Sunday, March 23, 2014

China's military expenditure

China's annual announcement of its military expenditure is often met with a lot of alarm. The question has often been why China needs to be constantly increasing its military expenditure so much. Here is a chart showing China's military expenditure vs treasury income vs GDP from 1999 to 2013.

Over this period, the military expenditure has generally been between 1.2% to 1.5% of the GDP and 9.5% to 5.5% of the treasury income. so in real RMB terms, military expenditure has not gone up as a percentage of GDP. In comparison to the treasury income, military expenditure has decreased a lot due to improved tax collection in China. The question is why the military expenditure has remained steady when the reported year to year increased is greater than GDP growth. The answer seems to be that GDP is inflation adjusted whereas military expenditure is not. There are 3 other charts similar to this which shows military expenditures going back to 1950. Seems like China maintained higher military expenditure % (4.5% to 9%) up until when Deng Xiaoping took over in 1978. After which, PLA saw its spending vs GDP drop all the way to 1% in the mid 90s. Now, China's definition of military expenditure can be different from that of the west, so there is no reason to compare China to Japan or US here. The important take away here is that China is not in any kind of expansion mode when it comes to military expenditure.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The commissioning of the lead ship of 052D class

Yesterday, China officially commissioned the lead ship in its new class of destroyers. From this article, you can see that this first Type 052D class ship is named after the city of Kunming and given the hull number 172. The ceremony was attended to by Chinese Navy commander Wu Shengli. Videos of the commissioning can be found on youtube.

I have covered Type 052D in numerous entries like this before. In some ways, it represents the final step in the modernization of China's surface combatant. Starting from the early 90s when Type 052 was launched until today, the Chinese naval destroyers have incrementally improved with Type 051B, Type 052B and Type 052C before finally reaching Type 052D. It is equipped with China's first universal VLS capable of launching HHQ-9 series of long range SAM, quad packed medium SAM, YJ-18 anti-ship missiles, LACM and Yu-8 (or similar ASROC). It is also carrying PJ-38 130 mm main gun, 24-cell version of HQ-10 CIWS and PJ-12 7-barreled 30 mm CIWS. A lot of the radar, ESM suite, communication antenna and other electronic installations look like the ones we have seen on 052C, but it is carrying a flat second generation multifunctional radar given the designation Type 346A and a new type of variable depth sonar at back. Whereas Type 052C placed heavy emphasis on AAW as China's first area air defense ship, Type 052D not only improves in that area, but should also become capable in ASW (with the long range anti submarine missile + improved sonar), ASuW, long range missile strikes and amphibious landing support. As the hull of 052D has already been "maxed" out, the next generation of Chinese destroyer would be larger and equipped with more advanced propulsion unit. Here are some of the photos.

The commissioning of No. 172 was surprising for many followers even after its hull number was recently painted. The last 2 052Cs, which were launched before No. 172 have yet to be commissioned. The recent batch of 052Cs have generally taken over 2 years to be commissioned after launching. It appears that the Chinese naval brass rushed No. 172 into service so that it can participate in its 65th anniversary celebration at Qingdao on April 23rd. Now that it has been commissioned into the South Sea Fleet, they can start the process of training and developing tactics for this new class of ships. At present, we have 3 052D launched with a 4th that looks to soon be launched. The production run is likely to reach 12 ships with JiangNan shipyard building 8 of them and Dalian shipyard building the remaining.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The status of Project 310

As we've seen the J-20 project proceed to the pre-production prototype stage, Project 310 (Shenyang AC's 5th gen design) is continuing its flight testing. Although, I and many other have called it J-31, it really hasn't become an official PLAAF project yet, so it has no J designation Many have called it the J-21 project, because they expect it to receive that designation once it becomes official.

There have been a lot of discussions online about where this project is at and how is it funded, so I will give me take here. At this stage, project 310 only has one flying prototype in No. 31001. Some would compare it to No. 2001 of J-20 project, but I consider more as a proof of concept aircraft similar to X-35. For example, I think the pre-production prototypes should not longer see the gap between the engine nozzle and nacelle. From what I observed online, it seems to at least have received some funding from PLAAF to arrive at this stage, although SAC does has enough resource/funding to get here by itself. I think we are unlikely to see a second flying prototype until it becomes an official PLAAF project, since No. 31001 and a possible static prototype can give all the data PLAAF would need to make its decision. Based on all I have read, it seems to be foregone conclusion that will happen. Once it does get designation and full funding from PLAAF, SAC is likely to make numerous changes on the next flying prototype and also start conducting radar and weapon testing.

