Saturday, January 7, 2017

Naval aviation

PLAN's naval aviation arm has gotten a huge boost since the commissioning of CV-16. In the past year, this has been especially more pronounced with more and more activities off CV-16. As PLAN is becoming more and more a blue water navy, this is expected to continue. Historically, PLAN's naval aviation wing is dominated by a lot of land based aircraft that are focused on nearby water. Outside of some naval helicopters, they were fixed wing aircraft that simply could not land on a ship. That's not a sign of a modern navy. It's well known that USN has more aircraft than USAF. More importantly, most of these aircraft are expected to be able to operated off surface combatants. So in order to become a modern navy, PLAN's air force needed to transform from a bunch of land based aircraft that can attack naval targets to ones that can take off/land on flat tops and carried to distant land. With that, we can take a look at the recent improvements in the operation of J-15s and naval helicopters.

For the past month, CV-16 made a lot of news operating in a carrier group formation (with 3 052C/D, 2 054As and 1 Type 903A AOR) from its base all the way down to South China Sea. This fleet certainly does pack a lot of offensive fire power while providing adequate AAW and ASW protection. As it passed by Japanese islands and Taiwan, alarm bells understandably went off in those defence ministries. It might have even got some more play in US press if not for the news of Russian hacking. Against countries around South China Sea, this would present a lot of hard power. Back when Chinese naval planners had first thought about carriers, this is exactly what they had envisioned. Of course, this carrier strike group would present a lot of power projection even further away from Chinese waters, but it has not travelled that far yet.

As impressive as this strike group was, the air wing operation off CV-16 was the focal point. It seems to most PLAN watchers that PLAN has been able to developing carrier aviation operations reasonably quickly since CV-16 was first commissioned. In the 4 years since that time, we have seen more intensive take-off and landings from CV-16. CV-16 was even declared fully operational and combat ready earlier this year. It seemed a little premature at the time, since how would one quantify the move from training to combat ready. This most recent deployment does seem to resemble a combat ready carrier operation. First of all, we saw more aircraft on deck than at any time before. There were pictures showing 13 J-15s and 1 Z-18 on deck at the same time. I am sure more aircraft were in the hangar at the time. There were also pictures showing 7 helicopters and multiple J-15s at the same time. That's definitely something Russian Navy is not capable of carrying out at the moment. Secondly, the J-15s appeared to have been taking off and landing in very quick succession based on the still photos that we saw. There were 2 J-15s set up in take off location with more J-15 looked ready to be moved over after each takeoff. We have yet to see night time operation photos of J-15, but this reportedly have also taken place in South China Sea. After that, the next big hurdle for J-15 operations would be taking off and landing in bad weather and high sea state conditions. What they have achieved thus far in terms of flight operation intensity at different times of day is something they didn't even train on land before PLAAF's modernization efforts. And finally, we have seen a variety of helicopters and J-15s set up for different missions. J-15s have been shown carrying AAMs and AShMs for air superiority roles and anti-shipping roles. An EW variant of J-15 was developed and flew last year. We have also seen J-15 with UPAZ-1A refueling pod under centerline to allow for buddy to buddy refueling. While this is not ideal, J-15s have already shown more multi-role capabilities than Su-33 showed with Adm K carrier.

We saw 3 Z-18J, 1 Z-18, 1 Z-18F and 2 Z-9S at the same time. PLAN has long been hampered by the size of Z-8/18 series of helicopters because they are too large to fit in the hangar of most ships under 20,000 ton. Up to this point, only Type 071 LPDs have been effectively using Z-8 helicopters. On CV-16, the additional payload and internal space of Z-18 helicopters make them a good interim solution until China develops fixed wing ASW/AEW platforms that can takeoff/land on carrier. Even when that becomes available, the STOBAR carriers will still rely on helicopters. China had purchased Ka-31 AEW helicopters from Russia, but prefer to use Z-18J on CV-16. I think that would indicate Z-18J is a better platform for AEW missions due to additional payload and space (for more equipments and personnel). Along the same line, Z-18F is installed with a powerful dipping sonar, large surface search radar, FLIR/TV turret, 30 openings for sonobuoys and 4 pylons (that can carry Yu-7K torpedoes and YJ-9 AShM). It also has more internal space to carry more electronic equipment and personnel than Ka-28. We have also seen Z-8JH on CV-16 as a SAR helicopter with medical equipment on board. This a wide range of helicopters should be able to adequately support CV-16/17 in the near term.

