Wednesday, December 10, 2014

2014 PLAN in review

As usual, I’m taking a look at this time of the year of all the things that has happened to PLAN. 2014 has been an active year like 2013, so it’s a good time to look over what they are doing and where they are going.

Aircraft Carrier - I think PLAN is making very cautious steps in developing their naval aviation capabilities. CV-16 Liaoning spent a large part of the year in Dalian going through regular maintenance and overhaul before going on another long sea trial afterward. At this point, I think the intensity of flight operation training still have not increased much from when it first joined service. It looks like most of the sea trials are aimed at testing out different subsystems (like propulsion unit, electric generator, radar installations) and the sea worthiness of CV-16. Most of the pictures of take off and landing exercises are still taken with the J-15 prototypes rather than the production ones. It’s quite possible that they are practicing takeoff and landing on the land based training facilities before putting them on the carrier. So in the upcoming year, hopefully we will see more J-15s on CV-16 conducting carrier operations out in the sea. One encouraging sign from this year is the abundance of new Z-18 based helicopters for a variety of roles (transport, AEW and ASW/SAR) that seem to becoming ready for service. The induction of these helicopters and training on CV-16 is an important part of operationalizing CV-16.

Amphibious Vessels - After a couple of years of rest, they have restarted the production of amphibious landing ships in Type 071 and 072 series. As I wrote the past few years, they have continued to conduct a variety of new amphibious landing exercises with Type 071, 072, Type 726 LCACs, amphibious armored vehicles, Z-18 transports and even Z-10 helicopters in these exercises. I think they needed these years of training and exercises to determine what changes needed to be made to the newer Type 071/072s. It sounds like they originally planned for this new batch of Type 071 to have more firepower but ended up going for more lightly armed version like the earlier Type 071s. It will be interesting to see what differences will be to accommodate their developing amphibious warfare doctrine. I think the deliberate pace of operationalizing and training Type 071 with the marines is a good starting point of reference to see how long it will take them to develop carrier operations. One would obviously expect carrier operations to take longer to develop, but Type 071 spent its first couple of years going through going through long sea trials and commanding flotilla that we are seeing with CV-16 right now. At the same time, we can expect the future LHD design to go through the same process that we have seen with Type 071. They have shown numerous LHD designs for export in various naval exhibit, but it seems like the domestic version will be a lot larger with more landing spots and greater hangar space. Hopefully, we will start seeing that late next year. The other amphibious project is Zubr, which picked up pace this year when the Ukrainians delivered the second one earlier as a result of the Crimea conflict. It will be interesting to see how many Zubrs China end up building.

Large Surface combatant - There were 2 major developments this year with the induction of the first 052D and the appearance of the Type 055 land based simulator. The induction of No. 172 was surprising because the last 2 Type 052Cs had not been commissioned at that point. Even now, the commission status of the last Type 052Cs is a little ambiguous. It seems like the induction of No. 172 was fast tracked to allow PLAN to start testing out all the new systems that they have incorporated onto and developing tactics on using it. The following 052D, especially the 4 other ones that are launched at JN shipyard, could really benefit from the lessons they learnt from PLAN’s experience with No. 172. On the other hand, the last 2 Types 052Cs were under no similar pressure, so they’ve had a much longer induction process. I’m sure the actual crew has already been training on them for a while (based on their photos from the ZhouShan naval base with the 3rd and 4th 052Cs), so they have yet to be inducted. The Type 055 land based simulator really caused a lot of excitement earlier this year, because it had been speculated on Chinese forum for a while now. Considering that PLAN has only built similar simulators for carrier and nuclear submarine project, one can surmise this platform is held with the highest regards. We have yet to see Type 055 modules at JN or Dalian shipyard, but I think that will start to come out next year as Type 052D production start to wind down. Also, it would be interesting to finally see Dalian built Type 052Ds, since JN is already so far along in this program. Finally, it sounds like the Sov program will finally go forward with modernization. There was a picture of one of the Sovs at the shipyard recently with a lot of scaffoldings. Since they will have to replace all the Russian subsystem with Chinese ones, I would think that the modernization would be even more extensive than what we saw with the 2 Type 052A ships. Even though this kind of modernization is quite costly, PLAN does prefer that to decommissioning and building new ones. After that, the only candidate left for modernization will be No. 167. I think retiring this ship in 5 years makes more sense than modernizing it again since it was originally built as more of an experimental platform to test out 6000-ton class of surface combatants for PLAN. At this point, there is not a lot of value to keep around such the only hull of this experimental class.

