As the end of 2015 draw near, I’d like to take a look at all the important PLA stories of 2015. There are both numerous air force and naval stories. Compared to previous years, there were more news coming out of air force than navy this year as J-20, J-10, flankers and C-919 project all had significant progress.
The major focus of this past few months have been the progress of J-20 project. After 4 new prototypes came out last year with significant changes from the J-20 demonstrators, there was not much happening this year until September of this year when prototypes No. 2016 came out followed by prototype No. 2017 in November. The latest prototype showed slightly reshaped canopy and a new ejection seat, but is generally the same as the earlier prototypes. With these 2 prototypes, there are rumours of 2 more prototypes No. 2018 and 2019 coming out to speed up the testing phase. That has yet to happen, but we have seen what appears to be the first Low Rate Initial Production J-20 showing up most recently with the appearance of No. 2101. Unlike the prototype ones, it is painted entirely in yellow primers. The prototypes are typically sent to CFTE for flight-testing. If No. 2101 is the first LRIP model, then it will probably get sent with the rest of its batch to FTTC for expanding the flight envelope, testing out usage of new systems, developing combat tactics and training manual for J-20 pilots. The first J-10 squad was also established in FTTC before the 44th regiment received J-10. At the current pace, it’s definitely possible for J-20 to achieve IOC or some level of combat capability by 2017. Compared to PAK-FA, I think J-20 is now actually quite a bit ahead. The only major concern for this program is that WS-15 engine is still several years from entering service, so will be quite underpowered for the first few years. At the current time, J-20 is probably testing with AL-31FN Cep 3 engine (that are used for J-10C). Some of the missiles being developed for weapon bay may not be ready yet, but other programs like PL-10, miniature PGMs should be. Not much seemed to have happened with FC-31 project this year, but it has appeared in numerous air shows. For 2016, I will be watching out to see how many LRIP J-20s come out and the expanded test program for the J-20 prototypes. It will also be interested to see if a second FC-31 prototype comes out next year.
At the same time that J-20 has been moving forward, the production of J-10 series have started to pick up again. J-10B development has in my opinion been delays due to CAC focusing on J-20 project, but production level has been pretty good since 2014. There were about 53 J-10Bs produced in block 1 and they have all joined service. Block 2 production has since started and reached at least in the mid 20s. They are supposedly built to the J-10C standard with AESA radar (instead of PESA like J-10B) and numerous other electronic improvements. We are still unsure of all the regiments that have received J-10B/C, because photos normally have their numbers blurred out. Huitong’s blog currently has listed FTTC, 2nd division, 19th division and 21st division as having J-10B/C regiments. From what I have seen, FTTC received J-10Bs first and the old J-10A 2nd division regiment has been receiving J-10Bs. Also, it’s interesting that we have been seeing numerous J-10Bs (without the J-10C improvements) flying with Taihang engine. So I think it is possible that we will see both J-10B with Taihang and J-10C with AL-31FN Series 3 engine produced next year. Based on the recent production numbers, China probably needs to place another AL-31FN order soon.
China also had some more movements with its larger aircraft programs. It received the second refurbished IL-78s from Ukraine (out of 3 on order) and more of the refurbished IL-76s. We also continue to hear more on development of Y-20 and its engines (WS-18 and WS-20). The development of Y-20 will probably complete by 2017 based on its current progress. As I wrote about many times before, PLAAF has large requirement of Y-20 for transport, tankers and special missions platform. I’m sure the LRIP for Y-20 will begin next year, but it’s hard to say when they would be able to ramp up its production to the point where it no longer needs to import IL-76/78s. At the same time, China unveiled the first C919 airliner this year and also finally completed flight certification of ARJ-21. At this point, it seems like C919 is already a great improvement in almost every aspect over ARJ-21. However, it’s going into the market against an extremely capable A320NEO series and B737 MAX series. It does not seem to have any real advantage over those 2 series and will not enter service earlier. In most of China’s domestic routes, it should be competitive with those 2, so I would expect it to capture a good number of orders once it completes flight certification. The big challenges ahead will be to obtain FAA/EASA certification, achieve export orders, ramping up production and completing all of this with minimal delays. This is a tremendous undertaking, but COMAC would be getting a lot of valuable experiences if it can achieve all of that.
