Having reviewed the progress of PLAN in the past year, I thought I would get into the progress of PLAAF now. As mentioned in the previous blogs, the air force has not seen the level of modernization witnessed in navy in the past 5 years. However, that does not mean plaaf has not made amazing improvement in the recent years. If we look back at the past few years, 2002-3 were the years that China finally received fighters capable of launching actively guided MRAAM and precision guided missiles with mkk and upgraded J-11. 2004 was the year that J-10 stormed onto the scene and proven itself as the most advanced fighter in service with PLAAF. 2005 was the year that China finally developed its own portfolio of different surveillance aircrafts with KJ-2000, Y-8J and the high new programs. 2006 was the year that China finally joined the world's elite club after displaying J-10 with its indigenous engine (WS-10A), indigenous avionics and indigenous missiles (PL-12 + PL-8B). It also marked the first time that China displayed its homegrown arsenal of precision guided missiles. When we look back at 2007, we see a year where PLAAF reached a new level of transparency when it finally really unveiled J-10, J-11B, JH-7A, engine progress, strike weapons and strategic platforms.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in the past year is the unveiling of different PGMs and other ground attack weapons. After a really good display at Peace Mission 2007, JH-7A has finally shown its worth in PLA. And the main reason for its success are the new strike weapons and JH-7A's ability to use them. We have seen the deployment of a stand-off ground attack weapon in KD-88. In terms of capabilities, it's roughly comparable to SLAM-ER. We have seen the deployment of high speed anti-radiation missile in YJ-91. Although it's based on KH-31, it has improved indigenous seekers and possibly propellent. When it comes to air launched AShM, YJ-83K have become a regular fixture on JH-7As. We have also seen satellite guided bombs in LS-6, FT-1, FT-3. Although they are not still widely deployed (due to the infancy of Beidou), they seem to be inexpensive and relatively accurate like Western satellite guided bombs. We have also seen widespread deployment of laser guided bombs like LS-500J and LS-250J. Along with Russian strike weapons like KH-29, KH-59 and PGMs, China finally has true modern multi-role capability. With the full unveiling of JH-7A, we see a platform that is capable of striking targets at long range away with high precision. JH-7A has shown enough versatility to become the super hornets of PLA. It is asked to do many missions from ground strike, ground support, ASuW, SEAD and even EW. That is probably why we have already seen 6 regiments of JH-7/A series in service and probably will see 2 or 3 more. We have also seen the unveiling of H-6K bomber with new long range LACMs. Many people have questioned the usefulness of a 40s era bomber in 21st century, but we have seen enough improvement in the airframe, engine, weapons and avionics to indicate a fairly effective bomb truck.
We have also seen the continual upgrade of fighter force with continual deployment of J-10, introduction of J-11B and conversion programs of J-8II to J-8F standard. The results of J-10 against flankers in numerous exercises were finally published in official papers this year. We have seen more information on J-10 coming out like some radar specs, informal sources on its flight performance and it's switch to using more WS-10A engine. More importantly, we've been hearing about a major upgrade to J-10 coming out next year. We have also been hearing about continual improvement in the WS-10 series engine that was design to equip it. J-11B also made a dramatic appearance into the public eye right after the official declassification of J-10. I guess SAC was trying to steal some thunder from CAC. More importantly, it seems that the next generation PLAAF fighter must be making some progress for these declassification to happen. And with the news of more J-8II being converted to J-8F through Kunlun-2 engine upgrades and other upgrades, we can expect J-8F to be an important part of PLAAF plan for a while. JF-17 development is finally close to finished. Although it is unlikely to join the hi/lo combination of J-10 and J-11 for the future, it seems to have a future in PLAAF as a ground attacker to replace Q-5 or maybe as a two-seated trainer.
The interesting part about trainer is that Chinese trainer development seemed to have hit a wall. Su-27UBK and J-10S certainly do their job to train new pilots for the respective single seaters and serve other purpose in combat. However, the future pilots obviously cannot do all of their advanced training on these planes(due to many reasons). Let's take a look at the trainer developments. In the primary training category, Hongdu has failed to develop such a trainer and will now have to do licensed production of Yak-152K. In the intermediate training category, K-8 has established itself as a success both domestically and in the export market. In the LIFT category, GAIC was able to develop a relatively modern trainer (JL-9) very quickly based on existing technologies. Although it is still using turbojet engine and is based on JJ-7, it's cost + quick delivery have won a lot of orders from PLAAF. However, the much hyped L-15 project is apparently turning out to be a failure in PLAAF. It has yet to attract any kind of orders from the air force as a trainer or an attacker. This development has come as a huge shock for me. Hongdu in the recent years seemed to have been abysmal at turning out quality products for PLAAF. Their reliance on Yakolev has angered decision makers in PLA. It would be interesting to see if PLAAF has any change of heart in the coming year.
