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.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

J-31 Updates

Most recently, the first LRIP batch of J-20 appears to be handed over to FTTC to start the processing of getting inducted into PLAAF later this year or early next. While J-20 has progressed very smoothly up to this point, J-31 appears to have run into a major roadblock.

As readers may know, the first J-31 demonstrator came out a couple of years ago to great fanfare. At the time, it was thought to be a SAC funded private project that was also getting some PLAAF funding. Many people, including me, thought that was the first step to getting picked up by PLAAF and/or PLANAF. As it happened, we never saw a second version or a real prototype of J-31 despite many rumours and interesting models in air shows. There were even some rumours earlier this year that a second version of J-31 was about to come out that would be a lot further along toward a production model.

Most recently, one of the insiders on Chinese forums said that J-31 has not been picked up by PLAAF or PLANAF. At the same time, a more official source said that J-31 is for export. And we know that J-31 will again be brought to display in the 2016 Zhuhai air show. From all of this, it seems that SAC is working hard to attract foreign funding to continue this project. At least as of now, neither the air force nor the navy has interest in this project. Now, I was always under the impression that PLAAF only had interest in one 5th generation fighter jet prior to J-31 demonstrator came out. After that, I thought J-31 might serve as the low end of PLAAF’s future combat force instead of an upgraded J-10 variant. If PLAAF rejected J-31, that could either mean it has no interest in funding a 2nd type of 5th generation aircraft or that J-31 is simple not up to par. If the reason is latter, that could either mean J-31 design is technologically up to PLAAF expectations (in terms of stealth, radar or flight performance) or cost to performance below expectations or certain components simply not ready (like the next generation engine). While PLAAF questions are harder to answer, we do know for sure that PLANAF will need a next generation naval aircraft to replace J-15s. However, they rejected J-31 even though SAC has some real naval aircraft experience in developing and building J-15. So what do I make all of this?

I think PLAAF will not be ordering that many J-20 over its lifetime, because it is envisions as a high-end aircraft (ala F-22). They definitely need a cheaper and less capable fighter jet that can at least be competitive against F-35s. I don’t think the extremely unstealthy J-11 series or the light and less powerful J-10 series can be the answer to that. Sometimes in the next decade, PLAAF will have the desire for a true lower end 5th generation aircraft. In the past, PLAAF eventually did pick aircraft types that it had originally rejected like JH-7 and K-8 (possibly even L-15). In the case of latter, Hongdu managed to persuade foreign investment into the project. It was only after suitable engines became available that PLAAF decided to pick up K-8 as JL-8. I think that is the road J-31 could go. If it can attract enough foreign funding to continue, then domestic engine options should become available sometimes next decade. At that time, PLAAF could certainly choose to order it. The other question is whether or not PLAAF is willing to have Chengdu produce 2 different 5th generation types. Up until now, PLAAF has preferred to split its projects between Chengdu and Shenyang. Shenyang got the heavy fighter and Chengdu the light fighter. Chengdu won the 5th generation contest with its heavy design to the surprise of many. With J-20’s rapid progress, it hardened my view that Chengdu is far more capable of developing new fighter jet series than Shenyang. With the failure of J-31, I do question whether or not Shenyang is even capable of developing a new fighter jet that appeals to PLAAF. We know it can create new variants of flankers, but that’s far from developing a new aircraft. On the other hand, Chengdu has a lot of work with J-20 series, J-10 series and numerous UAVs. While J-20 was in serious development, the progress of J-10B/C was quite slow due to the shift in engineering resources. When J-20 does go in production in a couple of years, could Chengdu have enough resource again for a new fighter series as well as continued support and upgrades for J-20 and J-10? I certainly have doubts about that. I do think that it is still more likely Shenyang will be producing a 5th generation aircraft type for PLAAF in the future.

As for PLANAF, the fight is now between a navalized version of J-20 from CAC or something new from SAC. Shenyang won the first round, because PLAN liked the range and payload of flankers. For the next generation, SAC has to start from scratch, while CAC already has a functioning aircraft. Since J-31 has already been rejected, SAC has to come up with something better than that to win over PLAN. J-15 is likely to be in production for at least the next aircraft carrier CV-17. After that, the next generation aircraft carriers of PLAN will likely to be larger than CV-16/17. They would be CATOBAR carriers that can launch fixed wing AEW asset, fully loaded fighter jet and long-range fighter-bombers. Even though J-15 has only joined service recently, PLANAF will soon be deciding between SAC and CAC on the next generation fighter jet. At this point, it seems more likely that a naval version of J-20 or a naval fighter-bomber based on J-20 would get picked.

