Sunday, October 26, 2014

Small update on China's 5h gen project

Most recently, we've seen a set of 3 photos coming out of CFTE testing center at Yanliang. The test aircraft in question were J-20 prototype No 2012, Y-20 prototype No. 783 and Y-8FQ (ASW variant) prototype No. 731. All 3 of these projects are obviously very important, but J-20 has the special distinction as China's first 5th gen fighter jet project. This entry just provides a quick look at where China is with its 5th generation project.

Earlier this year, J-20's Prototype No. 2011 came out with significant changes from the earlier prototypes. It was quite clear at that time J-20 project has advanced from the demonstrator stage to pre-production prototypes. When prototype No. 2012 came out in July, PLA followers compared the new prototype to No. 2011. As expected from previous analysis, not much has changed from No. 2011 to No. 2012. As this projects continue to progress, it's likely that no further major changes will be made before certification unless problems are detected in flight tests. I would expect some changes to be made at the rear when domestic 5th generation engine becomes available for testing, but we are a couple of years away from that. No. 2012 had its maiden flight on July 26th and was delivered to CFTE recently for PLA flight tests. At the time No. 2012 appeared, there were a lot of rumors online that 2 more prototypes (No. 2013 and 2014) are likely to come out before the end of the year for flight testing. I would also expect there to be a couple of more prototypes built for static testing. Based on J-10 project where 4 pre-production prototypes (No. 1013 to 1016), this might be all the prototypes that are needed to complete the flight tests. Of course, J-10 had more initial prototypes, but CAC at that time probably needed more time and prototypes to settle on the final design. After these pre-production flight test prototypes are delivered, CAC will probably start producing initial production variant and then deliver them to FTTC for developing combat tactics, flight techniques, training programs for new aircraft and conducting certification of J-20. Further prototypes for the J-20 project will be delivered to CFTE if any major changes are made to the aircraft or when new engine (like WS-15) becomes ready.

More recently, we have seen a bunch of flight testing photos of prototype No. 31001 posted online. This led to a lot of speculations online surrounding the status of the project. I've even read online that some Chinese military expert proclaimed serial production will start within five years for this project. Now, I personally think that's complete nonsense. At this point, this project still seems to be at demonstrator phase. It looks like a model of this aircraft might appear at Zhuhai air show for export interest. I do expect PLAAF to pick up this project to create a high-lo combination with J-20. While it will most likely be given the designation of J-31, I try not to settle on that name yet in case it gets a different designation in the end. The problem with this project is that the lack of available engine options. We know J-20's final production variant will be using WS-15. Even though that engine is not ready, it has been worked for a while and should become available for flight testing in a few years. Until then, upgraded variants of WS-10 engine could be used in the first batch of J-20s. For J-31, there is no current domestic option for flight testing, since WS-13 is not certified yet. The development for this next generation engine in its class began more recently and is not given the same level of importance as WS-15. Even if PLAAF picks up this project in the next year, all of the initial testing would be done using an engine whose power and propulsion will be quite different from the eventual engine. So, I always thought that this project will go into service probably 5 years after J-20 does.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A recent CV-16 article and trouble with interpreting Chinese sources

There was a recent entry on War is boring which later got published on business insider talking about trouble that China is having with engine compartment of CV-16 in recent sea trials. As usual, such articles created a lot of debates on Chinese military forums.

Now, I have actually watched the original CCTV news report that this story is based on. It mentioned that CV-16 has just completed 6 months of maintenance and overhaul at Dalian shipyard before going out to sea again. The report focused on the electrical department of CV-16. Traditionally, it has been customary of Chinese news reports to interview naval personnel, talk about one challenge they had to deal with to give audience an idea of the challenges facing these sailors and then emphasize how their great works saved the ship or mission. These kind of new reports are common and are tools used to foster patriotism in the population. So in this particular praise, this news report was trying to praise the works of the electrical department of CV-16 and give the impression to Chinese population that the Chinese navy is making great progress with its historical mission. In reality, any real life and death scenario would probably be considered confidential and never reported on Chinese news.

