Recently, I’ve talked about future projects for PLAN’s nuclear submarine fleet and surface combatant fleet, because they have been the hot topics that have grabbed the attentions of PLA followers. This blog entry will focus on several other important projects that are under way.
The first of which is the next generation of diesel submarines. At the current time, 12 Yuan class submarines have joined service with PLAN. Out of which, the first 8 (including the original + 3 improved 039As) joined the 22nd flotilla replacing the 8 Song class submarines that were there. These boats are 330 to 337. Two of them were visited by the Deputy Chief of US Naval Operations very recently. The next 4 (338 to 341) joined service with NSF. Based on what I can gather from Chinese sources, it looks like we should be seeing the next generation of diesel submarine come out shortly. Although, we will probably see a few more Yuan (probably 4) join NSF to complete that flotilla. Back when Type 032 came out, I thought it might be the next generation of submarine, but it turned to be a replacement for the Gulf class missile test bed. One thought is that the next generation will be collaboration with the Russians based on the Amur class submarine. As I talked about in a previous blog entry, this project would make sense due to access to Russia’s latest generation of noise isolation technology along with single hull design. From all I have heard, the negotiation over this collaboration is continuing, but has not been signed off. China is looking to put its own engine (with AIP technology), sensors, combat system and weaponry on the boat. Due to the normal protracted pace of negotiation on an export deal, this project will not get under way for a couple of years even if it gets signed off. Also, something based on Amur class would be smaller in size than China’s existing fleet of Yuan and kilo submarines. I think PLAN will only be looking for a limited fleet of this type of submarine (maybe 4 boats) for shallow waters rather than as a replacement for the larger and more ocean-going Yuan submarine. From this deal, it will be looking for technology transfers in hull design and noise isolation technology that it can apply to future classes. If China does launch a new submarine class in the near future, the production of this boat must have started while Yuan class submarine is still ongoing, which means the design work would have started a while ago. From this, I would infer that the boat would have minimal input from any possible deal for the Amur class. Since the conventional submarines of SSF need to be replaced and submarines there have much greater room to operate, I think this new class will probably be a large conventional submarine like Yuan. It will be smaller than the Type 032 class, but building larger conventional submarines seems to be the direction that PLAN is going.
The other project that is already bearing fruit is the KJ-500 AEWC&C aircraft project. It is PLA’s second generation of AEW aircraft based on the Y-8/9 airframe. Unlike KJ-200, which sports balance beam radar, KJ-500 will be housing a large AESA disk like KJ-2000 plane. Until more IL-76 or Y-20 airframes become available for china, PLAAF is unlikely going to get any new KJ-2000 aircraft. At this point, we have more identified KJ-200s in service with PLANAF than PLAAF (although PLAAF unit does have more hangars). This could indicate that the radar of KJ-200 may not fully satisfy the requirements of PLAAF. A more powerful AESA radar using newer generation of T/R modules is developed and housed on the Y-8/9 airframe to produce KJ-500. We have already seen pictures of this radar on a Y-8CE test bed a couple of years ago. This year, we are seeing the first two prototype units of KJ-500 in the airfields. It will probably go into service with PLAAF over the next couple of years. By the end of this decade, China should have more IL-76 and Y-20 airframes, which would usher in a replacement for the KJ-2000 aircraft.
And finally, we have recently seen the second generation Soaring Dragon (Xiang Loong) prototypes appearing in the Chengdu air fields. We saw the original back in 2011 doing high speed taxiing runs, but it disappeared after a while. It may have been a technology demonstrator. The second generation prototype appears to be much smaller in length and wingspan. It also uses the canted vertical stabilizers + ventral stabilizing fins vs the single vertical stabilizer in the original. This and other more subtle changes indicate a stealthier profile than the original. It also features fairings in the fuselage that could house different types of sensors. Due to its smaller size and less powerful engine, it's unlikely to have the range and endurance of a predator, but should be more than sufficient for PLAAF at the moment. The partnership of 611 Institute/GAIC has already produced the Wing Loong/Pterodactyl UCAV (similar to MQ-1 Predator). With the Soaring Dragon project, it looks like they have won the competition to develop a HALE UAV for PLAAF. Similarly, the 601 Institute looks to have won the competition for long range UCAV with the appearance of Sharp Sword project. At this point, I think Soaring Dragon will probably join service earlier than Sharp Sword due to the greater complexity in the UCAV project, but it will probably take at least another 3 to 5 years for Soaring Dragon to join service.