So all of this would indicate SAC needs to do something to impress on the decision makers. Most of their projects right now are some flanker variations. We saw the sharp sword demonstrator a while back, but CAC has shown more UAV designs. It will be interesting to see how SAC can move on from the J-11 series.

Finally, I hear the rumour that the “20” series of aircraft will be the start in Zhuhai airshow this year. I can certainly see Y-20 and Z-20 make appearances in the air show and fly around. However, I do not think J-20 will participate this year. J-31 will appear and try to attract more funding. H-20 is the other project that has attracted a lot of attention from PLA watchers. At this point, we probably won’t see much about it until after it makes a maiden flight. With the size of J-20, I think it can be used to develop a next generation fighter-bomber.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Air force comparisons

In the past, I have often seen or tried to stop discussions over what I call vs battles. Military fans universally love to debate whether one aircraft is better than another one. There are many good reasons for that obviously. For PLAAF, if w can determine that J-10 is stronger in air combat than flankers and are up to part or close to up to part with the teens and eurocanards, then China can deal with all of the surrounding threats. More contemporarily, the argument of J-20 vs F-35 vs F-22 vs PAK-FA is popular in establishing China’s future options against US and its allies.

In general, I have not enjoyed to get involved with such discussions, because I don’t think they yield good discussions or give good indications of how real world combat scenarios will turn out. Recently, there were some discussions regarding the results of PLAAF’s exercises with Thailand. It was mentioned on Chinese forums that PLAAF sent flankers. The flankers apparently won dogfights but lost on BVR engagements. This led to numerous people asking about which type of flankers were sent. If earlier versions of flankers like Su-27 or J-11 were sent, then it would be okay if they did not win the BVR exchanges. I immediately thought about the exercise they had several years ago with Turkey. In that exercise, China sent some earlier flankers and Turkey used F-4s (or at least that’s what we presume since F-16s were not involved). I presume China sends earlier flankers because flight characteristics and avionics of these fighter jets are well known, whereas J-10 and even J-11B numbers are very well guarded state secrets. At the time of exercise, it was rumoured on Chinese forums that the flankers were crushed in the exercise and that the DACT were designed in a way that put Chinese jets in very disadvantageous positions. While none of the rumoured results can be confirmed, I think there are a lot of good reasons why PLAAF would take this approach. Back in 2005, there were a lot of excitements amongst Indian defense followers because IAF fighter jets had done well against F-15Cs in DACT with USAF. Even though it was reported that USAF fighter jets were operating under very challenging conditions on what they could or could not do, many IAF fans were excited to report that Su-30K and Mig-21 Bisons had beaten the F-15Cs.

With that in mind, I think we should consider why PLAAF participates in these exercises and what it has to gain by setting certain DACT scenarios. For the former, I think that PLAAF recognizes it does not do enough training with other air forces, so these exercises are valuable in learning about flying styles and tactics of other air forces. In the exercises with Turkey, I think PLAAF purposefully set challenging conditions so it can see how NATO air forces operate with numerical advantages, EW advantages and BVR advantages. So even if Turkey does not showcase F-16s, PLAAF had a lot to gain by participating in them. I’m not saying that Su-27s are significantly better than later F-4s or that PLAAF pilots are at the same level of NATO pilots. Those are things I simply don’t have enough data on. Compared to NATO, PLAAF is still at a very early stage in DACT exercises. PLAAF Su-27s and early J-11As have probably participated in most number of DACT engagements in China’s own version of Red/Blue flag exercises. Early on, they were consistently defeated by J-7s even though they are much superior aircraft. Flankers won later when PLAAF developed better tactics for them. So when PLAAF encounters a more experienced air force like Turkey, it would have a lot of learning to do. PLAAF recognizes that in many realistic war scenarios, its fighters could be facing massive disadvantages in the operational environment. From that, it would be logical to do various DACT under disadvantageous conditions even if PLAAF pilots have to suffer some humble pie. I can’t speak for the results of Pakistan or Thailand, but I think without knowing PLAAF’s intentions and the DACT scenarios, results of these exercises are not too meaningful even if we know the aircraft types. I do read from the big shrimps on Chinese bbs that PAF pilots are better than PLAAF pilots. If that is still the case, then it makes even more sense for PLAAF to train more regularly with PAF.