Back to the war is boring article, it appears to me the author does not understand the context of such news report. He summarized that China is having a lot of problems with CV-16 and especially with its engines. What we do know is that Chinese navy is at its infancy when it comes to naval aviation and working hard to improve capabilities. We also know that while CV-16 has spent a lot of times at shipyard, it has also spent a lot of times in the ocean. Currently, it has been out on sea trials for 50 days after 6 months at shipyard. Even the most competent navy USN could have engine problems on a long deployment, because complex machines like the naval propulsion systems do breakdown. So it is completely expected that CV-16 would suffer breakdowns on various subsystems while on sea trials or deployment. We know that the problem was identified and fixed quickly without delaying take off/landing training of that day. That tells us the mishap was not major. The original news report was trying to show the head of electrical department is good at identifying problems in his department and working to fix them while at sea. These are all good signs for Chinese navy going forward. That is not a surprise, since these reports are meant as positive propaganda for the population. The irony of this story is that real problems with CV-16 power plant would never get reported on CCTV.

So I think this shows that a lot of experience and cultural knowledge is needed to decipher Chinese military news. Since PLA is still lacking transparency compared to most military around the world and most of their articles are in Chinese, English articles talking about news reports coming out of China often lacks understanding and context of the original article. Depending on the bias of the author, we could get different interpretation which could either sound fear mongering or overly dismissive. Real honest truth about problems facing Chinese navy is not easy to find in the midst of their modernization and building boom. One can decipher problems facing certain programs from delays in construction and commissioning. One can also decipher problems based on the subsystems used on certain ships. And finally, some insiders are candid on Chinese forums about the issues facing Chinese navy. Contrary to popular belief, the Chinese navy does not have unlimited budget. A lot of its decisions are financially related just like they are for USN.

Monday, October 13, 2014

More Amphibious Ships for Chinese navy

As the Chinese national day golden week passed, a lot of really high quality photos from PLAN bases were posted online. As newer ships get commissioned and the oldest ships get retired, many other ships get moved between different flotillas. In the past year, the main mass produced ships have been the type 052C/D series destroyers and the type 056 light frigate. It has certainly been a busy year when we factor in the other new ships. This past month, we are seeing what appears to be the modules of the 4th Type 071 LPD really taking shape at Hudong shipyard. On top of that, production for the smaller Type 072A landing ships have restarted and the first one has launched at WuChong Shipyard as No. 981.

Type 071 can be effectively used for South China Sea and Taiwan scenarios, but provide the additional blue water capabilities that Chinese navy never had. The restart of Type 072 series is aimed at either replacing older landing ships or responding to the increased tension in South China sea. Either way, it shows that Chinese navy will continue to have landing ships of this class for green water missions. PLAN has taken the approach of continuing to build modern littoral ships like Type 056 and Type 022 series while it is building up its blue water navy. The restart of Type 072A seems to be a continuation of this approach of building cheaper and less capable surface combatants for traditional missions. PLAN's identity certainly has not transformed to that to a power projecting blue water navy like USN.

The picture below shows modules from the new Type 071 under construction:

We first started to see photos of Type 071 under construction in 2006 and it was launched by the end of that year. It was commissioned by the end of 2007, but the process of learning to operate this new behemoth has been ongoing since. The second and third Type 071s launched in quick succession in late 2010 and 2011 while joining service a year later. There were speculations of modules for a 4th Type 071 at the time 3rd one was launched, but were proven to be false.

So, why have we not seen more Type 071 until now? There is both the human factor and also the supporting system factor. In the former case, PLAN and PLAMC have really just started operating something with the size ond blue water projection of Type 071. No. 998 was sent out on to Gulf of Aden relatively early on and other Type 071 units have been sent since. Most recently this year, all 3 Type 071s were out on different missions at the same time showing their value of this blue water asset to PLAN. It seems like at the time that PLA really needed more units of this class. Even so, only in the past couple of years have we seen the marine corp starting to conduct large scale amphibious exercises in South China Sea involving Type 071 + helicopters/hovercrafts/boats operating from it. All of this shows that it really takes time to recruit the personnel and train the crew member and the new marines to operate something like Type 071. At the same time, all 3 Type 071s have been assigned to the Zhanjiang naval base and there is probably a limit to how many Type 071s that base can handle before needing further expansion. So even if Hudong shipyard is capable of building one a year, PLA may not be able to accept them at that pace even if it has high need for this series. I don't see this as a problem, since it just gives them more time to identify problems and make incremental updates to the ship.