Since Z-8/18 couldn't fit in the hangars of larger surface combatants like 052C or 054A, PLAN have been forced to use Ka-28/31 or Z-9C/D helicopters. Neither of these options are the perfect fit. Type 054A would be better served with a larger helicopter that can carry more equipment and fly further. Type 052C/D have been able to use Ka-28 for ASW missions and Ka-31 to search both enemy aircraft and ships. Even so, it would be better if they had a similar sized domestic option that can be fit with the latest Chinese subsystems. It's clear that PLAN prefers its own electronics over Russian ones. Ka-31s were purchased recently, so I'd expect PLAN to continue to carry them on 052 series and possibly 055 series in the future to improve targeting against ships, sea skimming missiles and low flying aircraft. Z-9C and Ka-28 will be replaced by something that is more advanced. Currently, China is doing flight testing on Z-20 and AC-352 helicopters. AC-352 is now equipped with domestic produced WZ-16 turboshaft. It's probably going to be the most advanced helicopter of its class. It has a lot of military potential in the role of utility or naval helicopters. I think that in the long run, it will be a good replacement for Z-9C on 054A sized ships. Z-20 is a little larger and uses domestically developed WZ-10 series of turboshaft. It is developed to serve the role of blackhawk helicopter in PLA. Initially, I think Z-20 will be deployed in that role. Further along, I think a naval version of Z-20 can be developed (similar to SH-60 sea hawk) to serve as Ka-28 replacement. If PLAN deems the cost to be too high, they may decide to only develop one of Z-15 and Z-20 in the naval role, since they are similar in size.

Several years ago, naval helicopter was regarded as one of the weakest areas for PLAN. I think it still remains that way, but the deployment of Z-8/18 on CV-16, Type 071 and other large ships have vastly improved this area. Ka-31 purchase was expected to provide AEW support for CV-16, but have found themselves on 052C/D instead. Once Z-15 and/or Z-20 naval versions get developed in a few years, this will have solved one of the remaining glaring holes with PLAN.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Notable things from 2016

This was a year of many major events for PLAAF and PLAN. This was the year that China came a major or even dominant exporter of UAVs and dramatically expanded its activities in South China Sea with the installation of HQ-9 SAMs. I will look into and review activities from different departments.

This year, PLAN declared that CV-16 is finally combat ready. Throughout much of the year, we saw that the intensity of the flight operations were going up. By the end of the year, CV-16 went on a major exercise where it did much live firing exercises. During this exercise, PLAN went through a much more intensive flight activity with J-15s set up to takeoff in rapid succession. We saw as many as 13 J-15s and 1 Z-18 on board CV-16. The J-15s have been carrying anti-ship missiles as well as anti-air missiles. One of them was even carrying a UPAZ-1A refueling pod. This is the largest air wing we have ever seen on board CV-16. It's hard to say how many more aircraft could even be fit on board CV-16, since Admiral Kuznetsov class has rarely gone with its full complement of aircraft. At this point, at least 21 J-15s that have gone into service by now, so many more could be in the hangar area awaiting takeoff. As this was happening, Type 001A, the first domestically produced carrier, was slowly taking shape in Dalian shipyard. As expected, Type 001A CV-17 looks to be the exact replica of CV-16 in dimensions. CV-17's island is a little smaller than that of CV-16 from what we can see. I also would expect the interior of the carrier to be refined and improved from CV-16. And finally, the CATOBAR variant of J-15 (J-15A) flew for the first time, being powered by WS-10H engines. The 2nd domestic carrier, Type 002, is expected to be a CATOBAR carrier.

As carrier activity heated up this year, more and more blue water surface combatants also joined service. The first Type 055 modules were photographed from JN shipyard this year. They probably won't be launched until 2nd half of next year, so we do not know their exact sizes yet. I wrote an entry previously on how I think Type 055 will look like. Initially, at least 2 Type 055s have been identified at JN shipyard. There has not been any Type 055 modules at Dalian shipyard, but I would expect it to also participate. A new series like Type 055 comes with more risks, so Type 052D construction continues to be very hectic. No. 117, the 5th 052D, was shown in the past month in North Sea Fleet. Basically, we have a full flotilla of 4 052Ds in service with South Sea Fleet and another one that is about to join service. Aside from that, at least 2 more 052Ds are on sea trials and another 4 are fitting out at the shipyards (2 at Dalian and 2 at JN). The 052D production run seems to already have reached more units than I expected (which was 12). A lot of progress was also made among the destroyers going through extensive weapon system upgrades. The lone Type 051B destroyer, No. 167, recently went out for sea trials after long period of time in the shipyard. A lot of progress has also been made in No. 136, the first Sov destroyer. It will be interesting to see the exact upgrades that have been performed over the next year.

Of the remaining surface combatants, the production run for Type 054A appears to be coming to a close. Only 2 Type 054As joined service earlier this year with 2 more ready to join service soon. Both HP and HD shipyard will move to other projects after the current batch is completed. They have both been very active with Type 056 production, as have Wuchang and LiaoNan shipyard. At least 6 Type 056s have already joined service this year. Up to this point, at least 40 of them have at least been launched. About 12 to 13 Type 056s have been identified in both HP and HD shipyard, with another 9+ have been identified in each of the other 2. There may be 60 Type 056s by the end of its production run. There does seem to a lull in the production of larger ships. There were 1 Type 071 LPD, 1 Type 815A AGI and 3 Type 903A AOR joining service in the earlier part of this year, but HD shipyard hasn't launched any other large naval ships recently. PLAN may be moving on from these series of ships to newer classes. The first Type 901 AOR was launched at GSI shipyard and has recently gone on sea trials. It is much larger than Type 903A and far more suited for supplying a carrier group. There is also the rumoured Type 075 LHD class which should be noticed soon. I expect HD shipyard to carry the task of building this series. It remains to be seen if an upgrade Type 071A LPD will also start production. Production of Type 081 minesweeper and Type 082II minehunters also seemed to have drawn to a close.