J-10A and J-11 have made a good pairing for PLAAF for the past 10 years and would hold up against current front line fighter jet in surrounding countries like Su-27/30, F-15J, F-16C/D and Mig-29s. J-10B/C and J-16 will be comparable or a little inferior to the latest eurocanards, Su-35s, F-15K/SG and F-18E/F. On paper, they have the latest avionics (including AESA radar), a full range of multirole capability and improved range compare to their base models. Even with higher thrust engines, will they still be capable of having the same flight performance as earlier models when we considered the increased weight from all these changes? As for J-20, I think it has many advantages over PAK-FA, but less so against F-22/35, especially in the environment that they are likely to operate in. J-31 seems like a good second project, but we are still waiting to see what the second prototype looks like. It could turn out to be a genuine lower cost 5th generation fighter jet or one that’s significantly more stealthy than eurocanards and F-18E/F, but also lacking the full aspect stealth, flight performance and networking centric capability of a true 5th generation aircraft. Until J-20 gets mature and installed with WS15, it will have similar concerns. That’s how I would rate them.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Carrier Fleet and Strategic transport

This entry will focus on two of the largest strategic projects that China is currently working on: Carrier fleet and strategic transport (Y-20).

For the former, there has been increasing number of photos from Dalian shipyard showing the first domestic carrier taking form. This carrier, commonly referred as 001A, is expected to be very similar to Type 001 CV-16. Both carriers are conventionally powered STOBAR carrier with an air wing consistent of J-15s, Z-18s and Z-9s. There have been many photos of production J-15s (Number 100 to 114) operating off CV-16 since the start of the year. It seems like the standard weapon load for air defense version of J-15s is 2 MRAAMs + 2 SRAAMs. Ground attack variants could carry 2 YJ-83s + 2 SRAAMs. More importantly, the latest photos show several J-15s on flight deck at the same time with many crew members doing standard carrier operation duties. There are pictures show 5 or 6 J-15s parked with their wings folded, a tug dragging helicopter around, elevator carrying plane to flight deck and multiple J-15s about to take off. We have even seen photos from late afternoon or early evening showing flight deck operation with lights on. While the last part does not conclude they have started doing take off and landing in the evenings, it does indicate that part maybe coming sooner than many people would have guessed a year ago. One of my fellow SDF moderators even commented on how the CV-16 flight decks show more activity than any of the photos from Soviet Union ones. The next step would be more integrated exercises with other ships of a carrier fleet.

For the latter, recent report has come out that the development of Y-20 may complete this year leading to the start of mass production sometimes this year. So far, there have been 5 flying prototypes (No. 781, 783, 785, 788 and 789) along with unknown static prototypes. Even though Y-20 made its first flight in 2013, strategic transport do not need to conduct flight testing for as long as fighter jet projects. At the same time, WS-18 achieved design certification last year, so it should be ready for mass production this year. It’s possible that the earlier Y-20s may still use D-30KP2, but they have bought over 200 D-30s in the past. Even accounting for H-6 usage, the remaining D-30s should allow time for production WS-18s to mature. As I’ve discussed before, Y-20 will not only be used for transport purposes, but also on tankers, AWACs, special mission aircraft and ABL platform. While the requirements of these aircraft types can differ, they also all have common requirements of long range, long endurance, high payload, and good short field performance from conventional and unpaved runways. We know that Y-20 probably will be required to carry something the size of ZTZ-99. That would lead to payload requirement of over 60 tons. We don’t have any performance data outside of that other than the belief that it will similar to comparable transports. We know that the wings and fuselage of Y-20 will have to be optimized to balance performance in takeoff, cargo space, endurance and range based on what PLAAF thinks the future requirements of Y-20 are. That requirement maybe different from what the Soviet Union envisioned for IL-76 or US envisioned for C-17. For example, how would a transport like IL-76 originally developed to carry at most 40 ton in payload be able to carry larger payload efficiently now that its payload has been increased with the new PS-90A engines. That’s one of the major advantages to developing one’s own strategic transport. Compared to IL-76 (and the upgraded IL-476), Y-20 should eventually use more efficient engines (WS-20), more modern flight control system and avionics, more advanced material (vs what was available in 70s) and more efficient wing for China’s missions. With newer construction techniques available that China has learnt from working with Airbus and Boeing, Y-20 could end up with a really modern production line. Once production for Y-20 ramps up, we will be able to see how much fruit this project will reap from the RnD in COMAC projects like C919.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

052C radar + Aeroengine development

Since the Lunar New Year break started, not much significant news have happened, but there were a couple of story lines in the past month that caught my attention.