The other part that Type 071 depended on are the helicopters and hovercraft. Type 726 LCAC was designed to be operated from Type 071. According to some CGs in Chinese TV news and pictures of the inside of well deck, 4 Type 726s can be fit in there. In reality, we have never seen more than one such LCAC inside the well deck, because they have only built 3 Type 726s up to this point. It looks like Type 726 has finally been certified with the commissioning of 2nd and 3rd unit. Type 071 may have been held back while Type 726 is reaching this point. At the same time, more variants of Z-18 has come out recently. In Gulf of Aden missions, we've seen Z-8S, Z-8J and Z-8JH on Type 071. More recently, the more capable Z-18 series have entered service with PLAN as part of the carrier project and they could increase the capability of Type 071. It's quite possible that AEW and/or ASW variant of Z-18 will get stationed on Type 071 on missions where it is operating as the command ship of a expeditionary strike group, whereas transport variant of Z-18 will be used for more amphibious missions. According to mockups we've seen, 4 helicopters can be stored in the hangar of Type 071 with 2 Z-8 sized landing spot on the helipad. In reality, I've seen at most 2 Z-8s and 1 Z-9 operating on Type 071. This will probably change as more naval helicopters are inducted. The other thing we've seen operating in amphibious exercises are the amphibious armoured vehicles. At least 15 of which can be parked in the well deck of Type 071 and more of them can be parked inside Type 071. Since these vehicles already started to exercise with Type 072 landing ships, they are probably the most mature of the amphibious units operating off Type 071.

In conclusion, PLA is continuing with its practice of building amphibious ships for littoral and blue water missions. The construction of the 4 Type 071 would indicate that PLA is feeling more comfortable with this class of ships and ready to accept new unit.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014


Recently, we got some new photos of J-15S coming out, which is always exciting. J-15S is the twin-seated version of China's naval flanker J-15. Its prototype flirst flew from SAC airfield on November 2012. All of the J-15S photos we've seen so far have shown Taihang engines powering the aircraft. That would suggest J-15S will be powered by Taihang right from the time it enters service and that the single seated J-15 could be powered by Taihang after the first batch.

We know that J-11BS entered service relatively soon after J-11B entered service after a relatively short flight testing program of around 2 years. It probably could've been even shorter if not for the problems with Taihang engine at the time. We saw very few photos of J-11BS in flight testing. In comparison, it seems to me that J-15S will be having a longer flight testing program, although not as long as would be expected out of a new variant like J-11B or J-16.

Going forward, I think it is likely that J-15S would be used in more roles than just as twin-seated trainer. First of all, J-15S could be developed in navy's version of J-16. The J-15 airframe should already be strengthened to handle the punishment of taking off and landing on a carrier, so J-15S may not need too much additional work to handle the additional payload expected out of a strike fighter. J-15S would not have the range or payload of J-16 due to restrictions of taking off from a STOBAR carrier, but it could be installed with similar avionics and combat system for strike missions as J-16. It will be able to carry different types of anti-ship missiles, anti-radiation missile and ground attack munitions/missiles that can be launched by the pilot in the WSO seat. Having the second pilot should make J-15S a more effective strike aircraft than J-15. Aside from just anti-shipping missions and ground attack missions, it could also be fitted with the subsystems for SEAD missions and EW warfare. When Su-30MK2 came out, there was a lot of talk about its usage as a "mini-AWACS". While that is a little overblown and CV-16 will already have several Ka-31 and Z-18 AEW helicopters, J-15S can certainly be equipped with the necessary avionics to process data from a group of J-15s and direct their actions.

In summary, J-15S will be a very useful naval aircraft for China's burgeoning naval air arm. It will likely have many use beyond that of a trainer.