Since I’ve followed PLA really closely for the past 4 or 5 years, I’ve decided to compile a list of the top 20 systems that joined service in the past 5 years. I’ve ranked these systems based on their importance to China’s national security, their quantitative and qualitative value and their significance to China’s overall military aviation and naval industry. To start off, I have omitted Flankers completely from the list, because I feel like J-11B/S have yet to achieve full operational capability in PLAAF. I persistently read that J-11B is having problems in PLAAF, so I don’t feel like I have enough information at this point. When Su-27 and Su-30 first joined in with PLA, they were definitely revolutionary in terms of the new capability they delivered for PLA, but that was over 5 years ago. I don’t feel that Su-30MK2 represents enough new capabilities to warrant a top 20 position. I’ve also omitted high profile projects like J-10B, Z-15, H-6K, the large transport, CAC UAV (the one that looks like global hawk), because they are only in early stage of development, although they have a couple of prototypes in certain cases. I have also omitted high profile space missions from my list like Project 921 (the manned space mission), Tian-Lian (data link satellite), YaoGan series (the EO satellites) and the moon mission, because it’s hard to determine how much military value they really have. I have also not considered any of the ground units, because I simply don’t follow the army enough to accurately assess their value.
Having said that, this is a list of system that are news worthy, but have not made the top 20:
Su-30MK2 – When it first joined PLANAF, it was definitely the most capable fighter-jet in service at that time. However, with the recent induction of JH-7A, J-10 and J-11B regiments, MK2 is no longer the best air superiority fighter nor the best strike aircraft. It really provided no new value to PLA that it did not have before (Su-30MKK already achieved that) nor value for China’s aerospace industry.
956EM – The improved Sov units were definitely the most powerful ships in the East Sea Fleet when they first joined, but they have since been overtaken by 054 series in terms of importance in ESF. Unlike the first batch of 956, which introduced associated systems like Ka-28, Top Plate, Bandstand, Shtil, Orekh FCR, AK-130 to PLAN, the second pair really provided nothing new.
051C – These two ships remain the most powerful ships in North Sea Fleet with their true area defense capability. Outside of 052C, they are probably PLAN’s second best air defense ships. However, there are only 2 of these ships and they provided no new capability to PLAN. It still uses hull that’s relatively similar to 051B with similar propulsion. It has no hangar space. It only has 8 AshM compared to 16 of a typical new PLAN destroyer. The air defense suite also does not have the advanced CeC capability of 052C.
052B – These two ships remain two of the most capable ships in PLAN, but they have been overtaken by the induction of 052C. In many ways, they are just a Chinese and more stealthy version of Sov. They didn’t really provide any new capability when they joined service.
804/805 MCM units – These ships really provided huge improvements to MCM operations for PLAN. They also changed PLAN MCM from its shore limitations to blue water. It also incorporated ROV, advanced sonar systems and combat systems that had never existed on any PLAN MCM ships. However, MCM ships still can’t compare to the importance of major surface combatants units.
WZ-9 – This is China’s first crack at HALE UAV. It is much smaller and less enduring than other projects in development. It’s hard to gage how important it really is to PLA at the moment.
Z-9G – This helicopter finally gave PLA its first real armed combat helicopter that is capable of night time operation. It is also widely deployed in PLA. However, it really is not all that advanced and really didn’t represent a huge advancement for Chinese helicopter industry, so it can’t make the Top 20 list.
Z-8K/JH – The improved Z-8 variants really provided PLANAF large helicopters that it can equip on the larger ships. They are also extremely useful as SAR helicopter due to their large space. However, they don’t really represent any kind of huge improvements to the helicopter industry nor do they exist in great quanity at the moment to really make a huge difference.
JL-9 – Even though there are numerous parts of this trainer that is pretty archaic (like using turbojet engine), its other performance parameters make it a true modern 4th generation trainer. It is also very critical to PLAAF, because it represents a generational or greater improvement vs JJ-7. However, I really don’t like to overrate the importance of a trainer
L-15 - This trainer was supposed to be more advanced than JL’9, but its development has really turned into a fiasco. Even now, it is hard to determine when L’15 will join service. It should have elevated China to amongst the world leaders in LIFT, but we don´t even know if it will ever join service with PLAAF.