As I look at PLAN this year, the focus has mainly been on the development of carrier group. A lot of time and effort have been devoted to the construction of new carrier and building up naval aviation fleet. Type 055 and Type 056 series have also enjoyed a lot of attention, but other areas have begun to slow down. It appears that numerous branches of PLAN surface combatants have finished hardware modernization. PLAN is continuing to develop a fleet with more fire power and blue water capability. It should not be surprising that areas like MCM fleet, medium sized AORs, AGI fleet and icebreakers slowing down production after a while. Even PLAN's fleet of frigates have mostly completed modernization now that Type 054/As have taken over all the major flotilla.

While PLAN's marquee project was making significant progress, PLAAF's marquee project J-20 also experienced much progress this year. The first LRIP version of J-20 appeared at the end of last year and made it's maiden flight this year. As the year went on, more photos of LRIP J-20 appeared. They were tested carrying various different missiles, fuel tanks and other ordinances. By the time of Zhuhai Airshow, J-20 made its first public appearance in a fly by. Not much was shown, but that is expected for a fighter jet that has yet to complete all of its flight and weapon testing. By the end of this year, FTTC formed a new 176th brigade for the first 6 J-20s to begin the process of expanding its flight envelope and developing tactics and training programs. The first 2 J-20s were officially handed over this month, but there have already been rumours of DACT between J-20 and 3rd generation fighter jet. Much of the rumours sounded like the early stories of F-22 vs F-15/18, so I will be keeping an eye out for more stories like this in 2017. At this point, it looks like J-20 will achieve IOC in 2017, which is just 6 years after it's first flight and 3 years after the first flight of No. 2011. A whole new series of missiles have been developed for J-20. J-10B/C are already in service with PESA/AESA radar along with a new generation of integrated avionics and combat system. One would imagine J-20 would be much further along, but it's unknown how that would compare to F-35 (often referred to as a flying computer). Either way, the largest question mark left for J-20 is its propulsion. WS-15 is still a couple of years away from design certification. Therefore, the initial J-20s are flying with under powered engines. It may be a while longer before we get details on exactly what kind of engines are powering these early J-20s. The J-31 project appears to have fallen much first behind. There were numerous reports in this year that both PLAAF and PLAN have rejected the current iteration of this aircraft. It looks like SAC is continuing to privately fund this project and recently flew the second prototype. Since J-20 is unlikely to be purchased in large number (probably in similar numbers of F-22), there will be a requirement for a lower cost 5th generation fighter jet. SAC is building a limited number of prototypes to continue to showcase an improved demonstrator. At some point, it is hoping to capture more funding from PLA in order to really ramp up the development work for J-31. It would be a sad day for SAC if it looses both the light 5th gen aircraft and 2nd generation naval aircraft project to CAC.

The other major news in PLAAF this year was the entry into service of Y-20 transport. Two Y-20s were handed over to the first 4th division in June. More Y-20s may have been handed over by the end of the year. Ramping up the production of an aircraft the size of Y-20 is no easy task. Even Airbus and Boeing experience much difficulties in ramping up production level of new aircraft like A350 and B787 while trying to lower the production cost at the same time. I don't think Y-20 production needs to reach that level, but it will be a big challenge for XAC to go from building 1 Y-20 every 2 months to 2 Y-20s every month. The Y-20 platform is badly needed in PLAAF for various missions, so it's critical for XAC to be able to ramp up Y-20 production. Until then, PLAAF is reliant on 3 IL-78s and some H6U for refueling + various Y-8/9s for special mission platform. On the major question of propulsion, I think the initial batch is equipped with WS-18 engine. WS-20 seems to have already done a lot of testing, so it may be ready to equip Y-20 in the near future.