The first one is this story on weibo from someone who said to have participated in the initial part of Type 346 radar development (for 052C) before immigrating to Canada in the late 90s. There has been a lot of criticism on this article regarding author's decision to leave China and also on whether or not he actually worked on the project (or just made this all up). Looking through some of the online discussions on this like this thread on hsh, I'm still not convinced on whether or not this is authentic or something this author wrote from other sources he read online. Even so, I think it's an article that's well worth reading. The human part of the story rings true to people who are far more involved with the inner working of Chinese navy than I am. Certainly during the earlier days, many talented people left China because they were simply not appreciated or adequately compensated for the work they were doing.

Aside from that, I think it's quite interesting to consider how PLA awarded R&D funding to various institutions. Outside of the process, very few people know how competitive some of these PLA contracts are. This article allows us to see the geopolitical, political and relational angles that affect each contract award. It makes sense for each of the competing firm to try their utmost to win R&D grants and funding regardless of whether or not their proposal is the best. Certainly, having the right person to lobby for your proposal can go a long way toward covering up deficiencies versus opposing proposals. In the end of the process, I think it almost seems like Chinese navy picked 14th Institute proposal out of luck due to an expected geopolitical event. That decision certainly seems to have yielded good results since the 14th Institute has since produced many quality AESA radar for both the air force and the navy. I think the numerous "big shrimps" on Chinese forums have also corroborated the political influence and connections that sometimes lead to picking the less optimal option. On the plus side, it also illustrated how fiercely competitive these firms have to go to pick up funding for their projects. This higher level of competition inside China (that we don't really read about) helps push projects forward in ways that don't seem to happen in India.

At the same time, a lot of aeroengine related news came out. It was reported that WS-10B achieving design certification, WS-10 achieved production certification and WS-15 was going into the process of achieving design certification. Broadly speaking, there are 4 major stages in China with respect to developing and certifying a new engine.
  • The first phase is the test/experimental stage prior to the initial flight. This involves all of the ground based testing on the parts of engine and as a whole. It goes through a series of test on the test vehicle and its parts to make sure that it's ready to go through flight testing.
  • The second phase is the research test flight stage. Before going into the process of certification test flights, the test vehicle is flown under realistic flight scenarios and flight envelope. The main tasks include preliminary assessment of engine flight performance, features, reliability, maintainability, testability and supportability. Flight tests could be carried out in a flight engine test bed or on an intended aircraft. At the conclusion of test flights, the technological maturity level should reach level 7. In WS-15 testing, it had to complete 60 hours of endurance testing on flight testbed before completing this phase. So at this point, the engine is demonstrated to have at least 60 hours of service life prior to overhauling.
  • The third phase is the design certification stage. Before low rate initial production, it must go through a series of ground testing of the engine, its systems and the individual parts. It must also go through with high altitude testing and flight certification. Most importantly, it has to go through the initial overhaul long endurance testing on testbed. For WS-10 and WS-10B, they had to complete a 300 hour endurance testing to complete this stage. Under testing of full flight envelope, these tests will determine the reliability, maintainability, testability, safety and service life. At its conclusion, the technological maturity level should reach level 8.
  • The fourth phase is the production certification stage. Before mass production of an engine, it must be deployed in smaller number of aircraft (with active service aircraft) for test usage in order to become mature. It must go through with full service life endurance testing on test bed. It must complete comprehensive verification of engine performance and reliability under mass production quality. Mass produced version of WS-10 must complete 1000 hour of endurance before completing this stage, the initial overhaul time is at least 1000 hours. At its conclusion, the technological maturity level should reach level 9.