Smaller Surface combatants - This year, we saw that the new Type 054As been built at HP and HD shipyard had numerous improvements over all of the earlier ones. The biggest change was the installation of the VDS on top of the TAS installation to really improve the ASW capabilities of these ships. I think that the commissioning of the 4 Type 054As at these shipyards have been slow because of the new VDS system. After that, I think they would move on with the next major iteration of Type 054 project, so these last 4 are testing subsystems that will be used there. Also, we saw a bunch of new Type 056s been commissioned this year. HD and HP shipyard have been leading the way, but the other 2 shipyards have also been launching at a fast rate. A new Type 056 variant (dubbed 056A) is now been built that have VDS installed in the back. It looks like this one is just better equipped for ASW mission than the earlier ones. As I talked about in a previous entry, I think we have seen some real development in improving hardware for ASW missions on various ships. This is reminiscent of 5 years ago, when PLAN really started to build ships with technology to handle AAW missions. The other product of the improving Chinese naval ship production is the number of export contract that they have been winning. Just recently, we have seen the launch of the second P-18N OPV for Nigeria and the first export version of Type 056 for Bangladesh. This is on top of the C-28A, P-18N and Ghanaian patrol boat that were built earlier this year. Starting from F-22P project with Pakistani Navy, Chinese shipyard have been doing well in export market of the smaller ship classes (OPVs, light frigates and patrol boats). Going forward, I think the next step is for them to win more contracts of diesel submarines, larger surface combatants and amphibious landing docks. Type 056 is a good design that could be attractive to many smaller navies around the world.

Submarines – I think they have started building a new variant of Type 039B Yuan submarine this year with a more hydrodynamic sail, but it’s hard to quantify how many of these submarines are launched at the moment. We know that at least 4 Type 039A and 8 of the earlier Type 039Bs are in service in East Sea Fleet and North Sea Fleet. After a couple of years of hectic production, Yuan production seems to have slowed down. I hope they are taking the time to develop a newer and more advanced diesel submarine design. It is possible their discussion with the Russians on using the Lada hull will be finalized next year, but China has pretty demanding positions. I think China only want the Russian hull design at this point (and fitted with Chinese AIP engine, electronics, sonar and weaponry), but the Russians might not be happy with such an exchange. There is a lot more secrecy around the nuclear program, but it seems to me that the new modified Type 093 class is still in sea trials. More GE photos are needed to see further progress.

Auxiliary fleet - The large auxiliary ships have also been building across various shipyards. At GSI shipyard, we have seen the 5th Type 903A AOR and the 2nd Type 904 supply ship launched this year. The former should continue to compliment China’s blue water fleet and the latter will join No. 888 in supplying the naval bases that China is building in South China Sea. Going forward, I think larger AORs will be launched, since something larger is needed to support a carrier strike group. At GSI shipyard, we also saw a new large submarine cable laying ship launched recently. Not much more info about it is available at this point. HD shipyard was also busy with these larger ships. We saw the 4th test ship No. 894 join service this year. It’s kind of baffling to me that they need this many test ships, but I guess they really just have a lot of new subsystems to test out. Two Type 815B AGI ships were launched this year. They are an improved version of Type 815 AGI ship that HD shipyard built earlier. They should probably join service next year and augment the three AGI ships that they have in service. And finally, China has continued to build newer Type 081 minesweepers. I think the older Type 6605/6610 minesweepers should be retiring soon, so the Type 081 production should continue into next year.

