Friday, January 30, 2015

China's Advanced Trainers

Recently, a flurry of articles of come out about JL-9 series of GAIC and L-15 (JL-10) series of HAIG. With all of the progress that's made in China's military aviation industry, the progress amongst advanced trainers have been rather slow, with Hongdu's products L-15/JL-10 and CJ-7 being the slowest and most frustrating.

Guizhou and Hongdu both unveiled their AJT projects and had maiden flight around the middle of last decade. At the time, GAIC started the JL-9 project earlier and also had a simpler design, so was expected to finish quickly. Hongdu was the sexier project with more advanced layout, higher specs and turbofan engine. After 10 years, the question is where does that leave us with the future of China's AJT fleet?

Recently, I've found news from Guizhou that they are producing 3 types of AJTs: JJ-7A, JJ-9 and JL-9G. Now, I find it quite interesting they are still producing JJ-7A, but that may just indicate JL-9 series itself has taken longer than expected to be produced. I remember as early as 2005, JL-9 was already undergoing testing in CFTE, but had to undergo some changes after. It seemed like JJ-9 was delivered to FTTC for evaluation by the end of last decade. It seemed to have taken another 4 years after that for the first regiment to be delivered with JJ-9 in 2013 even after achieving design certification in 2011. It's quite possible that more changes were made during this time based on issues found by FTTC. This past year, more JJ-9 was delivered to both PLAAF and PLANAF, which would indicate the program is finally on track and have satisfied PLA requirements. At the same time, moire articles have come out praising GAIC for the various types of JL-9 that have been developed. At around the time CV-16 project was picking up speed, work for a naval trainer also started with JL-9G. It's unclear to me at this point if this variant is only aimed for naval aviation since tail hook is no longer installed. Several improvements were made to allow JL-9G to handle the greater stress and higher takeoff/landing requirements of naval aviation. At the moment, it has only entered service with PLANAF. Based on the greater payload of JL-9G vs JJ-9, it seems like an aircraft that could also be adapted for light attack roles. It is a very low cost platform ($8.5 million each based on recent Chinese reports) and also extremely cheap to operate even compared to other AJTs. I would imagine the proposed FTC-2000G design could bring in sales in numerous countries that are currently using J-7s and K-8s. So while I would place GAIC below other major AVIC1 design bureaus like CAC and SAC, it has managed to develop an effective aircraft.

Hongdu is a different story. It has been over 10 years since L-15 was displayed in the 2004 Zhuhai air show and almost 9 years since it made its maiden flight in March 2006. To this day, it still has yet to join service with PLAAF. Through much of this time, only 4 flying prototypes were produced. If it was not for the steady cash flow of K-8 series, it would be hard to see how this company could really survive the lack of progress in its next major project. The interesting part is that Hongdu did get order for 6 L-15s from Zambia in 2012 and 3 L-15s recently did test flights since the turn of new year. it's quite possible that they will all be delivered to Zambia in the first half of this year. There were also reports that Venezuela ordered 24 L-15s. Similar to the K-8 project, L-15 will most likely be delivered for export before even getting evaluated by PLA. JL-10, which is the Chinese version of L-15 AJT, had its maiden flight in 2013. Apparently, a small batch of JL-10 will be produced and delivered to FTTC this year for trial and evaluation. Only after that and possible more modifications will JL-10 join service with Also, there is always the question of engine. JL-8 did not join service with PLA until the domestic WS-11 engine available. It's quite possible that will also be the case with JL-10. As shown in the JJ-9 project, it took several year of trial and evaluation + changes before it went into production. If that happens, one can expect JL-10 to join service after the first J-20 regiment gets formed. By then, the domestic Minshan engine might be ready for JL-10 project. I think it speaks for Hongdu's ability as a design bureau that an AJT takes this long to get developed for PLAAF, but they do seem to be really good at selling their product. The K-8 project is still selling well after 300 export and 400 domestic order. L-15/JL-10 program can certainly follow K-8's path, because it is a fairly advanced AJT design that could also be adapted for other roles.

So in summary, China has finally moved on from JJ-7 series of advanced jet trainers. Even so, JL-10 project is still a couple of years away from really joining service. By that point, it will serve as a good LIFT for the 5th generation fighter jet that China is developing.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

More information on Type 071 class and the new 054A

Most recently, China's 18th Flotilla to Aden visited Portsmouth UK for 5 days visit. This flotilla consisted of a Type 054A, a Type 071 and a Type 903A AOR.

There were some photos released, but I think the most interesting part for me was how large Type 071 really is. Here are a couple of photos of its hangar and flight deck.