From the above, one can get a sense of where each of the engine is at. WS-10 has completed production certification, so it is now quite reliable (1000 hours MTBO) and deployed on most of the J-11Bs. As reported in numerous places, this version of WS-10 achieves a maximum thrust of 12.5 ton with afterburners. WS-10B has now completed design certification (at least 300 hours MTBO) and is deployed on some flankers and a couple of J-10Bs. According to numerous reports, it achieves maximum thrust of 14 ton (12% more than WS-10) with afterburners and features a digital control system (FADEC). Since both flanker and J-10B already has more reliable but less powerful engine in service, WS-10B will probably be deployed in smaller numbers until it becomes more reliable. WS-10B should have greater thrust than even AL-31FN series 3 (14 ton to 13.5 ton), so it would be the better choice once flight testing on J-10B is completed. Once we see a full batch of J-10B installed with WS-10B as opposed to AL-31FN, then WS-10B is probably in mass production and not far from production certification. The next improvement to WS-10 includes adding a new thrust vectoring control and achieving higher maximum thrust. That variant of WS-10 is probably under design certification tests right now. There is also a variant of WS-10 being developed for naval fighter jet J-15, which should become certified soon.

We also got the news that WS-13E may have achieved design certification and will begin production this year. It is said to be an improved version of WS-13 and achieves close to 9 ton in thrust (8.7 ton on original WS-13). That's compared to 8.3 ton on RD-93 and 9.3 ton on RD-93MA. This engine could be used on JF-17 or FC-31 or Lijian UCAV. Since this is still very early in its production cycle, it would be interesting to see where it will first be deployed on.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

J-20 and geopolitical implications.

The J-20 project has made some significant progress in the past 2 years with the roll out of prototypes 2011 to 2017 to accelerate the flights testing and development of the J-20 aircraft. With the roll out of 2101, what appears to J-20’s first LRIP aircraft, it’s possible that the first batch of J-20s will get delivered to FTTC this year to start the process of expanding flight envelope, testing/evaluating new weapon systems, developing new training procedures and combat tactics for a new aircraft. If FTTC evaluation proceeds well, J-20 may be certified and start entering into service next year. It looks like the project is proceeding a couple of years faster than the original expectations. For this entry, I want to look at how the progress of J-20 vs progress of other fighter jet projects affects regional balance of air power.

To start off, the most obvious threat to PLAAF comes from the vast number of F-35s that will be deployed in the APAC region by America and its allies. Due to defense cutbacks by many Western countries, key American allies in APAC region should not have to wait too long to get their F-35s. If J-20 enters service in the next 2 years, it will enter service extremely underpowered since WS-15 is not yet ready. As a result, I think the initial J-20s will have to carry limited fuel and payload in order to achieve desired flight performance. Until WS-15 does become certified with J-20 sometimes next decade, there are certain missions involving longer range and greater payload that J-20 just cannot perform. USAF and USN’s will have overwhelming qualitative and quantitative advantage in the region against PLAAF in the short term. Even after J-20 enters service in larger numbers later with WS-15, I think USAF and USN’s F-35s will still have both qualitative and quantitative advantage in the region. J-20 probably will have certain advantages over F-35 in flight performance, power and payload, but will definitely be at large disadvantage in stealth, sensors, weapon system and the ability to operate in a network centric environment. Reading Chinese sources, I have often gotten the impression that PLAAF regards F-35 as its biggest threat (even more than F-22) due to F-35’s technical and numerical advantage over what China might field. I don’t think anything from the past couple of years have really changed that.