Cutters – China’s coastal guard fleet (Maritime police agency) has also been really on a massive expansion this past year. HP and WC shipyard have been leading the way with a bunch of 5000-ton, 4000-ton, 3000-ton and 1-ton class cutters for the costal fleet. Prior to the merger of 4 of the 5 maritime agencies, these had already been ordered the expansion of CMS national/regional fleet and FLEC fleet. Since merger, they are being built for the same agency but probably still for the same roles. The many provincial coastal guard flotillas will now be equipped with these new cutters for maritime disputes in East and South China Sea. JN is building two 12000-ton class cutters with the first one recently launched. They are not large warships that will be terrorizing East China Sea contrary to some speculations. Outside of these larger cutters, a lot of smaller 600-ton and 300-ton class cutters are being built in the smaller shipyards around the country. The other thing we see is a lot of rescue ships and scientific research ships being built at HP shipyard and smaller shipyards. Out of all the shipyards, HP seems to have been getting most of the orders and have really been building them at a very fast pace. WC had historically been building most of them, but has been launching them a lot slower than HP.

So overall, another really active year in the Chinese shipyards and things are not likely to slow down in 2015. I will actively looking for the appearance of LHD and Type 055 modules in the coming year along with more news on the nuclear submarine fleet.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Zhuhai airshow and other PLAAF news

The time around Zhuhai air show is always interesting for PLA followers, because we see a whole bunch of new models displayed. This year was no different. A lot of pictures of different PGMs, ground attack missiles, army vehicles and air defense systems came out before the show even started. In many ways, Zhuhai is more like a defense exhibition rather than an air show. All of these systems are displayed for export purposes and many of them will never serve in PLA. The two items that attracted the most attention were FC-31 and Y-20.

For the latter, we saw pictures of it next to C-17 and IL-76. It was quite interesting also to see the current medium transport Y-9 side by side with Y-20's prototype 783. We also found out that a Y-30 turboprop medium transport is coming out to either replace Y-9 or compliment Y-9/Y-20. Either way, there is good progress in this area for China that has long been needed. The bigger issue is whether or not AVIC1 can build up the industrial capabilities to produce large numbers of this class of transport. American aerospace companies are far more technologically advanced than AVIC1. Just as significantly, Boeing and Lockheed has the ability to mass produce large numbers of aircraft that AVIC1 currently simply do not have the capacity to do. Lockheed can produce well over 100 F-35 a year in the future and have the ability to produce 500 F-16s a year. CAC produces around 50 J-10s in a high production year. Chinese naval shipyard have been able to produce large number of high quality ships because domestic shipyards have developed very advanced shipbuilding capabilities as well as high quality management from all of the civilian shipbuilding projects. As a result of the COMAC's C-919 and ARJ-21 project, China's aerospace industry will also develop greater industrial capability to produce airliners. AS this is happening, AVIC1 subsidiaries are developing more efficient production and assembly process. It will be interesting to watch how well this affect the production of Y-20 transport, new UAVs and next generation fighter jets.

FC-31 definitely drew more attention from the Western press. It's always amusing for me to read eye catching headlines about a jet that we have seen for a couple of years. Thankfully, there were a couple of articles that got me to think a little more. Reuben Johnson from JDW wrote a CNN article that is rather unflattering on FC-31. He was not very high on the flight performance of the jet. I think he is making a rather presumptuous judgement here, because this is quite a concept demonstration mule as I've explained in the past. Based on the picture of the FC-31 model from the air show, David Axe has already written an article on War is boring on what could change on FC-31. From air show interview, it sounds like that both an export and domestic version of the aircraft will be developed. The latter case is dependent on PLAAF orders. I would think that if this proof of concept aircraft did not achieve the desired flight performance of PLAAF, SAC would have to go back to the drawing board and make some serious changes. When J-20 project came out with its demonstrator prototypes, it was already a PLAAF sanctioned project, so 2 flying prototypes + probably 2 static prototypes were built to be tested out before they went through the major incremental change with the appearance of No. 2011. When one thinks about, it's quite an impressive achievement to go from conceptual prototypes to pre-production prototypes in just over 3 years. It looks like we will see at least 3 new J-20 prototypes this year with the possibility of a 4th one. The J-20 is really making a big push this year. In comparison, FC-31 may go through a major redesign just to satisfy PLAAF requirements and then another big change to correct the issues found in the first redesign. We've seen this with Soaring Dragon UAV project where CAC/GAIC made siginficant changes based on issues found in the demonstrator aircraft. The change was so large that I thought a new UAV project came out when the redesigned aircraft came out. Regardless of Chinese bbs speculations, FC-31 is years away due to lack of appropriate engine options for the next few years. I would think it to be prudent to take the time to make sure the final design achieves all of PLAAF requirements.