Based on a picture of the description of the ship, it's said to be able to carry 6 Z-8 helicopters in the hangar, which is 2 more than what i previously thought. Based on these photos, I think that's probably do-able once they are folded. The flight deck can easily launch multiple Z-8/9s. The same description also says that this ship can hold 4 Type 726 hovercraft in the well deck and carry a maximum of 65 amphibious assault vehicles. Now in practice, we've never seen more than 1 Type 726 hovercraft in the well deck, since they only have 3 of them in service. We've also never seen more than 2 Z-8s and 1 Z-9 on a Type 071, since naval helicopters are also in short supply with Chinese navy at the moment. I would imagine the maximum capacity of 65 AAVs is in a configuration where all of the well deck space and compartments in front of it are used to hold the AAVs. This also compares favorably to the number of vehicles that can be carried on a San Antonio class. No mention was made of how many troops could be carried, but it did mention a crew size of 156 people with 23 officers. That seems to be a pretty small number when one considers how many crew members are on each Type 056 ship (which is 1/10 the size). It did mention that helicopters can be used within 200 km of the ship. Hovercraft can be launched 60 km out from target and AAVs can be launched 20 km out from target. Other than that, it's similar in dimension to San Antonio class.

Also, a new variant of Type 054A joined Chinese navy recently with the East Sea Fleet. It's interesting that this new Type 054A took probably 8 months longer than usual to join service because of the changes incorporated in the shape including the new variable depth sonar and the new Type 1130 (11 barrel) CIWS, which should really improve the ASW and close-in air defense of this ship. It was speculated that the longer commissioning period is due to delays in the variable depth sonar development. Either way, this improved variant has now joined service and the next 3 units of this variant should also join service sometimes this year. After that, it's likely that we will need to wait sometimes before the next class of frigates to come out. In many ways, I think Type 054A class exceeded Chinese Naval requirements and the class has been wildly successful in modernizing Chinese navy. All of the major flotilla would have at least 2 Type 054A series ships by the end of its production run. I think it doesn't make sense to build next class after Type 054A for a few years. There are still many Type 053 ships that will need to be retired or transferred to coast guard. With all the Type 056 ships joining service, there really isn't any reason to keep any Jianghu class ships around. Even the earliest Jiangwei class should be decommissioned in the next few years.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

State of Aerospace Engine for PLA

The issue of finding adequate and reliable engine has always been an issue for PLA. The navy seems to be getting by with license building advanced diesel engines, which are not under embargo, for most of its ships and some copied or home developed gas turbines for shipping class that need them. The air force has always seen delays due to problems in local production of engines for a series or waiting for Russian engine options. Shenyang AC has been quite unfortunate in having 2 of its recent aircraft programs (J-8F and J-11B) delayed due to issues with production of a new class domestic engine. I've talked in the past about the state of engine production in China, but was overly optimistic over the program in those cases. So, this entry will attempt to look at some of the domestic engine programs and their import programs.

First, the FWS-10 program is probably the most relevant to the current well being of PLA. We are at a point where all the recent J-11Bs have been produced with FWS-10 along with J-15S and J-16. I'm sure they are still working through problems with a new engine like FWS-10, but it's no longer problematic like early 2011, when SAC had many J-11Bs without engine seating out in its airfields. At that time, the Chinese air force simply refused to take those aircraft because issues with FWS-10. By this point, Russians were more careful about making sure their AL-31F did not end up on J-11B, so the project was basically on hold after that first regiment of J-11B join service with AL-31F. By now, we have seen 4 more J-11B regiments with PLAAF and 3 more J-11B regiments with PLANAF. Assuming that all of these regiments become full at some point this year, that would be approximately 7 x 24 = 168 J-11B/BS in service with FWS-10. Including the J-15/16 prototypes that SAC is building every year, I would guess easily 30 to 40 flankers are produced every year using FWS-10 as power plant. Assuming that a spare is produced for every 2 engines, the yearly production of FWS-10 could be over 100 at this point. So the question is why they are still using AL-31FN on J-10B and AL-31F on J-15. I think at this point they are developing a naval version of FWS-10 to last through the wear and tear of naval operation. At the same time, a higher thrust version is required to support the added take-off weight on J-16. Future flankers will continue to use WS-10 series. A J-10B prototype with FWS-10A is probably still being tested, but it would probably have to match the performance of AL-31FN series 3 (1000 ton more thrust than base layer) in order to be equipped on J-10B production batches. Also, the current J-20 prototypes are also most likely using AL-31FN series 3 engines. As we move forward, this version of AL-31FN is certainly not a viable option for production version of J-20. China can choose a later AL-31FN series that would be equivalent to AL-31FM2 or FM3, which would have comparable or more power than 117S engine that are used on Su-35 right now. If the upgraded variant of FWS-10 goes into production, that could be used in both J-20 or future batches of J-10B. So I would think the first few years of J-20 production (maybe 2 regiments) will be using underpowered engines (140 to 150 kN range with afterburner) and then WS-15 will go into production. Back in 2010, one of the few good Chinese sources on engines mentioned that WS-15 was probably 10 years from mass production based on where the program was at. Articles on WS-15 are hard to come by, but my guess is that they will start to test it out on fighter jet in a couple of years. After that, it will be a waiting game for certification.