As J-20 captured all of the spotlight this year, J-10C production has continued int he background. After the first batch of 55 J-10B was produced, there probably will be around that many J-10Cs being produced in this second batch. As many as 4 J-10B/C regiments have been formed on top of the J-10B/Cs servicing with 2 different FTTC brigades. Currently, close to 40 J-10s are produced every year. At the same time, the deal for 24 Su-35s with Russia was finally agreed to. The first Su-35 appears to have been delivered in the last couple of days. I know a lot of Chinese military fans are wondering why this was signed. It seems like PLAAF prefers Su-35 over J-11D and wanted another flanker regiment in the air superiority missions in service. Development work for J-11D has continued. It's major improvements over J-11B seems to be all related to electronics, so I don't think it should take too long for this aircraft to join service. Work on J-16 has also continued. A recent photo showed a second batch of J-16s under construction at SAC. Some from the first batch appears to be going through the testing process at FTTC. I have yet to confirm an official J-16 regiment. On the whole, SAC continues to look a step slower than CAC in production and development. It took a good 5 years (2008 to 2013) to go from J-10B's first flight to joining service with PLAAF. It took the same number of years for J-11B to go from first flight in 2002 to joining service with 2007. All of this happened while CAC had to divert precious resources to the J-20 project. More recently, it seems like CAC moved from J-10B to J-10C a lot more smoothly than SAC from J-11B to J-11D. In both cases, the major changes were all related to avionics and combat system. At some point, production version of J-10s will finally move to using WS-10 series of engines. The original WS-10 engines finally achieved production certification this year, which is quite a huge milestone. A couple of J-10Bs were fitted with WS-10B engines at the end of the first batch, but the J-10Cs have continued to be equipped with AL-31FN. The upgraded WS-10G engine, aka WS-10IPE?, supposedly achieved design certification year, so we should be seeing it join service soon. There are some speculations that we will a J-10D variant with this engine and some other upgrades, but that is to be seen. And finally, WS-13E engine achieved design certification this year. The second FC-31 prototype may be powered by this engine. It could also be used to power JF-17 and UCAV projects. So, I think this is one development that should be carefully watched.

In all of the remaining areas, I think the explosion of UAV/UCAV exports this year has been quite fascinating. The CH series have now becomes the AK-47s of drones. Many of the middle Eastern countries have purchased some Chinese UAVs and put them into action. It remains to be seen which of the UAV prototypes tested in CAC and SAC airfields in the recent years will be put into service with PLA. There have also been a lot of movements on both army and naval helicopter forces. Most recently, Z-15 had its maiden flight with WZ-16 engine. This helicopter is expected to make its way into PLA at some point. Z-20 helicopter has been going through a lot of testing and may still be a couple of years away. China had been lacking a non attack helicopter between the 4 and 13 ton class for the longest time. Now, it will have two in a couple of years when both Z-15 and Z-20 are ready. They may not be both needed. Z-10 and Z-19 have continued to proliferate with Army Aviation. A more power attack helicopter is said to be under development. Newer turboshaft (WZ-10 and WZ-16) are now available as part of Z-15 and Z-20 project which could be used to power such an attack helo. Various Z-8 and Z-18 helicopter versions have shown up on CV-16 and Type 071 LPD. They are the mainstays of larger ships. The Kamov and Z-9C series of helicopters are still the work horses of PLAN rotary aviation forces for the destroyers and frigates. At some point, these helicopters will need to be replaced since Z-9Cs are too small whereas Ka-28s are too old.

In many ways, PLAAF have grown in more areas than PLAN this year. Aerospace engine remains an area which holds back most PLAAF projects. The progress of J-20 projects has surprised many people. The Y-20 EIS is also very significant. Z-20 is also very far along in its production testing. After J-20, Z-20 and Y-20 join service, the final major ticket item is the H-20 bomber project. Can China go from a bomb truck like H-6K to a subsonic fly wing design similar to B-2. Of all the major ticket items, this appears to be the most challenging of all.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

J-20 and other news from Zhuhai Air Show

China made it official this week that J-20 is coming to Zhuhai air show. All of this is quite interesting when one compares this to how long before J-10 made its first visit to Zhuhai Air Show. Clearly, China has taken a more confident and transparent approach in its military programs in the past 10 years. At this point, J-20 has started Low rate initial production batches, but has yet to achieve IOC. To that end, AVIC must be confident enough in the progress of flight-testing program to allow J-20 to appear in China’s most prominent aerospace exhibition.

A couple of years ago, PAK-FA had an epic failure when one of the prototypes had fire damage while delivering a flight performance in front of IAF officials. Certainly, the pilots were most likely instructed to put on a show to impress PAK-FA’s largest export client, but the aircraft was also clearly not up to task. The result of that embarrassing incident was extensive delays in the flight-testing program while that prototype was getting repaired. More recently, Russia finally officially adjusted the initial induction of PAK-FA to 2018. It had been obvious for quite a long time that they were not going to make end of 2016, since the fixed up prototype and new prototypes have just recently surfaced. I have not kept up to the progress of J-20 units, but it seems like the first LRIP frames may have already arrived at FTTC. FTTC should very soon start training with this new aircraft. IOC may be achieved by late next year. Of course, engine remains to be a major concern for the J-20 program. It’s still not known at this point what is powering aircraft. It would seem to be a special variant of AL-31FN, but this will be an interim solution until WS-15 is ready. At its induction, J-20 will be quite underpowered.

Aside from J-20, other big-ticket items like J-10B, KJ-500, Y-20, Z-10K and H-6K will all be physically displayed in the air show. Since a real J-10B came, the serial number was finally allowed to show. Maybe after this appearance, China will allow J-10B pictures to be published without the serial numbers photoshoped. Zhuhai air show has traditionally been an occasion for China to show its latest UAV and missiles (many of which are still in conceptual stage). It will certainly be the case again this time around. While we have already seen well know UAVs like CH-5 and Wing Loong-2, we are also seeing new concepts that could very well make their mark in the export market. The latest one we saw is Cloud Shadow UAV which looks a lot like SkyWing UAVs that have already test flied.