Outside of the air show aircraft, we also saw some interesting movement with production aircraft. It looks like we have finally detected a first operational unit of J-10B aircraft. Although the unit numbers are smudged in the photos, these first production J-10B looks to be forming a new FTTC brigade (maybe Brigade No. 169). That is not too surprising since J-10A also joined FTTC before the first operational regiment was established in 44th division. Enough J-10B have been produced in this first batch for 2 operational units, so I would imagine the first non-FTTC unit would also be established this year. The first batch of J-10Bs should all be using AL-31FN series 3 engines which have increased service life and thrust over the earlier series. In a recent interview with 606th Institute rep at the Zhuhai air show, it was claimed that a 14000 kgf thrust version of WS-10 engine have been developed that may be installed on J-10B in the future. If that version is in production, it would represent an engine option that's competitive with what the Russians are offering, so we may finally see J-10B installed with domestic options in the future. Continued improvement in WS-10 engine would also be very helpful to the J-20 program.

The other interesting development is the first production brigade of GJ-1 (Wing Loong) UAV with 151st brigade. Huitong's website claims this brigade is with FTTC and was operational for this year's SCO military exercises. The development timeline of GJ-1 project is quite interesting. We first saw Wing Loong (aka Yilong) display in 2008 Zhuhai airshow. At that time, it had already made its maiden flight in 2007 and conducted flight & ordinance testing. We continued to see its displays in 2009 to 2011 with some major modifications like the appearance of head bulge similar to RQ-4. By the time we saw the production version in 2012 airshow, it came with ground attack weapons, air attack missiles, E/O sensors, Satcom antenna and ground control station. UAE was already identified as the first export customer. Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan have also purchased unknown numbers. So from the first flight of demonstrator to induction into PLAAF takes about 6 years. It could be shorter for export opportunities depending on the needs of the customer. If we translate this timeline to CAC's Soar Dragon HALE UAV project, the China hawk would join service around 2017. The even more advanced Lijian UCAV project from SAC first flew last year and might join service by the end of this decade. Out of all the UAV projects, Lijian UCAV maybe the most important going forward. It is probably dependent on the success of the WS-13 turbofan engine and also the next generation engine designed for FC-31. The recurring theme here is that the WS-13 engine developed for JF-17 project (and can be used by other project) has unknown status even after years of development. The next generation engine of this class has lower priority than WS-15 and is years away from completion.

So as usual, a lot of interesting development, but domestic engine options are holding them back.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Small update on China's 5h gen project

Most recently, we've seen a set of 3 photos coming out of CFTE testing center at Yanliang. The test aircraft in question were J-20 prototype No 2012, Y-20 prototype No. 783 and Y-8FQ (ASW variant) prototype No. 731. All 3 of these projects are obviously very important, but J-20 has the special distinction as China's first 5th gen fighter jet project. This entry just provides a quick look at where China is with its 5th generation project.