Now for the top 20 list:
20. JF-17 – This fighter has yet to join service with PLAAF and I don’t know if it ever will be more than just an export aircraft. However, this plane represents such a huge accomplishment for Chinese aviation industry that I have to list it here. As mentioned in a previous blog entry, China has went from a country that imported license production lines to a country that exports licensed production lines of 4th generation fighter jet in the space of 11 years. Its importance to PLA is still yet to be determined, but this fighter represents in the first of China’s forays into the more competitive world fighter jet market. Hopefully, China will no longer just be exporting J-7s to African countries in the future.
19. 886/887 – These two ships are amongst the first component of China’s future blue water fleet. They are an entirely new generation of replenishment ship that are critical to any long distance mission. Even though there are only two of them, they have already proved their importence in different long range missions like the Somalia mission and 052B’s world wide port call. I’m also sure that there will be more of these ships (or improved evolution of them) in the future as PLAN becomes more and more blue water.
18. Type 022 FAC – Galrahn recently had an entry on this ship. When people first talk about PLAN modernization, 022’s importance is rarely mentioned, but they really are a huge part of China’s anti-access strategy. They represent a multi-generational improvement on the existing fleet of Type 021, 024 and 037, but they are really so much more. They are quick, very stealthy (they need to carry radar deflectors during peacetime to avoid collision) and carry a lot of fire power. When coordinated with KJ-200 and other assets, they can engage targets with multiple missions from BVR and then scamper away. Individually, they are not that significant. However, they are very lethal operating as a group with aerial assets. They can be mass produced around many different shipyards in China when war is around the horizon. They can be built in in-land shipyards, so they can be produced even if the major naval shipyards are taken out during wartime. They are revolutionary in PLAN because they not only improved upon the existing fleet, but provided so much more options and capabilities that never existed before.
17. JH-7A – When JH-7A entered service with PLANAF, it was by far the most advanced strike aircraft in PLANAF. With PLAAF, the role of a long range strike aircraft was already filled by Su-30, but JH-7A’s cost + versatility has proven to be really important. It gives PLAAF a plane that can launch every type of land attack missile, anti-radiation missile, PGMs and AAMs. So it is the first Chinese aircraft that can really do land attack, SEAD and EW missions. It has sort of become PLA’s version of super hornet. It is not the most agile platform, but it can be converted to do so many missions. As seen recently, JH-7 units with PLANAF have become the first aircrafts to be equiped with the pods to really do EW missions. With around 7 regiments in service, they also fill the criteria of achieving critical mass in PLAAF. When people talk about the SRBMs across from Taiwan as PLA’s land attack options, they tend to miss out on the strike capabilities of just one regiment of JH-7A. There are still some limitations to this aircraft due to an underpowered engine and older/non-stealthy airframe. That’s why it’s not higher on this list.
16. Type 920 Medical Ship – Similar to 886/887, this medical ship is part of PLAN’s shift from a coastal force to a blue water fleet. As mentioned in blog entries before, this ship can be used for humanitarian missions around the world as part of China’s soft power. It really is one ship that can be used to improve PLAN’s profile globally. This ship also allows remote islands in South China Sea to be treated, although I think it’s other main purpose is to just treat the wounded during a sea battle far off the shores.
15. Y-8 High New Series – We saw a bunch of new Y-8 High New Series aircraft coming at the same time. They are important, because they are a major part of China’s effort to improve its C4ISR. We have seen wide deployment of these aircraft in PLAAF and PLANAF. They allow China to finally conduct the kind of operation that USAF have always been able to. I think that very few air forces around the world have ELINT, SIGINT, airborne command, ECM, battlefield surveillance and psychological warfare aircrafts. The induction of these specialty aircrafts is part of PLAAF’s effort to achieve comprehensive status.
14. Yuan – Yuan is the most recently example of China’s foray into diesel submarines. They represent China’s broader effort in producing quiet submarines to counter the much stronger USN. Even though they are just an evolution of the Song class submarines, they actually also represent part of China’s shift to blue water fleet. They are larger than any other diesel submarines in PLAN, so they can carry additional components including more advanced combat systems, flank array sonar and AIP engine. They are not as advanced or large as the Collins/Oyashio class, which often operate like SSN far away from the shore, but they are definitely part of PLAN’s effort to expand operations. As seen with the expanded number of patrols by PLAN submarines and from Song’s encounter with Kitty Hawk, PLAN diesel submarines are going further and further away from the shore.
