in production. Due to politics, they are unlikely to go for a Chinese or Russian aircraft. We know that India and Russia are committed to the PAK-FA project, so what does that leave for Project 310? Most of China's traditional customers in Asia, Africa and Latin America simply don't have the money or the need for a low-end 5th gen aircraft. Project 310 will most likely be exported to Pakistan. After that, it will have to battle against F-35, PAK-FA and Gripen-E in the Middle East, South East Asia, Brazil and South Africa. Its main advantages are its cost and available production slot, but China will have to move fast.

Friday, March 7, 2014

J-20 Program Update

Prototype No. 2011 of the J-20 project had its maiden flight last weekend. As previously discussed, No. 2011 has significant changes to the previous J-20 prototypes that we've seen in flight testing (No. 2001 and No. 2002). There were probably 2 more prototypes similar to 2001/2002 for the purpose of static and RCS testing. It seems like 2001/2002 are more like the demonstrator prototypes whereas 2011 is the first pre-production prototype. It's likely that the production version of J-20 will not see any major differences unless major problems are found in testing. The pictures below show prototype 2001 vs prototype 2011 from different view point with Chinese labels on parts that changed in the first 2 pictures.

Generally speaking, CAC appears to have taken much greater care for the LO properties of No. 2011 compared to 2001/2002. Quite a bit of type elapsed from 2002 to 2011 and it looks like they really tried to address a lot of issues from RCS testing. The workmanship and fit/finishing of 2011 all appear to be better. Some of the more obvious changes include
  • Clipped corners on canard/v-tails
  • Redesign slender intakes with bump larger or protruding more
  • F-22-style light-grey colour scheme
  • Larger weapon bay and smaller wing actuators
  • Straightened leading edge
  • Inner canopy frame like F-35
  • Redesigned front landing gear door
  • New EOTS-like sensor and holographic HUD display
  • Redesigned rear fuselage around the engines and nozzles moved further in with longer tail sting.
It seems like more care is put into all-aspect stealth as the clipped canards has decreased returns from some angles and the ventral fins now seem to completely block engine nozzles from the sides. Looking at the inner edge of the canard, they are modified to conform nicely around intake so as to not create gaps.

Here is a good side view of the front part of the prototype.

Comparing to other 5th generation projects, I think PLAAF had a higher LO design requirement for J-20 than PAK-FA, while still trailing F-22/35. Compared to PAK-FA, it looks like everything conform to the body a lot better leaving fewer gaps and deflecting surfaces all around. Compared to F-22, it still has some areas like engine nozzle (which is covered by thrust vectoring plates on F-22) that are just not as well shielded even after the treatments. This is all from my extremely untrained eyes, so feel free to give me additional insights.

Project 310, China's other next-gen project, at this point still has not received official PLAAF designation. It looks to be in the flight demonstration stage and would probably need to become an offical PLAAF program before proceeding further to where J-20 is right now.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Su-33 or Mig-29K

As we see CV-16 Liaoning class spend more time training in the ocean, one of the often asked question is the choice of air wing. Now, we know that China can build flankers on its own, whereas it would have to purchase Mig-29K from Russia, so it would've been very unlikely that China would go with Mig-29K. The hypothetical question is what if China had the choice of building both Su-33 and Mig-29K, would it have taken Mig-29K over Su-33? Or more realistically, why did naval flankers get picked over naval J-10? After all, both India and Russia have now picked Mig-29K as their naval fighter.

Back in the late 80s and early 90s, China was looking to modernize its air force by purchasing a 4th generation aircraft from Soviet Union. At that time, everyone thought China was going to purchase Mig-29, since it had only operated Mikoyan fighter jets in the past and Mig-29 was the aircraft that Soviet Union exported. In fact, Su-27s had never been exported before then. Against all odds, PLAAF picked Su-27 over Mig-29 due to its longer range and greater potential as a heavy fighter jet. Up to that point, China really was not capable of designing its own heavy fighter jet like Su-27. J-10, the winning design of China's own 4th generation competition, is a single engine fighter jet (between the size of J-7 and J-8). As part of the deal for ToT and local production of Su-27, China got pretty much all it needed to eventually indigenize flankers. Russia was a lot more willing to sell off its technology back at that time. As seen with India's involvement in the PAK-FA project, Russia is now a lot more stingy when it comes to sharing its core technology. The effect of the J-11 deal can be seen today. Shenyang AC is now producing J-11B along with J-15 and J-16. You can even see the effect of J-11 on J-20 (SAC helped with that part of design). Just as importantly, it changed PLAAF's doctrine from one of air denial to one of air superiority. As we can see with J-20 and J-31, PLAAF has made the decision to go with larger hi-lo fighter jet combination for the next generation. Outside of the obvious advantages like range/patrol time/multi-role capability, I've read that PLAAF believes that it can only make up for its technology gap vs Western fighter jets like F-35 by producing larger, more powerful aircraft.