Earlier this year, J-20's Prototype No. 2011 came out with significant changes from the earlier prototypes. It was quite clear at that time J-20 project has advanced from the demonstrator stage to pre-production prototypes. When prototype No. 2012 came out in July, PLA followers compared the new prototype to No. 2011. As expected from previous analysis, not much has changed from No. 2011 to No. 2012. As this projects continue to progress, it's likely that no further major changes will be made before certification unless problems are detected in flight tests. I would expect some changes to be made at the rear when domestic 5th generation engine becomes available for testing, but we are a couple of years away from that. No. 2012 had its maiden flight on July 26th and was delivered to CFTE recently for PLA flight tests. At the time No. 2012 appeared, there were a lot of rumors online that 2 more prototypes (No. 2013 and 2014) are likely to come out before the end of the year for flight testing. I would also expect there to be a couple of more prototypes built for static testing. Based on J-10 project where 4 pre-production prototypes (No. 1013 to 1016), this might be all the prototypes that are needed to complete the flight tests. Of course, J-10 had more initial prototypes, but CAC at that time probably needed more time and prototypes to settle on the final design. After these pre-production flight test prototypes are delivered, CAC will probably start producing initial production variant and then deliver them to FTTC for developing combat tactics, flight techniques, training programs for new aircraft and conducting certification of J-20. Further prototypes for the J-20 project will be delivered to CFTE if any major changes are made to the aircraft or when new engine (like WS-15) becomes ready.

More recently, we have seen a bunch of flight testing photos of prototype No. 31001 posted online. This led to a lot of speculations online surrounding the status of the project. I've even read online that some Chinese military expert proclaimed serial production will start within five years for this project. Now, I personally think that's complete nonsense. At this point, this project still seems to be at demonstrator phase. It looks like a model of this aircraft might appear at Zhuhai air show for export interest. I do expect PLAAF to pick up this project to create a high-lo combination with J-20. While it will most likely be given the designation of J-31, I try not to settle on that name yet in case it gets a different designation in the end. The problem with this project is that the lack of available engine options. We know J-20's final production variant will be using WS-15. Even though that engine is not ready, it has been worked for a while and should become available for flight testing in a few years. Until then, upgraded variants of WS-10 engine could be used in the first batch of J-20s. For J-31, there is no current domestic option for flight testing, since WS-13 is not certified yet. The development for this next generation engine in its class began more recently and is not given the same level of importance as WS-15. Even if PLAAF picks up this project in the next year, all of the initial testing would be done using an engine whose power and propulsion will be quite different from the eventual engine. So, I always thought that this project will go into service probably 5 years after J-20 does.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A recent CV-16 article and trouble with interpreting Chinese sources

There was a recent entry on War is boring which later got published on business insider talking about trouble that China is having with engine compartment of CV-16 in recent sea trials. As usual, such articles created a lot of debates on Chinese military forums.

Now, I have actually watched the original CCTV news report that this story is based on. It mentioned that CV-16 has just completed 6 months of maintenance and overhaul at Dalian shipyard before going out to sea again. The report focused on the electrical department of CV-16. Traditionally, it has been customary of Chinese news reports to interview naval personnel, talk about one challenge they had to deal with to give audience an idea of the challenges facing these sailors and then emphasize how their great works saved the ship or mission. These kind of new reports are common and are tools used to foster patriotism in the population. So in this particular praise, this news report was trying to praise the works of the electrical department of CV-16 and give the impression to Chinese population that the Chinese navy is making great progress with its historical mission. In reality, any real life and death scenario would probably be considered confidential and never reported on Chinese news.

Back to the war is boring article, it appears to me the author does not understand the context of such news report. He summarized that China is having a lot of problems with CV-16 and especially with its engines. What we do know is that Chinese navy is at its infancy when it comes to naval aviation and working hard to improve capabilities. We also know that while CV-16 has spent a lot of times at shipyard, it has also spent a lot of times in the ocean. Currently, it has been out on sea trials for 50 days after 6 months at shipyard. Even the most competent navy USN could have engine problems on a long deployment, because complex machines like the naval propulsion systems do breakdown. So it is completely expected that CV-16 would suffer breakdowns on various subsystems while on sea trials or deployment. We know that the problem was identified and fixed quickly without delaying take off/landing training of that day. That tells us the mishap was not major. The original news report was trying to show the head of electrical department is good at identifying problems in his department and working to fix them while at sea. These are all good signs for Chinese navy going forward. That is not a surprise, since these reports are meant as positive propaganda for the population. The irony of this story is that real problems with CV-16 power plant would never get reported on CCTV.