The other major question is the status of the WS-13 program. Speculations over this program has been ongoing since JF-17 first went into production. Recently, a second batch of 100 RD-93 was signed with Russia. That would indicate continuing delays in the WS-13 program. At the same time, there was news in the middle of 2014 that Guizhou Liyang was putting significant investment into building a production line for WS-13. We know that RD-93 has been used on FC-31 technology demonstrator and also the Lijian UCAV technology demonstrator, but the vast majority of second batch of RD-93s are still allocated for JF-17. At some point, they will have to test out WS-13 with a batch of production JF-17s. It's possible that a portion of this second order will be used as spares/replacement, but the size of the RD-93 is confusing given the report of WS-13 production line. Going forward, I've talked about how FC-31 does not currently have a viable option for engine. It looks like an improved variant of RD-93, RD-93MA, is under development. When they do choose to move forward with the FC-31 project, I think the current solution of baseline RD-93 (or even WS-13) is too underpowered for even the pre-production batch. So in order to really go forward in FC-31, they have to use RD-93MA before the new 9500 kgf engine under development becomes ready sometimes in the next decade. WS-15 project has higher priority, so that will become ready first.

For the Y-20 project, the early prototypes are all using D-30KP2. D-30 is also used on the 2 regiment of H-6K (about 40 in total) that have recently joined service. A few years ago, it was speculated that a domestic variant of D-30KP2 (WS-18) was getting developed for Y-20 while the more advanced WS-20 engine was still getting ready. China's IL-76 engine testbed has been doing flight testing of WS-20 since 2013. Most recently, they just started doing flight testing of WS-18 on a separate IL-76 testbed. It seems strange rather the older WS-18 begins flight testing over a year after WS-20, but maybe this is aimed for H-6K bombers. Production version of Y-20 is likely to appear sometimes this year or the next, so they will be using the rather old D-30KP2 engine. It doesn't look like PLA is interested in the more advanced PS-90A or even D-30KP3, so Y-20 will be underpowered for a while. At this point, even a D-30KP2 powered Y-20 would be a force multiplier for PLAAF.

Turboshaft engines are not very heavily followed by PLA followers. As late as 10 years ago, issues with producing engine and other subsystems prevented mass production of the domestic helicopters. More recently, helicopter production has been increasing for both PLA and civilian ministries. Since upgraded variant of WZ-6 became available for the Z-8 series, Z-8 production has really taken off for all 3 arms. More recently, Z-18, military version of AC313, using WZ-6C engine is now in mass production for the navy and also the army. We have seen the new Z-18A used in the high altitude of Tibet, which shows how much improvement have been made for WZ-6C. If Huitong's figure of 1300 kw is accurate (and it seems to understated based on other sources), WZ-6C is competitive with PT6B-67A (around 1400 kw) slated for AC313. At the same time, production of Z-10 and Z-19 project have both been going pretty well and look to be sufficiently powered. It seems like production and usage of WZ-9 engine for Z-10 project has been going well. WZ-8 production for Z-9/Z-19 helicopters have been going well too. WZ-16 engine is been developed with France to power Z-15. It may or may not be usable in the future for other Chinese helicopters like Z-10. It seems like they have been able to develop upgraded variants of existing engines either by themselves or with the help of European companies. The only major remaining project that depends on the development of a new engine is Z-20. That is quite a huge improvement for China's engine industry.

Finally, there are some other engines been developed (either new project or copying Russian/Ukrainian engines) for UAVs, missiles and trainer projects. They get much less news, but we do see their appearance sometimes in Zhuhai air show. Very recently, we saw Chengfa finish development on one of those projects. So, this is a rundown on China's engine developments. Similar to 5 years ago, this area remains the achilles heel for the Chinese military industrial complex.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Things to watch out for in 2015 for PLAN

I did a review of PLAN in 2014 a few weeks ago. Since then, a couple of more surface combatants have launched at various PLAN shipyards. It was certainly an active year for them, but this entry will take a look at active naval building programs for 2015 and beyond.