There was a competition between J-10 and J-11 as the first generation naval fighter, but J-11 won due to the aforementioned advantages. I would think that the second generation naval fighter will likely be a heavy fighter too. Operating off a stobar carrier like Varyag, there will be limitations to J-15 take-off profiles. So far, we've seen J-15s with 2 SR-AAMs and 2 LR-AAMs, 2 SR-AAMs and 2 AShMs, 2 SR-AAMs and bombs. We've even seen J-15 just carrying buddy refueling pod. None of these profiles come close to approaching the limits of what's possible from CV-16. With no headwind, Su-33 can take off from the first and second take-off locations on Adm K class with 28 ton. It can also take off from the third take-off location with 32 ton. It's likely that as they get more experience, we will see more weapons carried on J-15. Based on what we've seen from typical PLAAF photos, the stobar limitations probably won't affect J-15 that much. We rarely see J-11B with more than 6 AAM (4 LR + 2 SR) and J-10 with more than 4 AAM (2 LR + 2 SR). Those are quite achievable off all 3 take-off spots on CV-16.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Current Status of JF-17

As PAC starts the production of second block of JF-17, it's good to take a look at where the project is right now. I won't go over the history of the project, since that can be found online or any of the many forums. At this point, PAF remains the only operator of JF-17. They have finished the production of the first block of 50 JF-17s out of the 150 they ordered. There have been persistent news coming out of Pakistan that more will be ordered, but I don't think that's finalized. By all account, PAF has been fairly satisfied with the performance of the aircraft and the project as a whole. I don't have the latest number, but PAC is now capable of producing most parts of JF-17 with engine been the lone major subsystem that is outside their expertise. There have been numerous reports of sales to other country, but none of them have concluded. There were the 12 JF-17s to Zimbabwe and the 24 JF-17s to Azerbaijan, which never came to fruition. There were also the more persistent stories of concluded sales to Egypt and possible sales to Argentina. In the former case, China lost the deal after Mubarak and the new government is now picking Mig-29s over JF-17s. In the latter case, Argentinian economy has bigger issues like hyperinflation to deal with and will not have the ability to purchase fighter jets anytime soon. The problem for JF-17 has always been finding the right customers. China's traditional customers don't have the need or the money for something like JF-17. They have most opted for J-7s and K-8s in the recent years. L-15 is fighting the same issues. In the more affluent markets, JF-17 has been fighting against used F-16s, Mig-29s and other better known 4th generation fighter jets with more customers. It's hard to make the case for JF-17 while PAF remains its only operator. Having said that, I think JF-17 still has a bright future. PAF have really made JF-17 project what it is today by discovering/expanding the flight envelopes of the aircraft and working with various Chinese firms to add support for SD-10A, SRAAM, C-802A, various PGMs and the infamous mach 4.5 CM-400AG. We've heard recently that Saudi Arabia is interested in getting involved in the JF-17 project. Certainly, if KSA does purchase JF-17, that would be a huge shot in the arm for the entire program and its export prospects around the world (especially the rest of Muslim world). More importantly, I think PLAAF will be placing orders for JF-17 in the next few years. In a recent interview from Singapore Air Show, the VP of AVIC-1 said that domestic engine options should be available for JF-17 soon. I have talked in the past that PLAAF is looking for a stripped down version of JF-17 that it can replace all the retiring J-7 regiments. There were a total of 10 J-7E and 3 J-7G regiments produced for PLAAF/PLANAF. Based on the year they entered service and orbat data, most if not all of them should still be in service. There are also 10 or more J-8 regiments still in service including the very ancient J-8B aircraft. All of these regiments will need to be replaced. Although some of those regiments may be disbanded, there are not likely going to be enough J-10B and J-16 production to replace all of those retiring aircraft. There will probably be a total of less than 10 regiments of J-10B/J-16. By the time domestic engine (let's say WS-13) becomes ready for JF-17, some of the older J-7E regiments should be ready to retire. If CAC can meet PLAAF's cost requirements, then I think there will be order for several regiments of JF-17. Once PAF and PLAAF operate JF-17, I think you will see some export deals.