I think a more interesting case is to compare J-20 to the PAK-FA project. I have often compared the 2 projects in the recent years, because they have started about the same time and went with similar platforms that seem to be natural evolution from flankers. In J-20, China seemed to put more emphasis on overall stealth and range. The Russians seemed to put greater emphasis on maneuverability. From the beginning, I had always thought the PAK-FA development would finish first due to Russia’s previous R&D into 5th generation fighter jet, the earlier first flight of PAK-FA and original pronouncement of 2016 IOC. As mentioned several times before, this has been turned upside down in the last 2 years as PAK-FA have been plagued with problems whereas J-20 is proceeding without any obvious setbacks. Without comparing the capabilities of the 2 aircraft, it seems more likely now for j-20 to join service before PAK-FA does. Another part to look at is the new engine options for the two aircraft, since both will first enter service with underpowered AL-31 or WS-10 variants. PAK-FA will later use izdeliye 30, whereas J-20 will use WS-15. The former is expected to start flight trials in 2017 and join service around 2020 and the latter has similar timelines. With China’s previous problems in mass production of a new turbofan engine, WS-15 entry may drag on a couple of years longer, but entry into service for both engines are pretty close. That means it will probably take early 2020s before the appropriately powered version of both J-20 and PAK-FA go into service. Looking at the progress of the 2 programs at the current time, it seems like J-20 is far more likely to join service on time since most of its subsystems (other than engine) are ready, whereas PAK-FA has been delayed in both its flight testing (by fire on the 5th prototype) and subsystems (like radar). So, China will get operational J-20s before Russia does with PAK-FA. Although the 2 countries are currently friendly, China considered Russia to be its greatest enemy as recently as late 80s. I think it’s quite important for China to not rely on Russia weaponry for security reasons. It’s important to note China has been Russia’s student since the 50s. It would be a tremendous boost for Chinese pride to be ahead of Russia in military aviation. The other part of J-20 vs PAK-FA comparison is India’s involvement. India will receive production PAK-FA several years after Russia. India was part of PAK-FA development since the beginning when it proudly pronounced that Russia was only willing to partner with India (rather than China) in its 5th generation fighter jet project. Since then, India has regularly complained about its involvement in the project as PAK-FA falls behind schedule. India also complains about the cost and technical capabilities of PAK-FA. As a whole, it seems like India is not getting the aircraft it wants or the development experience it wants or the timeline it was hoping for. All of this has added up to a nightmare scenario where China will receive a possibly more advanced 5th generation aircraft several years before India does. The best aircraft India can field at that time will be Rafael. It’s also possible that China’s second 5th generation project, J-31, will be in service very soon after PAK-FA goes into service with India. If China exports J-31 to Pakistan after a couple of years, then India will have very few years of advantage over Pakistan in 5th generation fighter jet. So while India originally had hoped for getting PAK-FA several years before China gets J-20, it may now be trapped in a situation of 2 hostile neighbours with 5th generation aircraft. There have not been much mentions of MCA in the past year. Looking at how long LCA has been in development, I can only assume that means MCA is much further away from completion.

The only other next generation development projects are Korea’s KFX project and Japan’s ATD-X/F-3 project. Since both countries only have one recent fighter jet project experience (Korea with T-50 and Japan with F-2), it’s unclear how long the development will take or how capable the aircraft will be. In both cases, I would imagine they would seek for as much American help as they can. These two countries are looking to establish long-term viable domestic military aircraft makers through these projects. However, I don’t think it’s America’s interest to create possible competitors that may take away future exports. In both cases, I think they will probably create semi-stealthy designs that are comparable in performance to the eurocanards. As shown in PAK-FA and J-20 project, creating 5th generation aircraft will all aspect stealth is extremely difficult. America was able to do so, because it had decades of experience in stealth. Looking at Japan’s previous venture, F-2 was over-budget and under delivered in performance. Japan has not worked on any fighter jet programs since. Korea has only developed an advanced trainer in T-50. It seems to be a huge challenge to go from that to 5th generation fighter jet. Both countries are expected to field F-35 when very few APAC countries have 5th generation aircraft. Unless they try to throw away that advantage for the sake of national pride, they seem both well positioned for the future. J-20’s success may push both countries to be more invested in F-35 project, since they cannot afford to wait on their domestic programs.

Overall, I think the progress of J-20 does change the geopolitical calculations in the region. Countries that field PAK-FA like Russia and India are now at a disadvantage. If the J-31 project can move forward quickly in the next 5 years, it could have some real export potentials in countries that had been importing Russian fighter jet. F-35 program is in full production mode, so I don’t think much has changed in countries that will be fielding F-35.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

2015 Year in Review

As the end of 2015 draw near, I’d like to take a look at all the important PLA stories of 2015. There are both numerous air force and naval stories. Compared to previous years, there were more news coming out of air force than navy this year as J-20, J-10, flankers and C-919 project all had significant progress.