So I think this shows that a lot of experience and cultural knowledge is needed to decipher Chinese military news. Since PLA is still lacking transparency compared to most military around the world and most of their articles are in Chinese, English articles talking about news reports coming out of China often lacks understanding and context of the original article. Depending on the bias of the author, we could get different interpretation which could either sound fear mongering or overly dismissive. Real honest truth about problems facing Chinese navy is not easy to find in the midst of their modernization and building boom. One can decipher problems facing certain programs from delays in construction and commissioning. One can also decipher problems based on the subsystems used on certain ships. And finally, some insiders are candid on Chinese forums about the issues facing Chinese navy. Contrary to popular belief, the Chinese navy does not have unlimited budget. A lot of its decisions are financially related just like they are for USN.

Monday, October 13, 2014

More Amphibious Ships for Chinese navy

As the Chinese national day golden week passed, a lot of really high quality photos from PLAN bases were posted online. As newer ships get commissioned and the oldest ships get retired, many other ships get moved between different flotillas. In the past year, the main mass produced ships have been the type 052C/D series destroyers and the type 056 light frigate. It has certainly been a busy year when we factor in the other new ships. This past month, we are seeing what appears to be the modules of the 4th Type 071 LPD really taking shape at Hudong shipyard. On top of that, production for the smaller Type 072A landing ships have restarted and the first one has launched at WuChong Shipyard as No. 981.

Type 071 can be effectively used for South China Sea and Taiwan scenarios, but provide the additional blue water capabilities that Chinese navy never had. The restart of Type 072 series is aimed at either replacing older landing ships or responding to the increased tension in South China sea. Either way, it shows that Chinese navy will continue to have landing ships of this class for green water missions. PLAN has taken the approach of continuing to build modern littoral ships like Type 056 and Type 022 series while it is building up its blue water navy. The restart of Type 072A seems to be a continuation of this approach of building cheaper and less capable surface combatants for traditional missions. PLAN's identity certainly has not transformed to that to a power projecting blue water navy like USN.

The picture below shows modules from the new Type 071 under construction:

We first started to see photos of Type 071 under construction in 2006 and it was launched by the end of that year. It was commissioned by the end of 2007, but the process of learning to operate this new behemoth has been ongoing since. The second and third Type 071s launched in quick succession in late 2010 and 2011 while joining service a year later. There were speculations of modules for a 4th Type 071 at the time 3rd one was launched, but were proven to be false.

So, why have we not seen more Type 071 until now? There is both the human factor and also the supporting system factor. In the former case, PLAN and PLAMC have really just started operating something with the size ond blue water projection of Type 071. No. 998 was sent out on to Gulf of Aden relatively early on and other Type 071 units have been sent since. Most recently this year, all 3 Type 071s were out on different missions at the same time showing their value of this blue water asset to PLAN. It seems like at the time that PLA really needed more units of this class. Even so, only in the past couple of years have we seen the marine corp starting to conduct large scale amphibious exercises in South China Sea involving Type 071 + helicopters/hovercrafts/boats operating from it. All of this shows that it really takes time to recruit the personnel and train the crew member and the new marines to operate something like Type 071. At the same time, all 3 Type 071s have been assigned to the Zhanjiang naval base and there is probably a limit to how many Type 071s that base can handle before needing further expansion. So even if Hudong shipyard is capable of building one a year, PLA may not be able to accept them at that pace even if it has high need for this series. I don't see this as a problem, since it just gives them more time to identify problems and make incremental updates to the ship.