Finally, a recent national day parade in Turkmenistan showed that all of its SAMs, missiles, radar systems and UAVs are all imported from China. All of this is quite unexpected since Turkmenistan has traditionally been under the overwhelming presence and influence of Russia. At this point, China is clearly making inroads against Russia in many export markets.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Looking at cruisers and Type 055

When I read Pop3’s comments that an initial estimate of the Type 055 design’s displacement was over 20,000 ton, the first thought that came to my mind was Kirov class cruiser. Since the retirement of Iowa class, Kirov has been by far the largest non-carrier surface combatant. There has been numerous estimate of Type 055 size based on the land simulator in Wuhan. I want to look over cruisers from around the world and comparing them to what Type 055 might look like.

The first one to look at is Kirov class cruiser, which was built around the P-700 Shipwreck AShM. It is estimated to be 252 m long, 28.5 m in beam and 9.1 m draft for full load displacement of 28,000 ton. In order to achieve 30+ knots in speed, it was installed with nuclear and steam turbine propulsion (CONAS). As one could imagine, the propulsion unit takes up a lot of space. In terms of missiles, Kirov is installed with 20 P-700 AShM, 96 S-300F long range SAM, 128 SA-N-9 short range SAM and 40 SA-N-4 point defense SAM. It is also installed with 8 AK-630 or 6 Kashtan CIWS for last-ditch defense. And finally, it has one AK-130 main gun, ASW rocket launchers and torpedo tube launched torpedoes. At 20 knots operating on nuclear power, it has unlimited range. This allows Kirov class to operate by itself far from home base. However, such design requires additional storage space that would not be expected out of a normal surface combatant.

At the same time that Kirov was being built, the smaller conventionally powered Slava class Cruiser was also being built around the P-500 Bazalt AShM. It is estimated to be 186 m long, 20.8 m in beam and 8.4 m draft for full load displacement of 12,500 ton. In terms of missiles, Slava class is installed with 16 P-500 P-500 AShM, 64 S-300F long range SA and 40 SA-N-4 point Short range SAM. It is also installed with 6 AK-630 CIWS and a AK-130 main gun.

Looking at Slava class, I think it’s quite obvious why China was not interested in purchasing the almost completed 4th unit (Ukrayina) when the Ukrainians offered it for S600 million. The much smaller 051C carries 48 S-300F missiles (using 1 Top Dome FCR instead of 2 on Slava) along with 2 PJ-12 CIWS for air defense. Having a pair of 051Cs probably offers stronger area air defense than 1 Slava class. More importantly, 052C/052D has become a major success compared to the slightly larger, but less powerful 051C class. The size of the S-300F VLS along with the large and bulky top dome FCR took away the option of installing a hangar on 051C.

Turning our eyes away from former Soviet cruisers, KDX-3 is another very powerful cruiser currently in service. It is 165 m long, 21.4 m in beam and 6.25 m in draft for full load displacement of 11,000 tons. It is installed with 4 LM-2500 gas turbines along with 2 shafts in COGAG configuration allowing for 30+ knots in speed. In terms of missiles, it has 80 cell MK-41 VLS and 48 cell K-VLS for Korean LACM and ASROC. It is also equipped with 1 Goalkeeper CIWS and 1 RAM CIWS for point defense. And finally, it has a MK-45 main fun and 2 triple barrel torpedoes.

The Arleigh Burke class has similar layout to KDX-3. Flight IIA is 155 m long, 20 m wide and 9.3 m in draft for full load of 10,000 ton. It is also installed with COGAG propulsion (4 LM-2500 turbine + 2 shafts) and capable of 30+ knots. In terms of armament, it’s installed with 96 cell MK-41 VLS, 1 MK-45 main gun, Phalanx CIWS and 2 triple barrel torpedoes. It also carries hangars for 2 MH-60 helicopters for ASW/SAR missions.

I think the 4 examples show that the Soviet system is bulkier. Similarly sized cruisers like Slava class does not carry anywhere near the firepower of Arleigh Burke class or KDX-3. The Cold launched S-300F has many advantages over hot launched MK-41 VLS, but also takes up more space and has less flexibility. The combined nuclear/gas turbine and steam turbine option on Soviet cruisers are likely to take up more space than the COGAG arrangements on Arleigh Burke class. Most of the electronics on older Soviet cruisers are heavier. The most visible proof of that can be seen in the FCR for S-300F, which takes up much more space than SPY-1D.