The major focus of this past few months have been the progress of J-20 project. After 4 new prototypes came out last year with significant changes from the J-20 demonstrators, there was not much happening this year until September of this year when prototypes No. 2016 came out followed by prototype No. 2017 in November. The latest prototype showed slightly reshaped canopy and a new ejection seat, but is generally the same as the earlier prototypes. With these 2 prototypes, there are rumours of 2 more prototypes No. 2018 and 2019 coming out to speed up the testing phase. That has yet to happen, but we have seen what appears to be the first Low Rate Initial Production J-20 showing up most recently with the appearance of No. 2101. Unlike the prototype ones, it is painted entirely in yellow primers. The prototypes are typically sent to CFTE for flight-testing. If No. 2101 is the first LRIP model, then it will probably get sent with the rest of its batch to FTTC for expanding the flight envelope, testing out usage of new systems, developing combat tactics and training manual for J-20 pilots. The first J-10 squad was also established in FTTC before the 44th regiment received J-10. At the current pace, it’s definitely possible for J-20 to achieve IOC or some level of combat capability by 2017. Compared to PAK-FA, I think J-20 is now actually quite a bit ahead. The only major concern for this program is that WS-15 engine is still several years from entering service, so will be quite underpowered for the first few years. At the current time, J-20 is probably testing with AL-31FN Cep 3 engine (that are used for J-10C). Some of the missiles being developed for weapon bay may not be ready yet, but other programs like PL-10, miniature PGMs should be. Not much seemed to have happened with FC-31 project this year, but it has appeared in numerous air shows. For 2016, I will be watching out to see how many LRIP J-20s come out and the expanded test program for the J-20 prototypes. It will also be interested to see if a second FC-31 prototype comes out next year.

At the same time that J-20 has been moving forward, the production of J-10 series have started to pick up again. J-10B development has in my opinion been delays due to CAC focusing on J-20 project, but production level has been pretty good since 2014. There were about 53 J-10Bs produced in block 1 and they have all joined service. Block 2 production has since started and reached at least in the mid 20s. They are supposedly built to the J-10C standard with AESA radar (instead of PESA like J-10B) and numerous other electronic improvements. We are still unsure of all the regiments that have received J-10B/C, because photos normally have their numbers blurred out. Huitong’s blog currently has listed FTTC, 2nd division, 19th division and 21st division as having J-10B/C regiments. From what I have seen, FTTC received J-10Bs first and the old J-10A 2nd division regiment has been receiving J-10Bs. Also, it’s interesting that we have been seeing numerous J-10Bs (without the J-10C improvements) flying with Taihang engine. So I think it is possible that we will see both J-10B with Taihang and J-10C with AL-31FN Series 3 engine produced next year. Based on the recent production numbers, China probably needs to place another AL-31FN order soon.

China also had some more movements with its larger aircraft programs. It received the second refurbished IL-78s from Ukraine (out of 3 on order) and more of the refurbished IL-76s. We also continue to hear more on development of Y-20 and its engines (WS-18 and WS-20). The development of Y-20 will probably complete by 2017 based on its current progress. As I wrote about many times before, PLAAF has large requirement of Y-20 for transport, tankers and special missions platform. I’m sure the LRIP for Y-20 will begin next year, but it’s hard to say when they would be able to ramp up its production to the point where it no longer needs to import IL-76/78s. At the same time, China unveiled the first C919 airliner this year and also finally completed flight certification of ARJ-21. At this point, it seems like C919 is already a great improvement in almost every aspect over ARJ-21. However, it’s going into the market against an extremely capable A320NEO series and B737 MAX series. It does not seem to have any real advantage over those 2 series and will not enter service earlier. In most of China’s domestic routes, it should be competitive with those 2, so I would expect it to capture a good number of orders once it completes flight certification. The big challenges ahead will be to obtain FAA/EASA certification, achieve export orders, ramping up production and completing all of this with minimal delays. This is a tremendous undertaking, but COMAC would be getting a lot of valuable experiences if it can achieve all of that.

Another area of aviation that China has done well on this year is in the field of UAVs. The CH-3/4 UCAVs have been exported to numerous countries (at least Nigeria, Iraq, Egypt, UAE and Saudi Arabia). It has already been used in conflicts against ISIS and Yemen rebels. China had been displaying numerous miniature (50 kg) PGMs and ground attack missiles in weapon shows along with CH-4 UAVs and these have now been tested in real war action. So from these action, it’s likely that CH-4 will get more export orders in the coming years. The WingLoong series has also achieved export orders with UAE and with PLA. Along with these MQ-1 like UCAV program, China is also developing numerous larger UAVs and UCAVs. Those programs are likely developed just for domestic usage and not marketed for exports. It’s unclear how many of these programs will actually see production.