13. Z-10 – Z-10 is one of the most important projects with PLA. When it joined PLA, China finally had a world class armed helicopter. It was developed with a lot of European help + PWC engines, but it really represents a huge improvement in China’s helicopter industry. The helicopter itself has yet to achieve mass deployment with PLA due to cost and engine issues or else this would be ranked higher in this list. Recently, I’ve seen some pictures of Z-10 doing flight maneuvers and it really is an extremely advanced helicopter. It has a fairly stealthy hull and all the essentials of modern armed helicopters including the MMW radar. It is probably on par or even better than helicopters like Eurocopter Tiger, Denel Rooivalk and A-129. Due to its smaller size, it will obviously be less powerful than Apache and Mi-28N.
12. KJ-200 – This is China’s first AWACS that serve both the air force and the navy. In 2006, it suffered a major accident when the second prototype crashed. Since then, the issues with the Y-8 platform have been resolved and it is being mass produced using platform III, which is the most advanced version of Y-8 using 6-blade propellers. KJ-200 is like PLA’s version of E-2C/D. It is the lo part of the hi-lo mix with the larger/more powerful KJ-2000. In many ways, it reminds people of Erieye, but we don’t know how the performances compare. Due to IL-76 issues, the mass production of KJ-200 will allow PLAAF to finally have the necessary AEW units. It will also allow the navy to have an AWACS that can acquire aerial and sea targets and direct BVR strikes and long range missile interceptions.
11. Type 071 – this is probably the one ship that can lead an expedition mission for PLAN. It is the largest of the surface combatants. It is also larger than many of the recent helo carriers and the Thai Aircraft Carrier. Along with LCAC, it represents PLAN’s move to copy USMC’s expeditionary force. Compared to previous transport ships in PLAN, it is not only larger, can carry larger hovercraft, but can also fill much longer missions. The construction of this hull also gives shipbuilders a template and experience for building more complicated vessels like a LHD. Until a carrier or a LHD joins service, it will be the biggest symbol of PLAN’s goal to become a blue water fleet.
10. HQ-9 – With HQ-9, PLA finally has a long range SAM that it can widely deploy to encounter cruise missiles, fighter aircraft and even some ballistic missiles. We don’t know if it is as good as the latest S-300 variant like PMU2, it represents a tremendous advancement in the field of SAM. China is now pitting HQ-9 against S-300/400, Arrow-2 and PAC-3 in long range SAM contracts around the world. I don’t think it will win those major contracts (like the one in Turkey), but it represents China’s increasing confidence in HQ-9. On top of that, it represents such a huge improvement over HQ-2. If HQ-9 can achieve mass deployment, PLA will require much fewer battalions around the country to achieve full national coverage. In fact, I’ve already read PLA officers say that they have coverage of most of the country in terms of detection and engagement.
9. 052C – Part of the fruits of HQ-9 development is critical for the success of 052C. When it first joined PLAN, it represented such a huge technological leap that China spent the next few years working out the kinks and learning how to use it properly. China went from not having a ship with area coverage to not only have that, but also one with Aegis like performance, although we don’t know if it has CeC capability and how good its combat system really is. We will finally have a successor to 052C soon, but the leap from 052A to 052B to 052C is truly revolutionary. If there were more ships of this class, it would´ve landed in an even higher spot.
8. 054A – This ship represents a generational improvement over Jiangwei class in both performance and concept. In the past, PLAN destroyers were in the 3000 to 4000 ton range in displacement whereas frigates were about 2000 ton in displacement. 054A is about the same size as other modern frigates (not the European AAW frigates) rather than corvette/patrol ship size. It finally gave PLAN a modern blue water escort that has long duration, can effectively conduct ASW operations and give air protection for surrounding ships. In another word, 054A is PLAN’s first real frigate. It has a modern suite of electronics and weapons that equals or exceeds those of 052B and Sov. In terms of performance, it is comparable in performance to the most advanced frigates out there like Takanami class, KDX-2, Formidable class, Perry class and Talwar class. It is ranked so high up the list due to the fact that it is the first modern Chinese naval ship to be mass produced.
7. ASBM – I have talked about this system in 2 previous blog entries. If this system really works as well as advertised, I would rank it even higher up the list. However, it relies on the help of numerous other high profile projects to truly be successful. Unlike any other systems in this list, it could be a true game changer.