So I think it’s quite obvious that PLAN will go for something similar to KDX-3 than Kirov class. Type 055 should be a much stealthier design than that, since newer AAW destroyers like Type 045 have set blueprints on how to design really stealthy warships. As we spoke in previous blog entries, Type 055 will most likely be using 4 QC-280 gas turbines to generate power for an integrated electric propulsion system. It will use the universal VLS already found on 052D, since it will support both the cold launched and hot launched naval missiles in service with PLAN. Type 055 is probably going to hold 112 or 128 cell VLS with no additional launchers for LACM or AShM. In addition, I think it will carry 2 HQ-10 launchers along with 1 or 2 PJ-11 CIWS for point defense. For a large ship like Type 055, PLAN may also have helipad space and hangar space for 2 Z-15 or Z-20 sized helicopters. All of which would call for a ship that’s probably larger than Arleigh Burke class and probably also KDX-3 class. I would estimate it to be around 175 m long and 22 m wide with full load displacement of around 13000 ton.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Type 055 program update

While reading pop3’s various posts on Type 055, I was struck by how long this project has been planned.

As far back as 1968, the Type 055 designation was given to a new large missile destroyer program. By 1970, the701 Institute, Hudong shipyard and NSF commenced work to develop this ship. As one could imagine, China did not have the money or technology needed to develop a large missile destroyer back in those days. By 1981, this program went from an official program to one under research development. Back in the 80s, many PLAN program was dropped due to underfunding and weak technology base. Type 055 program from that time would’ve required CODOG propulsion, ASW helicopter, ECM/ESM system, SAM, sonar countermeasure system, integrated communication system, 3D search radar and rocket assisted torpedo. Those requirements were probably 20 years ahead of its time. If they had built a cruiser, it would’ve been as large as Kirov to fit all of the missiles and electronics that were available at the time. They would not have the propulsion system needed to power such a ship. Even if they did have the appropriate propulsion system, that ship would still not be very capable. That’s why China ended up developing Type 052 destroyer.

The most recent reincarnation of Type 055 came about in December of 2009. The project calls for 10k+ ton cruiser with high speed, long endurance, long self-sufficiency and excellent global navigation. It would be a stealthy design with lo acoustic, radar, infrared and electromagnetic signature. It will need to be survivable by itself and be able to lead a fleet. It must have early warning defense system as well as long, medium and close range hard+soft kill weapons. So many requirements were included in the Type 055 design that an initial design was estimated to be over 20,000 ton in displacement. A lot of work was put in to reduce redundancies and complexities in order to better utilize space. For example, the new universal VLS system supports 4 different types of missiles from 4 different firms. Each firm has their own control system, so all of this need to be integrated into one system. In addition, Type 055 will use integrated electric propulsion system, which has smaller space requirements, lower noise level and better fuel economy than previous power generation system. Pop3 estimated the cost of each Type 055, excluding missiles, to be about 6 billion RMB ($900 million). I think that’s reasonable since it’s comparable to what South Korea paid for KDX-3 and quite a bit less than what Japan paid for Atago class. While Type 055 may turn out to be better (or at least more powerful) than those 2 classes of ships, I have a hard time making that prediction at this stage.

Type 055 will be China’s first major large surface combatant series since Type 052 series. On SDF, Jeff Head start a thread on 052 Historical analysis and put some great thoughts on the history of this program. The overall dimension and propulsion of the type 052 platform did not change too much from Type 052 to Type 052D, but the firepower increased exponentially to become a truly capable multi-role destroyer. Now that Type 052D has been packed in with the most recent Type 346A MFR, 64 cell universal VLS, HQ-10 and PJ-38 main gun, it is probably at the limit of what the Type 052 hull could fill. PLAN is developing Type 055 to be a blue water large surface combatant that can defend itself against many different threats. Type 055 will also probably go through different iteration until reaching the limit of what the initial dimension and propulsion system could support. Comparing to the development of Type 052, Type 055 contains much fewer risks, since most of the weapons (universal VLS, Type 346A radar, HQ-10 and PJ-11 CIWS, YJ-18A AShM and PJ-38 main gun) have already been tested out on Type 052D and Type 054A+. Using relatively mature weapon and radar systems would significantly reduce this type of delays to commissioning of the ship. The 701 Institute has also built a full sized land based simulator of Type 055, which will allow training programs to start before the first unit is launched. Such a real world model would also identify any unexpected results in signature profile and any electronic interference. All of this would reduce the amount of troubleshooting when the first Type 055 gets launched. The Type 052 program never had this kind of luxury, since PLAN was dealing with integrating imported subsystems from different countries at the same time a new hull with new propulsion system was getting tested. No. 113 also uses different propulsion than No. 112 since arms embargo went into affect by then. All of this added a lot of delays to the Type 052 program. I think it’s really interesting to see how much things have changed in 25 years.

PLAN modernization philosophy

Most recently, I have been reading writings from pop3, a good source for PLAN, on the upcoming Type 055 cruiser. At the same, I have also been reading and discussing the issue of India’s purchase of Rafael fighter jet. While reading pop3’s thoughts on PLAN development leading up to Type 055, it made me really reflect on PLAN’s philosophy in its drive to modernization.