For the Chinese navy, the major ticket item is its aircraft carrier program. Throughout this year, more and more photos came out from Dalian rumoured to be modules of the first domestic aircraft carriers. At this point, I think most Chinese navy watchers would agree that this is the first domestic carrier (aka Project 001A). Over 2016, one of the main areas to follow would be the progress of this first carrier. Over the past year, the intensity of CV-16 exercises seemed to be picking up. Over this past year, Shenyang AC has been producing more production versions of J-15s. There are at least 15 of them now from 100 to 114 and all of them probably have flown off CV-16. In the most recent exercise, at least 6 of them were shown on deck at the same time and as many as 10 were probably on CV-16 in this exercise. That’s a definite step forward in carrier operations from earlier this year and previous years. On top of having more J-15s on board, having more types of combat aircraft and helicopter on board operating at different weather conditions and at nighttime are the next steps in improving carrier operation. Chinese naval aviation has a long way to go in developing its combat capability, so will be sure to continue to see its progress next year. I think it’s also interesting that we have yet to see photos of CV-16 leading a large flotilla with numerous escorts like 052C/D and 054A, so that’s also something to look to see in 2016. The Chinese navy has to do all of this with very little help from other carrier operating navies around the world, so it has been deliberately ramping up operation for the past 3 years. It may take several more years to see the things I’ve listed here.

The rest of the surface fleet programs have also been progressing well like previous years. The 4 new 052C ships have now all joined service as No. 150 to 153. Two more 052Ds (No. 173 and No. 174) have also joined service. The main gun PJ-38 has also recently did a comprehensive round of firing tests. The 052Ds are equipped with the latest VLS, multi functional radar, variable depth sonar and PJ-38s, so they represent quite a major improvement in capabilities over 052C despite sharing the same hull. There are probably at least 5 more 052Ds from JN shipyard and 2 more from Dalian shipyard that are under construction. We will probably also start seeing progress of 055 in one of these shipyards next year. Amongst the 054As, a couple of more joined service this year and more modules have also appeared. They are also installed with the new VDS. The production of 054As has already exceeded what was expected originally, allowing the older Jianghu ships and the 4 Jiangwei ships to be decommissioned. It will be interesting to see how many more 054As ships are built when many have expected PLAN to move production to a newer 054 variant. Similarly, Type 056 corvettes have also continued to be produced in large numbers this year and they are expected to replace the roles of Type 037s in patrol, sub chasers and ASuW. And finally, the 4th Type 071 recently joined service as No. 988. Aside from the surface combatants, the replenishment fleet has also seen a huge boom this year. Most recently, the 40K+ ton displacement Type 901 AOR was launched. This type of shape is significant, because it’s expected to be the primary AOR for China’s future carrier fleet. It is much larger than China’s existing Type 903 class of AORs. Also, it is powered by gas turbines instead of diesel engines on the Type 903 AORS, allowing for much higher speed to keep up with the rest of carrier fleet. It also has more resupply gantries located in the middle of the ship than Type 903, which allows for underway refueling with more ships. At the same time, both HD and GSI shipyard have continued to build and commissioned Type 903A ships. There were 3 Type 903A (No. 960, 966 and 963) have joined service this year. There are at least 2 other one launched and another building. The Type 904 large store ships also had a lot of activity this year. There were 2 Type 904B ships (No. 961 and 962) that joined service year. These additional ships are probably there to supply the increasing amount of activity that China has in South China Sea and East China Sea. So overall, this was a really active year for China’s replenishment fleet. A couple of the older replenishment ships will probably retire over the next couple of years, but the increasing number of large ships joining into service will allow for greater power projection capabilities and also supplying near by islands. Finally, China’s coast guard fleet construction activity has continued this year with some of the largest cutters joining service. There were 12000-ton class, 5000-ton class, 4000-ton class and numerous 3000-ton class cutters getting launched and commissioned. A lot of ships seem to have conflicting roles, but they were originally created for different agencies and for provincial bureaus. I think that most of the programs are nearing conclusion at the moment. Until the next 5-year plan gets developed with similar number of projects, we probably will not see this same level of expansion for a while. As a whole, an interesting year with news from both the navy and air force. I will be looking to follow up on most of these programs next year.