Military transport is another area that has been a disappointment for PLAAF. The much talked about IL-76 deal has pretty much fell to the gutters. The Russians aren't willing to build the transports at the current cost, but the Chinese aren't willing to renegotiate. It's kind of interesting that PLAAF has taken such a strong stance, because they really need this plane. They need it not only for air transport, but also as the platform for KJ-2000 and ABL development. It's true that this is a really bad contract for the Russians. However, China has signed numerous rip off contracts with the Russians like the 2nd batch of Sovs, 2nd batch of mkks, the 8 kilo sub package. Despite the fact that China no longer needed those deals after they were signed (and firing accidents), they still continued to take them in. It's good to know that they are finally developing a C-17 class transports, but that might not be ready until at least 2015. The question is what will China do until that time? Where is it going to find the necessary IL-76 platforms to convert to KJ-2000s? We know that they converted another 4 KJ-2000s this year. It's still unknown at this time whether this was taken from their fleet of 20 IL-76s or frames they got off the former Soviet republics. Either way, there is a reason that China is not holding any more talks with the Russians regarding military cooperations. Finally, there are the Y-8/9 developments. We've seen more KJ-200 coming out on the Y-8F600 platforms this year, which is a good sight after the tragic crash class year. We have also seen other high new platforms being converted from other Y-8 series transports. A very critical project that is being worked on is Y-9. As I mentionned in a previous blog, it is quite unbelievable that Y-9 has taken this long to develop. And then the header developer had the audacity to say that the delay is to make the plane perfect. When in fact the only reason PLAAF has made orders to this transport is because they desperately need something in this class for improved air transport + conversion to the high new series.
We have seen some mixed results in the helicopter area. In terms of attack helo, we were surprised to see the unveiling of the stealthy looking Z-10. It definitely looks like China has finally developed a world class attack helicopter. Even seeing the performance of Z-9G in Peace Mission 2007, I really have the feeling that attack helicopter is one area that China has made tremendous progress one. They've even managed to develop WZ-9 turboshaft for serial production rather than relying on P&W engine. Helicopter is one area that China has been able to cooperate with the West and learn from. We have already seen results in HC-120 and the future Z-15 project. However, the Z-15 project and the 10 tonne transport project are still years from completion. They've had to continue purchase from the Russians in Mi-17, Mi-26 and possibly Mi-38 to have a respectable transport fleet. They are still missing a respectable naval helicopter and have to rely on Ka-28. Z-9 series is simply too small to handle many of the tasks. Although Z-8F/K have finally reached the requirements of PLA, its production rate is still too low and cost is still too high to fully fulfill the needs of PLA. Until then, China has to rely on the Russians for naval and transport helicopters. Mi-17 offers a good cost/capability ratio, but Ka-28 is just not as good as SH-60 and NH-90.
Finally, the progress of engine has been really encouraging this past year. It appears that WS-10A has reached mass production and is equipping both J-10 and J-11B. WS-13 was in the long duration test this year and should be ready to start mass production next year. Although, it might be a while longer before it can become mature enough to equip all JF-17s. The upgraded version WS-10 with a T/W ratio of close to 9 achieved some level of milestone this past September and maybe ready in 2 or 3 years. According to some big shrimps, even WS-15's progress has been great and will probably be ready by 2015. Other engines like WS-500, WZ-9 and Kunlun series are all proceeding well and will soon be ready for their respective platforms. Engine has long been a sour point for Chinese defense industry, but the progress in the the last couple of years means that China will no longer be reliant on the Russians in a few years.
In general, the results of major projects have been mixed. In fact, I would say that the progress in trainers and transports is embarrassing and slow compared to what we've seen in the naval industry. We've seen China gaining in project management and production quality through work with aerospace giants like Airbus, Boeing and Bombardier. We've seen plenty of experience working with helicopter giants like Eurocopter and Sikorsky. However, these success have not transferred into the kind of success we have seen in the navy. Outside of CAC and SAC, the progress of other major aircraft companies have been disappointing. Even SAC has suffered a lot of delays in J-11B. A project that was suppose to be complete last year is only ready to join service now. We've seen a lot of gains in the strike weapons and continuous development of A2A missiles as well. The increased multi-role capabilities in PLAAF is definitely the bright spot this year.
So, what can we really expect next year? I've read just today about a new flanker variant that SAC has assembled and handed over to the flight test center (CFTE). I'm think this is either J-11BS or naval J-11 (some have used J-15 for its designation). So, this is definitely one fighter that I'd expect to hear more from over 2008. The other major project is the modified J-10. I've talked about it in my previous blog entries and it should also be doing flight tests next year. Although, the IOC for both fighters is probably still a couple of years away. JF-17 should be ready next year. I'm definitely expecting some firm export orders outside of the Pakistani ones. It would be interesting to see how successful this plane will be. It will also be interesting to see when twin-seater and ground attack versions will turn out. I've also heard about JH-7B coming out. Although for this one, I think the change will not be as radical as J-10 modified. Either way, I'm expecting plenty more news about JH-7 series next year for the EW variant, the continued deployment of current variant and the upgraded variant. Also, H-6K should be more of a fixture in the coming year. I also expect next year to be a banner year for Chinese AAMs. I think the long talked about next generation SRAAM and LRAAM will finally come out next year. The other big development that I'm looking for is the appearance of anti-air UCAV. As I have discussed in numerous places, SAC is apparently in advanced stage of development in this project. If it is developed, it will certainly represent a potent part of PLAAF's future. I'm sure that development of other UAVs and long ranged LACMs may also become more visible next year. I also expect continued appearance of Z-10 photos, but am not looking for any kind of miracles in the naval or transport category. The Y-9 project should finally have a liftoff next year, so we might see Y-9 based high new planes in the next few years. More Y-7 based surveillance planes like the carrier AEW and ASW platform might also make more appearnce. Everyone is focused on the news making programs like J-10, JF-17 and flanker series, but other programs are just as critical. I hope that other firms in AVIC1 and AVIC2 can become more competent and start finishing projects on time like CAC. After reviewing both PLAAF and PLAN, I think it's quite clear why I'm more excited about the navy at the moment.