When the news of India’s purchase of Rafael came out, I was quite surprised by how much money they are paying for just 36 Rafael. Of course, India’s leaders were eager to point out they had haggled down price from over $13 billion to over $8 billion. That claim would ignore that the original MRCA rfp was to purchase 126 fighter jets for $8 billion. Even so, it was quite shocking that when they finally settled on direct purchase of 36 Rafael, the average total cost came out to be well over $200 million. If they had actually gotten all ToT and local production from Dassault as they had originally wanted, the cost would undoubtedly have been even higher. If we ignore the service, support, missiles and spare cost of this deal, the fly away cost + “India modification work” would still come out to $160 million per aircraft. I think that would be higher than the fly away cost of F-35, J-20 and probably PAK-FA. For an air force that has continually complained about lack of available squadrons, it seems very curious that price was not a bigger factor in its MRCA competition. To be fair, India is not the only country in the world that ends up paying premium for the weapon system that best fit its performance criteria.

I think that most people would agree PLAN has done a really good job of modernization up to this point. They have managed to do so with little access to Western exporters and relatively weak technology base (at least back in the 90s). At the same time, PLAN also had very limited funding for much of 80s and 90s. The question is what I have they done right to get to this point. It certainly helps that they have a productive domestic shipbuilding industry and low cost manufacturing base. South Korea and Japan have also been able to build very powerful ships at reasonable cost by leveraging their competitive shipbuilding industry. However, they both had access to all the major exporters, which China does not have. So what else allows China to modernize so quickly?

I think the first part is to look at the practical nature of its naval acquisitions. I want to focus on Type 054/054A program in this example. I read that France sold data of La Fayette frigate to China at the same time it had sold the ships to Taiwan. That certainly sped up their development of hull of Type 054, but I think it also showed they were very practical. While La Fayette is a modern frigate design with advanced signature reduction technology, it does have drawbacks in the role of ASW escort. It uses CODAD propulsion that is quite underpowered and noisy (compared to something using COGAG propulsion like OHP class) for ASW operations. Type 054 and 054A have the same shortcomings. Even so, PLAN recognized that it had access to all the components (including the diesel engines) needed to serially produce a much better frigate than Jiangwei class. There was no reason to wait on a perfect frigate for its requirements. The interesting part is that only 2 Type 054 class frigates were built before they moved onto Type 054A. Even after they had built Type 054, they built 2 more Jiangwei class frigates. At the time they built Type 054, most of the subsystems for Type 054A was not ready. The development of Type 382 Sea Eagle radar (looks like Top Plate) completed in 2002. The development of Type 366 OTH radar (Chinese version of Mineral-ME) completed in 2004. The AJK-16 weapon system (which fires HQ-16 missiles) only started land based testing in 2004. The actual testing on sea came after that. The Yu-8 rocket assisted torpedo completed testing in 2006. So none of these subsystems were ready when Type 054 was laid down. Instead, Type 054 was fitted with the AJK-02 weapon system (HQ-7) and Type 360 search radar. Looking at the firepower of Type 054 vs the most recent Jiangwei units, I would say Type 054 is only slightly more powerful than those Jiangwei. Type 054 would be close to twice as expensive as Jiangwei, but PLAN decided it was important to build and test out this new hull design before adding the new subsystems. When Type 054A was being designed, Type 701 Institute could focus on just integrating the new weapon system onto the same hull as Type 054. Since that point, Type 054A has become the workhorse of PLAN even as newer technology and weapon system has become available. I think they found it more important to mass-produce a good enough design since their frigates have been modernized cheaply and quickly this way. Each 054A probably costs around $250 million, which is very cheap. They can now wait for available technology to catch up to design requirements of Type 054B, since all of the older Type 053 frigates have already been replaced.

Another interesting element is China’s goal of not utilizing imports for mass production. Back when Type 052 project first started, China simply did have the technology needed to build what PLAN wanted. They ended up importing various parts from various countries, but were dealt a reality check when military embargo was put in place after the June 4th student crackdown. All of that caused delays in the development and production of the 2 Type 052s. I think Type 052 was way ahead of its time in terms of the technology employed, but PLAN simply could not afford to build more Type 052 until their military industrial complex caught up. Once that happened, they were still very cautious in building 2 Type 052B, 2 Type 052C and 2 Type 051C before the mass production of Type 052C happened. They did not want to rely on importing Ukrainian gas turbines, so waited until domestic version of DA-80 was ready for production. They were willing to test out new technology like Type 346 radar and AJK-03 VLS on 2 ships, but were not willing to mass-produce more Type 052Cs until the technology was more mature. Since QC-280 became available, Type 052C and 052D production has been continuous. It does not matter to PLAN if the subsystem is foreign designed or inspired as long as domestic firms can produce them cheaply. Due to cost and lack of import options, PLAN was driven to rely on domestic production for all of the new naval surface combatants. One could say that PLAN modernization has completed now that probably 2/3 of its ships have been replaced with modern designs.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Thoughts on the so called H-20 bomber

After the development of Y-20 and J-20, the next military major aviation project in China is the rumoured H-20 bomber project. Although we do not know the exact designation, PLAAF’s top officer, General Ma Xiatian, recently announced that China is developing a next generation, long-range bomber, which will be seen in near future. Just from his statement, I think it’s fair to say that the project is in advanced development. Since H-20 is a strategic platform, it would have even higher level of secrecy than J-20. Speculations over this next generation bomber project have already replaced J-20 and the fate of J-31 as the hottest subject on Chinese military boards. I remember back in 2009, a similar statement was said about J-20. The PLAAF officer said that the next generation fighter jet is expected to go into service in 8 to 10 years. We saw pictures of the first prototype less than 2 years later. And now, it appears that J-20 project will go into service in 2017, just 8 years after the original statement. From this, we can see that when a top level PLAAF officer makes a statement about a major strategic platform, it will usually be quite on the mark. From that, I would expect the first prototype to be built sometimes next year and make maiden flight in 2018. That also seems to be when our friend Huitong thinks the maiden flight will be.