Another area of aviation that China has done well on this year is in the field of UAVs. The CH-3/4 UCAVs have been exported to numerous countries (at least Nigeria, Iraq, Egypt, UAE and Saudi Arabia). It has already been used in conflicts against ISIS and Yemen rebels. China had been displaying numerous miniature (50 kg) PGMs and ground attack missiles in weapon shows along with CH-4 UAVs and these have now been tested in real war action. So from these action, it’s likely that CH-4 will get more export orders in the coming years. The WingLoong series has also achieved export orders with UAE and with PLA. Along with these MQ-1 like UCAV program, China is also developing numerous larger UAVs and UCAVs. Those programs are likely developed just for domestic usage and not marketed for exports. It’s unclear how many of these programs will actually see production.
For the Chinese navy, the major ticket item is its aircraft carrier program. Throughout this year, more and more photos came out from Dalian rumoured to be modules of the first domestic aircraft carriers. At this point, I think most Chinese navy watchers would agree that this is the first domestic carrier (aka Project 001A). Over 2016, one of the main areas to follow would be the progress of this first carrier. Over the past year, the intensity of CV-16 exercises seemed to be picking up. Over this past year, Shenyang AC has been producing more production versions of J-15s. There are at least 15 of them now from 100 to 114 and all of them probably have flown off CV-16. In the most recent exercise, at least 6 of them were shown on deck at the same time and as many as 10 were probably on CV-16 in this exercise. That’s a definite step forward in carrier operations from earlier this year and previous years. On top of having more J-15s on board, having more types of combat aircraft and helicopter on board operating at different weather conditions and at nighttime are the next steps in improving carrier operation. Chinese naval aviation has a long way to go in developing its combat capability, so will be sure to continue to see its progress next year. I think it’s also interesting that we have yet to see photos of CV-16 leading a large flotilla with numerous escorts like 052C/D and 054A, so that’s also something to look to see in 2016. The Chinese navy has to do all of this with very little help from other carrier operating navies around the world, so it has been deliberately ramping up operation for the past 3 years. It may take several more years to see the things I’ve listed here.
The rest of the surface fleet programs have also been progressing well like previous years. The 4 new 052C ships have now all joined service as No. 150 to 153. Two more 052Ds (No. 173 and No. 174) have also joined service. The main gun PJ-38 has also recently did a comprehensive round of firing tests. The 052Ds are equipped with the latest VLS, multi functional radar, variable depth sonar and PJ-38s, so they represent quite a major improvement in capabilities over 052C despite sharing the same hull. There are probably at least 5 more 052Ds from JN shipyard and 2 more from Dalian shipyard that are under construction. We will probably also start seeing progress of 055 in one of these shipyards next year. Amongst the 054As, a couple of more joined service this year and more modules have also appeared. They are also installed with the new VDS. The production of 054As has already exceeded what was expected originally, allowing the older Jianghu ships and the 4 Jiangwei ships to be decommissioned. It will be interesting to see how many more 054As ships are built when many have expected PLAN to move production to a newer 054 variant. Similarly, Type 056 corvettes have also continued to be produced in large numbers this year and they are expected to replace the roles of Type 037s in patrol, sub chasers and ASuW. And finally, the 4th Type 071 recently joined service as No. 988.
Aside from the surface combatants, the replenishment fleet has also seen a huge boom this year. Most recently, the 40K+ ton displacement Type 901 AOR was launched. This type of shape is significant, because it’s expected to be the primary AOR for China’s future carrier fleet. It is much larger than China’s existing Type 903 class of AORs. Also, it is powered by gas turbines instead of diesel engines on the Type 903 AORS, allowing for much higher speed to keep up with the rest of carrier fleet. It also has more resupply gantries located in the middle of the ship than Type 903, which allows for underway refueling with more ships. At the same time, both HD and GSI shipyard have continued to build and commissioned Type 903A ships.
There were 3 Type 903A (No. 960, 966 and 963) have joined service this year. There are at least 2 other one launched and another building. The Type 904 large store ships also had a lot of activity this year. There were 2 Type 904B ships (No. 961 and 962) that joined service year. These additional ships are probably there to supply the increasing amount of activity that China has in South China Sea and East China Sea. So overall, this was a really active year for China’s replenishment fleet. A couple of the older replenishment ships will probably retire over the next couple of years, but the increasing number of large ships joining into service will allow for greater power projection capabilities and also supplying near by islands.
Finally, China’s coast guard fleet construction activity has continued this year with some of the largest cutters joining service. There were 12000-ton class, 5000-ton class, 4000-ton class and numerous 3000-ton class cutters getting launched and commissioned. A lot of ships seem to have conflicting roles, but they were originally created for different agencies and for provincial bureaus. I think that most of the programs are nearing conclusion at the moment. Until the next 5-year plan gets developed with similar number of projects, we probably will not see this same level of expansion for a while.
As a whole, an interesting year with news from both the navy and air force. I will be looking to follow up on most of these programs next year.