The other part that Type 071 depended on are the helicopters and hovercraft. Type 726 LCAC was designed to be operated from Type 071. According to some CGs in Chinese TV news and pictures of the inside of well deck, 4 Type 726s can be fit in there. In reality, we have never seen more than one such LCAC inside the well deck, because they have only built 3 Type 726s up to this point. It looks like Type 726 has finally been certified with the commissioning of 2nd and 3rd unit. Type 071 may have been held back while Type 726 is reaching this point. At the same time, more variants of Z-18 has come out recently. In Gulf of Aden missions, we've seen Z-8S, Z-8J and Z-8JH on Type 071. More recently, the more capable Z-18 series have entered service with PLAN as part of the carrier project and they could increase the capability of Type 071. It's quite possible that AEW and/or ASW variant of Z-18 will get stationed on Type 071 on missions where it is operating as the command ship of a expeditionary strike group, whereas transport variant of Z-18 will be used for more amphibious missions. According to mockups we've seen, 4 helicopters can be stored in the hangar of Type 071 with 2 Z-8 sized landing spot on the helipad. In reality, I've seen at most 2 Z-8s and 1 Z-9 operating on Type 071. This will probably change as more naval helicopters are inducted. The other thing we've seen operating in amphibious exercises are the amphibious armoured vehicles. At least 15 of which can be parked in the well deck of Type 071 and more of them can be parked inside Type 071. Since these vehicles already started to exercise with Type 072 landing ships, they are probably the most mature of the amphibious units operating off Type 071.

In conclusion, PLA is continuing with its practice of building amphibious ships for littoral and blue water missions. The construction of the 4 Type 071 would indicate that PLA is feeling more comfortable with this class of ships and ready to accept new unit.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

J-15S

Recently, we got some new photos of J-15S coming out, which is always exciting. J-15S is the twin-seated version of China's naval flanker J-15. Its prototype flirst flew from SAC airfield on November 2012. All of the J-15S photos we've seen so far have shown Taihang engines powering the aircraft. That would suggest J-15S will be powered by Taihang right from the time it enters service and that the single seated J-15 could be powered by Taihang after the first batch.

We know that J-11BS entered service relatively soon after J-11B entered service after a relatively short flight testing program of around 2 years. It probably could've been even shorter if not for the problems with Taihang engine at the time. We saw very few photos of J-11BS in flight testing. In comparison, it seems to me that J-15S will be having a longer flight testing program, although not as long as would be expected out of a new variant like J-11B or J-16.

Going forward, I think it is likely that J-15S would be used in more roles than just as twin-seated trainer. First of all, J-15S could be developed in navy's version of J-16. The J-15 airframe should already be strengthened to handle the punishment of taking off and landing on a carrier, so J-15S may not need too much additional work to handle the additional payload expected out of a strike fighter. J-15S would not have the range or payload of J-16 due to restrictions of taking off from a STOBAR carrier, but it could be installed with similar avionics and combat system for strike missions as J-16. It will be able to carry different types of anti-ship missiles, anti-radiation missile and ground attack munitions/missiles that can be launched by the pilot in the WSO seat. Having the second pilot should make J-15S a more effective strike aircraft than J-15. Aside from just anti-shipping missions and ground attack missions, it could also be fitted with the subsystems for SEAD missions and EW warfare. When Su-30MK2 came out, there was a lot of talk about its usage as a "mini-AWACS". While that is a little overblown and CV-16 will already have several Ka-31 and Z-18 AEW helicopters, J-15S can certainly be equipped with the necessary avionics to process data from a group of J-15s and direct their actions.

In summary, J-15S will be a very useful naval aircraft for China's burgeoning naval air arm. It will likely have many use beyond that of a trainer.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

PLAN ASW Modernization

The Chinese navy has done a lot of modernization in the past 20 years, but some areas have been lagging behind others. Even while China was still buying large ticket items from Russia, there was a lot of talks on China's growing submarine force and anti-ship missiles. Not only did the imported ships have some over-hyped supersonic missiles, the domestic built ships and aircraft were also equipped with a fairly modern YJ-83 missile. The path to modernization in ASuW is relatively small compared to other areas, so it was not surprising that PLAN made the largest jump here at first.