From what I read on Huitong’s blog and other sources, it seems like 603 Institute/XAC will be the primary developer of this project. That would make a lot of sense given their work in the JH-7 series of fighter-bomber and H-6 series of bombers. With the completion of the primary development work for the Y-20 project, additional engineering resources are now available to really speed up H-20 development. Unfortunately, the “wall climbing” community isn’t as active in Xi’an as it is in Chengdu, so we might not see photos coming out as soon as in J-20. At the same time, H-20 should be considered a more classified project than J-20, so we would likely have fewer pictures and info on it than J-20. One only has to think about the classified nature of F-117 and B-2 compared to F-22/35 to imagine how secretive H-20 should be.

The next part is to look at what China has for attack and bomber project right now. China has operated H-6 bombers since first importing Tu-16 technology from Russia back in the 60s. Over time, XAC improved on the avionics and missiles carried by H-6 to develop various improved models fro PLAAF and PLANAF. When they got access to Spey engine, they also experimented installing it H-6 (but did not adopt it). More recently, XAC worked on the H-6K project, which made its maiden flight in 2007. H-6K was delayed due to engine issues, but resumed production in 2009 after they got D-30KP2 from Russia. Since they purchased large quantity of D-30, they have been able to produce about 1 regiment of H-6K (about 20 bombers) every 2 years. H-6K is a large improvement over earlier H-6 in range with payload. It can carry 6 KD-20s for long-range strike and have participated in numerous exercises. Most recently, it crossed Baishi channel in an exercise with Su-30s, early warning aircraft and refueling tankers. Even with all of this improvement, H-6K still pales in comparison to Tu-95MS and B-52 in range and payload. With the KD-20 missiles, H-6K can serve the role of missile carriers/bomb truck, but is not capable of longer ranged missions. Back in 2005, there were speculations that China was interested in Tu-22M3 backfire bombers, but that never happened. I think China was interested in bombers of that quality, but not used frames incapable of launching Chinese missiles. There were speculations a while back that China would develop a domestic version of backfire called H-18. However, that turned out to be a hoax. At this point, I think China would be interested in Tu-160 bomber, but Russia is probably not willing to sell such a strategic platform. For the past 5 years, we have seen induction of 3 H-6K regiments and many new types of missiles and bombers. H-6Ks have been installed with numerous types of electronics. I think the H-6K program serves as a good test bed for missiles and avionics that PLAAF would like to install on the next generation bomber. Once H-20 does join service, H-6K could still serve a role of bomb truck and EW aircraft.

So what would a H-20 bomber look like? The PLA’s definition of a long-range strategic bomber is a minimum range of 8,000 km (5,000 miles) without refueling and the capacity to carry a payload of more than 10 tons of air-to-ground ammunition. Considering that PLAAF it looking for such a bomber and has chosen to not develop its version of backfire, they are clearly looking for something more advanced than Tu-22M3. It would be a tremendous leap to go from H-6K to Tu-160 or B-1 bomber. Huitong’s blog indicated that China is looking for an even more advanced flying wing design akin to the B-2 bomber. If XAC is looking to develop something close to the capability of B-2, the leap from H-6K would be larger than any project in the history of Chinese military aviation (with only J-10 project as comparable). Fortunately, China already has tested out many elements needed for a modern bomber. First of all, it finally has a modern turbofan engine needed for such a bomber. B-1 bomber uses F-101, which was developed into F-110 used on F-15/16s. B-2 bomber uses F-118, which is a non-afterburning turbofan engine developed from F-110. So depending on whether XAC is looking for a supersonic bomber, they could either go with a variant of WS-10 with or without afterburner. In the future, they could also try a version of WS-15. In terms of sensors, they have already tested out various ground scanning radar, AESA radar, EW suites, FLIR/EO turret and laser designator on J-20 and H-6K. I certainly think they can develop some very capable for H-20. In terms of weaponry, stand off missiles, anti-radiation missiles and precision guided missiles have already been developed and in service with various attack aircraft. The big question is whether or not they have the stealth technology, advanced light materials, battlefield surveillance technology and FBW software needed to have a modern long-range LO signature bomber. The 601 Institute and Hongdu have been testing some of the technology since 2013 with the Sharp Sword UCAV, so it can share the data from testing with XAC. However, in order to scale that data up to something the size of a strategic bomber with 4 large turbofan engines, XAC has a lot of work ahead.