I want to first take a look at Aircraft Carrier project. In 2014, CV-16 went on a couple of patrols, but also spent a large period of time at dock going through maintenance and repairs. These patrols were probably more like sea trial and training opportunities for CV-16 crew member. I think there was some pictures earlier in 2014 of a large exercise that CV-16 took part with the several major surface combatants, but that maybe the only real exercise it has participated in so far. Also, the flight program off CV-16 has not really moved forward in 2014. We have basically seen the same 3 or 4 J-15 prototypes taking off and landing from CV-16. On top of that, while the first batch of production version of J-15s started in 2013, we have seen only up to 8 produced so far in over a year. PLAN may be choosing to produce the production J-15s slowly as they are working through any of the issues found in testing, since they don't need that many J-15s for operation off CV-16 and their naval aviation training center. Also, it goes to show that the process of developing and training a naval air wing is a long and deliberate process. In 2015, it will be interesting to see if more J-15s start to operate off CV-16, since 2014 has been quite slow in that aspect. Also, while the production of domestic carrier may have started or will start this year, I don't expect to see anything meaningful until probably 2016. I expect it to be delivered by 2019 to 2020.

Amphibious ships - I've talked about the resumption of Type 071 and Type 072 production a little bit in the previous entries. For the latter, WC shipyard has taken over production and have been launching them pretty quickly. We may see 8 Type 072s produced at WC shipyard for replacing older Type 072 or for expanding PLAN capabilities in South China Sea. For the Type 071, HD shipyard has resumed their production after a 3 year layoff. This most current batch of Type 071s is probably similar in external appearance to the original Type 071 even if the internal subsystems may have all been upgraded. In the original Type 071, PLAN lowered the production cost (to around $200 million) by using very light self defense systems and older generation of combat system. Each Type 071 is only equipped with a 76 mm main gun + 4 AK-630 CIWS with 2 pairs of fire channel, so it will have to rely on escort. Even HHQ-7 SAM, which is an older SAM found on older ships, was not installed even though space was left for short ranged SAM to be installed at a later point. Based on what I've read, it seems like this new batch of Type 071s are still using the same light self defense system (probably due to cost reasons again) even though earlier designs had added more advanced weaponry like HQ-10 SAM and Type 1130 CIWS. Once these new systems become cheaper and more mature, we may see an upgraded variant Type 071A with them. At the same time, there is talk of a Type 075 amphibious assault ship (LPH) coming out, but that is probably also something that will appear in a couple of years. Aside from the landing ships, the landing crafts have been a little confusing. The status of the Zubr program is unknown after Crimea came under Russian control. It looks like China has continued domestic production of Zubr, but not sure whether Russians or Ukrainians are assisting the project right now. Type 726 hovercraft production does not seem to pick up, so it's unclear if PLAN plans to have more than one of them per Type 071.

Surface combatants - This is probably the area that's easiest to see the progress of PLAN modernization, since all of the shipyards around the country are building them in open. Type 052C production should come to close this year when the 6th ship of the class, which already has number painted, joins service. Type 052D production is fully under way after the lead ship joined service in April. Four other 052Ds from JN are already launched with the remaining 3 likely to all launch this year. Out of these 7 ships, two of them will probably join service this year. Dalian shipyard also received order for 4 052Ds and the first one will probably launch this year. After Type 052D, it appears that work for the Type 055 cruiser has started at JN shipyard. Although, I think we are unlikely to see modules for it this year. In the next few years, both JN and Dalian shipyard should be producing them. In the 054 series, the final 4 Type 054A with upgraded CIWS and sonar suite are all likely to be commissioned in 2015. Type 054B may appear later this year. Due to the size of existing hull and propulsion, I think there is a limit on how much it can change from 054A. Finally, 18 Type 056 light frigates have already joined service and at least 6 other ones have been launched. I would that all 6 of the launched ones should join service by the end of this year with more new hulls launching. The production run of Type 056 is already quite significant, so all of the ordered ships maybe launched by the end of this year. Type 056 series has already received export orders from Bangladeshi Navy. It seems like a good design to receive more export deals going forward.

There are numerous other important programs that are ongoing obviously. The conventional and nuclear submarine programs are both ongoing, but harder than surface combatants to verify their current status or service status. Numerous large AORs, replenishment ships and AGI ships were launched this year and should join service the next 2 years. The project to look out for is a new class of large AORs in the 40000+ ton range designed to support carrier group. The existing AORs are sufficient for missions like Gulf of Aden with smaller number of surface combatants, but a larger one would be sufficient for PLAN's blue water goals.