By 2005, Chinese navy was in the midst of inducting Type 052C and 051C capable of providing anti-air area defense. Even including the interim Type 052B class, this was a very significant jump from point defense in most of the surface combatants to having ships capable of detecting multiple aircraft and missiles at long distance, processing them on the combat system and engaging them with modern long range vertically launched surface to air missiles. As Type 054A started to proliferate in Chinese navy and becoming the backbone of many flotillas, this became no longer an area of weakness. With more Type 052Cs joining service and the first Type 052D being commissioned, Chinese fleet has now become modernized in the area of AAW.

The one area that PLAN has always lagged is in ASW. For a long time, most of the surface combatants only had hull sonar and some ASW rockets. By the turn of century, the new ships have been installed with Yu-7 torpedo. However, China's limited number of naval helicopters mean that only a limited number of ships can travel with ASW helicopters. Since helicopters are rotated between ships, that would limit the ships training with them and their effectiveness. Before the induction of 054A, China's most advanced ASW assets were diesel submarines and Type 037 sub chasers. They are both limited to littoral waters and cannot be expected to escort a fleet. Even in littoral water, they are limited by their own noisiness and lack of speed or range. The 093s could be useful in blue waters, but they are also very loud.

Type 052As were China's most well equipped ASW ships until Type 052C came along. The Type 052C destroyers were the first of surface combatants to be installed with the new generation of Towed array sonar and acoustic decoy. The Type 052s had their original imported French variable depth sonar replaced with this new towed array sonar. The induction of Type 054A really brought a lot of added ASW capabilities. They were also equipped with towed array sonar and acoustic decoy in the back along with bow mounted sonar in the front. Lack of permanent naval helicopter remains to be an issue, but at least they can launch ASROC type of missiles from VLS. That really extended the range of engaging submarines when a helicopter is not available for such duty. Even so, the passive TAS by itself has limitations and is still more suitable for littoral water.

In the past year or so, a new generation of home grown variable depth sonar has been developed. One of those versions has been installed on Type 056, which should be able to replace Type 037 sub chasers for littoral ASW duties. With the existence of helipad that can land Z-9 helicopter, installation of Yu-7 torpedoes and this new VDS, it should be a huge leap over the Type 037s that are retiring from service. An improved version of 054A has also come out recently with this new variable depth sonar installed next to TAS (position of acoustic decoys on earlier 054As) and the new 11 barrel CIWS. This combination of active VDS and passive TAS is installed on the most recent 4 054As (2 each from HD and HP shipyard). Although more of this type could be built, my guess is that they are just testing out this new ASW combat suite and CIWS for the next class of ships. The new Type 052D destroyer (No. 172) is also fitted with this new combination of active/passive sonar in the back along with a bow mounted sonar in the front. It is also said to be able to launch a longer range ASROC type of missiles from VLS than Type 054A. All of this should give Type 052D very balanced combat capability in ASuW, AAW and ASW. A new type of ASW helicopter based on the developing Z-20 project is needed to really allow this ship to hunt and engage modern submarines. Of course, Chinese navy does have a new ASW helicopter in Z-18F, but it is probably too large to be carried in the hangar of Type 052C/D. However, Z-18F should be able to serve on CV-16 along with large future combatants likes Type 055 and LHD/LPD classes. Z-18F is larger than other ASW helicopters like SH-60, NH-90 and Ka-28. It can carry more sonobuoy and has more snobuoy openings than SH-60. It can also carry dipping sonar along with up to 4 Torpedoes. The rest of the electronics and combat system has been upgraded from Z-8 with a new large surface search radar and modern MAWS and RWR antennas. It also has the range to really hunt modern nuclear submarines. That's why it is expected to be a part of the air wing of CV-16 and future Chinese carriers.

As a whole, the hardware for ASW in PLAN has definitely modernized, but they still lack in many areas. While they finally have a Y-8 maritime patrol aircraft, it's still years behind P-3C and serving too small in number. While Z-18F is a nice addition, a Z-20 or Z-15 based ASW helicopter is badly needed for ships in the class of Type 052D and 054A. And finally, the biggest help to Chinese navy would be newer and quieter nuclear submarines with more powerful sonar. Until that happens, the Chinese navy would always be in a place of danger when it comes to underwater warfare.