As most of you guys know, the two biggest aircraft makers in AVIC-I are Shenyang Aircraft Corporation and Chengdu Aircraft Corporation. Both of these aircraft corporations also have civilian/military aircraft production facilities, military aircraft design institute (601 and 611 for example), aero-engine subsidiaries and other civilian ventures. In the past few years, I have generally been praising CAC a lot for its efforts in the J-10, J-20 and JF-17 projects. I think it’s truly great what they have developed/produced for PLAAF. I also think they have done a pretty good job in the export market with all of the successes of F-7 and JF-17 program. At the same time, I have been partly disappointed of the progress of SAC. However, I think some of the recent work by SAC deserve praise.
Founded in 1951, SAC became known as the "cradle of China’s fighter aircraft" for its efforts in producing aircraft and also help setting up other aircraft companies like CAC. It was the first company tasked with reverse engineering Mig-21 before later handing it off to CAC for most of the J-7 variants. It was also given the task to develop J-8 and J-8II fighter jets. I know that J-8 projects have been ridiculed in many places, but most of its early problems were due to delays in subsystems like radar and missiles. It has often been said the early J-8 radars couldn’t even pick out targets that the eyes could see. Once it lost out the 4th generation fighter jet project to CAC, it was given the task to license produce Su-27s. PLAAF certainly did not have the budget back in the days to license produce Su-27s and finance two domestic fighter projects (even J-10 was almost canned). One could argued that SAC could have took the more market oriented approach of CAC and partnered up with a foreign country to develop a self-financed fighter jet. In some way, it was able to do that with its assistance with Iran’s aircraft programs, but none of its involvements was made too public. By the time J-11B pictures first started appearing in 2007, CAC had already overtaken SAC as the big dog of AVIC-I in my opinion. Over the past 10 years, CAC has definitely done a better job in pushing China to catch up to the West and Russia in military aviation. However, the gap in its capability vs SAC was somewhat exaggerated by things that are out of SAC’s control.
It is true that SAC has not been the most innovative company. J-11B has basically turned out to have almost exactly the airframe as Su-27sk. J-11BS has turned out to be just a trainer like Su-27ubk. However, Sukhoi has often expressed its shock at how fast SAC was able to reverse engineer a heavy fighter like Su-27. It has gotten to the point where Sukhoi is publicly claiming that J-11B and J-15 can never be as good as the original Su-27 and Su-33. That is of course false, since the Chinese flankers have far better avionics, better T/W ratio and better weponry. I do think that China should work out an understanding with Sukhoi to compensate them for additional copies of Chinese flankers over the original agreed target of 200. For the past 3 years, the J-11B/S program have been delayed by troubles in WS-10A project. While some of the problems in J-11B program should be blamed on SAC, the continued inability of Shenyang Liming to reliably mass produce WS-10A put a halt to j-11B production. Early last year, we saw a picture of many J-11B parked outside of SAC without engine. Since that point, we are finally seeing mass production of WS-10A and plenty of good news for SAC.
According to scramble’s plaaf orbat, there are several regiments that have J-11B/S. Among which, the 1st division received the first regiment of J-11B (still using AL-31F). After that, it seemed like the next 2 regiments to receive J-11B are the 30th division of PLAAF and the 8th division of PLANAF. At this point, I do not know if they have fully been converted. From the latest pictures, we have also seen J-11BS joining the 37th division and the 19th division. In the case of the 37th division, it appears that one of the J-7 regiments will be converted into a J-11B/S regiment. In the case of the 19th division, it appears that J-11BS is currently just taking the role of trainers for the J-11s that are currently serving there. Surprisingly, scramble also lists the 17th regiment of the 6th division as another J-11B/S regiment. My guess is that this is probably not the case anymore. We have not received any kind of photographic confirmation on this, so those J-11B/S may have moved to one of the other regiments that are going through conversion. Even excluding that regiment, we are seeing 3 PLAAF and 1 PLANAF regiments that have been converted or is the middle of been converted into using J-11B. We are also seeing J-11BS joining different PLAAF regiments in the trainer role (rather than just in J-11B regiments). And I think once these regiments are filled later this year or by early next year at the latest, there will be at least 100 J-11B/S after about 4 years of production. When considering that J-10’s production is only a little higher than that in the same period, it is quite an accomplishment for SAC. This development would also indicate that PLA is very satisfied with the performance of J-11B/S.
More recently, we have seen the first high quality photos of J-15 coming out in PLANAF colours. In fact, the news of these photos have even reached New York Times. According to Chinese bbs, J-15 made its first flight back in 2009. For the past 2 years, we have seen several photos with J-15 conducting flight tests in SAC and CFTE, but have never seen a close-up shot until now. According to Huitong’s sources, J-15 made its first takeoff from a land based simulated ski-jump in May 2010. At this point, I suspect J-15 have already finished most of its flight tests and have been handed to PLAN naval aviation school for training and tactic development. It would not painted in PLANAF colours until it’s at this point of development. In the past, I read some fairly reliable sources that stated the first J-15 will be assembled by 2008 and make its first flight by 2009. After that, it would spend 2 to 3 years conducting flight tests and another 3 to 4 years going through naval aviation training, take-off/landing and developing tactics. The plan is to be ready when Varyag joins service in 2015. At this point, it looks like the progress of J-15 is really following that schedule. Some would say that J-15 is just cloned from T-10K-3 and represents no real advancements. However, I think it is reasonable to assume that J-15 will be fitted with the latest avionics and weaponry for air defense, anti-shipping missions and ground strike missions. J-15 should be able to perform far more missions and also be better at those missions than the original Su-33s and the upgraded Su-33s that the Russians were offering. The airframe probably incorporates minimal changes, but it is important for China to lower the development risk of its first naval fighter. The most important part is for SAC to develop something that’s reliable and competent that they can produce in good numbers.
The excitement does not just stop here. We have also recently heard numerous other rumours about future SAC projects. The most likely one is the J-16 project. At the time of J-11BS development, many people speculated that this will turn out to be a fighter bomber in the mode of Su-30MKK. However, it turns out that J-11BS has fully assumed the role of trainer like Su-27UBK. That would also explain why they were able to develop it so fast after J-11B. From the noise in Chinese bbs, J-16 will probably make its first flight this year and be ready to join service 2 to 3 years after that. The other projects that have really caused excitement are SAC’s 5th generation fighter jet project and UCAV projects. For the former, I am still waiting to see how it will turn out, because it seems like SAC will have limited resources for this one if PLAAF does not provide funding. For the latter, I think that SAC and CAC probably have both been working on them. The mysterious dark sword UAV is supposedly a rejected design from SAC. Hopefully, we will see pictures of these programs in the next 2 years to verify that they are in fact ongoing. There have been numerous other speculated programs, but I find them to be too unsubstantiated at this point.
At the same time, I have also been really impressed with the civilian arm of SAC. It became a tier-one supplier for the fuselage of the C-Series aircraft and a major supplier for Q-400. It is a supplier for different Boeing and Airbus aircraft. It also got the contract to produce Cessna 162 personal aircraft.
As a whole, this past year has been a really successful one for SAC. The J-11B/S aircraft are really joining service in good numbers. Its other military projects are also making solid progress. On top of that, it is also really assisting CAC with the J-20 project.