Just looking from front, Project 310 has the contours that one would expect out a stealth aircraft. One does not need to look far before seeing comparison to F-35 and reading articles about "stolen technology" from F-35. Whether this jet will turn out to really be a stealth aircraft depends on all the little details that the designers have to look through to minimize returns from all around. Until we get to a later prototype, it's really hard to say how well Project 310 will do in that area.

I am generally not too concerned about the electronics on the new Chinese aircraft, because I think they have really made huge progress here. I think they can achieve comparable target identification and situation awareness as F-22/35, since it will come into service at a later point when newer technology will become available. I think the biggest concern for this aircraft is its engine. This is a problem with all new PLAAF aircraft. Clearly, RD-93 will not be powering Project 310 in production. The 9.5t class "Medium Thrust" engine models have been around for several Zhuhai airshows. I would imagine that engine will be used on Project 310 and other projects like UAVs. Even though it has great important, it will not be as high priority as the WS-15 project. Since it began at a later point and has lower priority than WS-15, it definitely won't be ready before WS-15. If we estimate that serial production of WS-15 will be under way by 2020, this medium thrust engine won't be ready for serial production until 2025. PLAAF would have to either wait until then or find an interim selection. A large part of its test flight program may need to be done with a different engine.

The other question is what is the expected market for Project 310 outside of China. Unlike J-20, models resembling Project 310 have appeared in air shows since 2011 indicating that it should be available for export sooner rather than later. The problem is who can they sell it to. Ten years from now, most of the Western countries will probably go for F-35. The remaining ones will either go for the eurocanards or for super hornets if they are still in production. Due to politics, they are unlikely to go for a Chinese or Russian aircraft. We know that India and Russia are committed to the PAK-FA project, so what does that leave for Project 310? Most of China's traditional customers in Asia, Africa and Latin America simply don't have the money or the need for a low-end 5th gen aircraft. Project 310 will most likely be exported to Pakistan. After that, it will have to battle against F-35, PAK-FA and Gripen-E in the Middle East, South East Asia, Brazil and South Africa. Its main advantages are its cost and available production slot, but China will have to move fast.

Friday, March 7, 2014

J-20 Program Update

Prototype No. 2011 of the J-20 project had its maiden flight last weekend. As previously discussed, No. 2011 has significant changes to the previous J-20 prototypes that we've seen in flight testing (No. 2001 and No. 2002). There were probably 2 more prototypes similar to 2001/2002 for the purpose of static and RCS testing. It seems like 2001/2002 are more like the demonstrator prototypes whereas 2011 is the first pre-production prototype. It's likely that the production version of J-20 will not see any major differences unless major problems are found in testing. The pictures below show prototype 2001 vs prototype 2011 from different view point with Chinese labels on parts that changed in the first 2 pictures.

Generally speaking, CAC appears to have taken much greater care for the LO properties of No. 2011 compared to 2001/2002. Quite a bit of type elapsed from 2002 to 2011 and it looks like they really tried to address a lot of issues from RCS testing. The workmanship and fit/finishing of 2011 all appear to be better. Some of the more obvious changes include
  • Clipped corners on canard/v-tails
  • Redesign slender intakes with bump larger or protruding more
  • F-22-style light-grey colour scheme
  • Larger weapon bay and smaller wing actuators
  • Straightened leading edge
  • Inner canopy frame like F-35
  • Redesigned front landing gear door
  • New EOTS-like sensor and holographic HUD display
  • Redesigned rear fuselage around the engines and nozzles moved further in with longer tail sting.
It seems like more care is put into all-aspect stealth as the clipped canards has decreased returns from some angles and the ventral fins now seem to completely block engine nozzles from the sides. Looking at the inner edge of the canard, they are modified to conform nicely around intake so as to not create gaps.

Here is a good side view of the front part of the prototype.

Comparing to other 5th generation projects, I think PLAAF had a higher LO design requirement for J-20 than PAK-FA, while still trailing F-22/35. Compared to PAK-FA, it looks like everything conform to the body a lot better leaving fewer gaps and deflecting surfaces all around. Compared to F-22, it still has some areas like engine nozzle (which is covered by thrust vectoring plates on F-22) that are just not as well shielded even after the treatments. This is all from my extremely untrained eyes, so feel free to give me additional insights.

Project 310, China's other next-gen project, at this point still has not received official PLAAF designation. It looks to be in the flight demonstration stage and would probably need to become an offical PLAAF program before proceeding further to where J-20 is right now.