6. 093 – I tend to put the strategic platforms higher up the list. 091 gave China a first crack at designing, operating and maintaining nuclear submarine, but it is extremely noisy and had a lot of operational problems. 093 is probably at least 2 generations away from the Seawolf class in performance, but it finally gave PLAN a submarine capable of providing long range escort of capital ships. Similar to the other naval units that I’ve ranked on this list, 093 represents a huge step in PLAN’s move toward becoming a blue water fleet. Unlike some of the other classes mentioned here, it really is not world class, but it provides a good basis for the 095 class that is in development. Operationally, PLAN can now send submarines to and past the 2nd chain without having to worry about endurance issues or safety issues with the nuclear reactor. Along with 054A, 052B, 052C, 886/887 and Type 920, it completes the escorts needed for a carrier group. I’ve ranked 093 ahead of 054A and 052C, because 093 is more strategic and important to a true blue water navy than anything outside of the carrier itself.
5. KJ-2000 – This is China’s first successful AWACS Project. Although it may not be as powerful as E-3C, PLAAF became one of the few air forces around the world to be equipped with a large AWACS (one with the space to support multiple consoles and operators). Currently, there are only 4 KJ-2000 in service due to the limited number of IL-76s. Even so, the importance of having a modern large AWACS with AESA radar moved KJ-2000 above several other more highly deployed systems.
4. Beidou – By now, you probably wonder what I can possibly rank ahead of a Global Positioning System, but the top 3 is even more impressive. At this point, all of PLA units are already using Beidou for navigation. With the planned deployment of Beidou 2 in the next few years, this will become even more useful. Systems like the newly deployed LACM and ASBM probably won’t achieve full deployment status without Beidou being complete. SRBMs, MRBMs, Surface to surface missile (like SY-400, P-12, B-611, WS-2) and ICBM would not have the same level of accuracy without Beidou’s guidance. On top of that, this system will do a lot to lift national pride and soft power. It shows other countries around the world that China is capable of developing advanced space systems, so it could provide a lot of export opportunities for other systems. Finally, Beidou will become one of the 4 GPS in the world (the other 3 being GPS, GLONASS and Galileo).
3. J-10 – This project has been described by many people as China’s Apollo project. In many ways, it really lifted an entire generation of engineers and aerospace workers in China. The project took 18 years and China finally became capable of developing/producing 4th generation fighter jet. In fact, J-10 turned out so well that it took over as the favourite toy of PLAAF from flankers. Chengdu AC would not have been able to develop JF-17 so fast if it did not endure the difficult lessons along the way to J-10’s completion. On top of Chengdu AC´s work with the J-10, the other Chinese companies that were suppliers for J-10 also made tremendous leap. Even now, these same companies have to continually improve themselves in order to fulfill the evolving requirements of newer blocks of J-10. On top of the contribution of this project to China’s aerospace industry, it also provided the backbone of PLAAF for the next 20 years. It fulfilled all of my criteria in making the top 20 list and probably should have been the top choice.
2. 094/JL-2 – 094 is not technically China’s first SSBN, but it will effectively be so. 092 had troubles right from the start and had numerous issues with launching JL-1. After numerous upgrades, it will probably end up quite functional, but will never have true second strike capability. The reason is that JL-1’s short range limits 092’s retaliation targets to just India. 094 is not the quietest SSBN out there, but it can fulfill the role of maintaining patrol (there are at least 3 094s right now) and provide credible second strike capability against all the major nuclear states of the world. JL-2 is also extremely strategically important, because it is the first SLBM that is capable of reaching North America. There are not official document of this, but I’ve read a lot of Chinese sources that state JL-2 is MIRV-capable. The only reason this pair is not ranked first is because the operational status of JL-2 right now is still an unknown. We certainly don’t hear about JL-2 tests as much as Bulava tests. It makes me wonder why PLA does not conduct more testing with JL-2.
1. DF-31 – The Second Artillery already had ICBMs before DF-31 with DF-5 and DF-5A, but they were not-solid fueled ICBMs. They had to be hidden in mountains to avoid being taken out. They also take a long time to get ready to launch, so they really did not provide adequate level of deterrence. DF-31 is China’s first road-mobile, solid fueled, read-to-launch, MIRV-capable (again, according to unofficial Chinese sources) ICBM. I’ve ranked DF-31 ahead of 094 due to the fact that there are already 2 battalions of DF-31/A.