This was the year when many of China's new military aviation projects appeared, so it was very exciting to all of the PLAAF followers. Although there weren't as many news coming out this year about J-20 and J-31, many other projects really came out and took center stage. So this entry will try to look at them.
Y-20 - Although we started see pictures of Y-20 performing low speed taxiing late last year, it did not make it's maiden flight until late January of this year. The second Y-20 prototype made its maiden flight very recently. It looks like this program is progressing well so far. PLAAF is desperate for something like Y-20 to not only do the role of strategic transport but also as the platform for next generation AWACS (and other C4ISR roles), large aerial tanker and airborne laser platform. It has been forced to purchase a number of refurbished IL-76s from Russia in the past couple of years as a stop gap until Y-20 comes into service in 3 to 5 years. I think there is a chance that they will also purchase some new built IL-476 since the production rate for Y-20 is likely to be low in the beginning. In my opinion, this is the most important aviation project for PLA.
J-20/J-31 - It has been a less eventful year for the 5th generation projects. Many of us expect the prototype 2003 to come out this year, but we were disappointed for most of the year (although there is some recent photo that indicate 2003 might be ready). It looks like major improvements are to be made in this third prototype, whereas the first 2 are probably more like technology demonstrators. J-31 has been making some more test flights, but it's not known at the moment what exact role it will have for PLAAF. Similar to J-20, this first prototype is probably more like a technology demonstrator while 601 Institute works on creating a prototype that satisifies all of PLAAF requirements.
Flanker family - While rumours about Su-35 purchase continues unabated, we do know that J-15 project has moved to production stage this year. We are still waiting to see production version of J-15 to appear on CV-16. That will probably happen next year. It looks like J-16 project is also moving toward a first pre-production batch. J-11B/S production has continued this year, but will probably be replaced by J-16 very soon. At which point, J-15 will be produced for the naval aviation and J-16 will be for the air force. J-16 and J-10B are likely to be the main multirole fighters in PLAAF until the 5th generation aircraft enters service.
J-10 family - The production of J-10A finally came to close this year with the 7th batch. Most recently, we saw the last J-10A regiment with the 124th brigade. Earlier this year, we saw J-10A with the 12th division. The 124th brigade maybe all J-10As or a mix with J-10Bs. We now have 10 regiments (FTTC, 44th, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 24th, 9th, 15th, 12th, 124th brigade) in service with PLAAF, 1 regiment (4th division 12th regiment) in service with PLANAF in addition to 12 in service with August first flight demonstration squad. That will total to over 300 single and twin-seated versions of J-10As, which is a very healthy production run. We have already seen the first production version of J-10B in the air fields of CAC, so they should join service next year. In many ways, J-10B's flight tests lasted a lot longer (5 years) than all of us had estimated. That's probably a combination of 611 Institute/132 factory devoting most of their resources to the J-20 project and the complexity of changes from J-10A to J-10B. It will be the first fighter jet in PLAAF to have AESA radar and a whole host of new generation avionics. There are rumours of a J-10C variant under development, but it's unlikely to have anywhere near the level of changes from J-10A to J-10B. By that time, the production of both the hi (J-20) and lo (J-31) 5th generation fighter jet will both have already started.
Helicopter projects - Most recently, the much speculated Z-20 (the 10-ton general purpose helicopters) made its maiden flight. We can tell from the photos that it is heavily inspired (or cloned) from S-70 blackhawk series of helicopters. As shown with S-70 and NH-90, this class of helicopter can be used for a wide variety of roles for both the army and the navy. One would imagine Z-20 would be very popular in PLA too. It can replace Mi-17 and Z-8B in most of the transport and SAR roles, while serving as the primary SAR/ASW helicopter for medium sized PLAN surface combatants. The other project that will be very important is the Z-15 project. The first Chinese version using WZ-16 engine should be flying next year. Similar to Z-20, it should be a tremendous help for both the army and navy. It can replace many roles currently handled by the undersized Z-9 series of helicopter. Up to this point, the main problem with Chinese helicopter industry is the lack of helicopters between the 4-ton class Z-9 and the 13-ton class Z-8. Z-10 has now filled the space of 6-ton attack helicopter, but Z-15 and Z-20 will now fill the space of 7-ton and 10-ton helicopter to finally provide PLA with a full compliment of domestic helicopters.
UAVs - Two major UAV projects took step forward this year. The first is the X-47B like Lijian (Sharp Sword) UCAV from 601 Institute and Hongdu. It had it's maiden flight in November and really gives China a stealthy UCAV that can perform a variety of attacking roles. Going forward, much work needs to be done (like getting a new engine that fits the engine nozzle) to actually bring this into service, but looks like PLAAF is really putting a lot of resources in this area. The other major project is the "second generation" of Soaring Dragon. The first demonstrator version came out in 2011. After 2 years of relative inactivity, we saw it again this year with numerous modifications. It should eventually join PLAAF as a HALE UAV similar to RQ-4. Outside of these two developments, we also saw Wing Loong (similar to MQ-1 UCAV) joining service with PLAAF and numerous other UAV projects like CH-4 that are being developed for both export market and PLA.
Bomber/fighter-bomber - We continue to see the H-6K bomber entering service with PLAAF this year. I don't expect a large production run of this bomber, but it can serve as a bomb truck until a more advanced bomber (which is currently under development) comes into service. That is something I don't expect until later this decade. After much speculation, we've finally seen the maiden flight of JH-7B recently. Contrary to earlier speculations, JH-7B has very few external modifications from JH-7A. The changes are the inclusion of a retractable IFR, strengthening of wing/fuselage to carry larger/heavier missiles and a new generation of avionics. JH-7B is likely to be developed for naval aviation since PLAAF is likely to purchase J-16 in the role of fighter-bomber.
As a whole, this has been a very busy year for Chinese military aviation. The appearances of Z-20, the second Y-20 and first JH-7B have been very exciting to PLAAF followers. At the same time, it's great to see J-10B production finally starting. J-10B and J-16 should be the main fighter jet for PLAAF until the end of this decade. The biggest things to look for next year will be the changes in the third prototype of J-20, the appearance of a next generation bomber and the development of new UAVs.