When it comes to PLA watching, there are the developments that get people excited and also the developments that people just don't care about. Many of the latter developments are in that category because they don't really improve the combat capabilities of PLA that much. However, there are selected developments that I think are pretty important and are not being talked about enough.
The first of which is the Type 081 MCM class of ships. Up until recently, PLAN had a very old fleet consisted mostly of the 50s era Type 6605 and Type 6610 minesweeper and several smaller Type 082 minesweepers that entered service in the early 80s. Clearly, this MCM force badly needed newer technology. Since the PLAN modernization begun in the last decade, we have seen the new Type 081 minesweeper and the Type 082 II minehunter entering service. The latter gets more press because it is uses the latest sonar technology, ROVs and remote controlled drone ships. Type 081 is your typical 90s era minesweeper with different types of sweeps. It has become PLAN's work horse in MCM operations within the first island chain. In the first wave, 4 Type 081s (805, 810, 839 and 840) were built. By late 2011, we saw No. 841, the 5th Type 081, launched in JN shipyard. Since then, we've had 4 more Type 081 (842, 843, 844, 845) that have been launched and either joined or close to join PLAN. Which means 5 Type 081s were launched in the period of less than 2 years. This building pace is as impressive as any we have seen in PLAN. Only Type 056s have had more launches in the past 2 years, but Type 081s are complicated ships with smaller number of replace. As a whole, Type 081 is not expected to be part of blue water fleet, but it will still be very important in any possible conflicts around China.
The other naval class that I don't think is getting enough attention is the Type 903 class of AOR ships. The first two of this class (No. 886 and 887) were commissioned in 2004. They and no. 885 have allowed PLAN to make these long blue water missions that they were not making a decade ago. They have been especially important in the Gulf of Aden missions due to the lack of blue water AORs in PLAN. Seeing the need for this, 2 new Type 903s (No. 889 and 890) were commissioned this past year. They should be just as important as the first two in PLAN's quest to become a blue water navy. It looks like Guangzhou shipyard has recently started to build a new AOR. It's not clear if the new one will still be Type 903. Maybe they will need to be larger to support a carrier group in the future, but we often overlook the important of the replenishment ship when looking at the missiles on a combat ship.
In the aviation projects, the first one I look at is JH-7B. From all of the rumblings over the holidays, we have finally seen the pictures of JH-7B for the first time. According to huitong's link, it has been test flying in CFTE for a over a year. There have also been a lot of speculations about this over the years, but it never compares to some of the other programs like J-16 or J-10B. Or else, we would probably have seen pictures of JH-7B for overly eager military fanboys from outside the air fields. The external changes on JH-7B seems to be minimal compared to what we've seen with J-10A to J-10B. It looks to have a retractable IFR and strengthened wing structure to carry the heavier payloads. One would surmise that the biggest changes are going to be the avionics and the weapons that it will be carrying. At this point, JH-7B sounds like a PLANAF project (just like the original JH-7 was), whereas PLAAF has embraced the J-16 platform. While I don't think too many additional regiment in PLANAF will be converted to JH-7, its appearance will bring additional strike fighters with long range (vs fighter jets) and the ability to carry potent new AShM, LACM and ASM to threaten all neighboring naval forces. In addition, some of the technology from the program could be used to upgrade the existing JH-7/A in service with both PLANAF and PLAAF.
Another other programs that have been flying under the radar are the non-AWACS versions of the high new program. Recently, we have seen the newer units of these programs been built with the Y-9 airframe. This development makes a lot of sense, since Shannxi AC had been using two separate lines to build Y-8 Category III platforms for KJ-200, ASW variant of Y-8 and Y-8 Category II platform for the remaining ones. Recently, we have started seeing High New 7 program with Y-9. This will likely happen with all of the remaining High new programs and the new KJ-500 AWACS program. The high new programs have provided force multiplier kind of capabilities to PLAAF and PLANAF. The ones built on a newer Y-9 platform will have greater range, endurance and comfort. All of which should continue to improve PLA's C4ISR capabilities in surrounding theaters.
These are just a handful of programs that don't get noticed as much. We have seen a lot of exciting aviation development over the holiday season such as the appearance of Prototype No. 2011 of J-20, the first production versions of J-15 and J-10B, the first flight of Z-20, photos of JH-7B and appearance of YJ-12 missile. I had wanted to explore all of that, but I will have to leave it for another day.