Monday, February 21, 2011

The present and the future direction of J-10

As readers of this blog probably know, I have been a fan of J-10 for a long time. In many ways, the J-10 project marked a turning point in Chinese military aviation industry. When its development first started in 1986, the Chinese aviation industry was constantly abandoning new development projects due to lack of funding, technology and development experience. China was forced to go the conservative route and continue to develop J-7 and J-8 variants. Many J-7 and J-8 variants were delayed due to delays in avionics, engine and missile projects. With the exception of J-8, China had not successfully developed a fighter jet since the Soviet split. The J-10 projects succeeded in large part because China finally opened up itself to the West. The help that China received from Israel is well documented. However, I would say that another important help to J-10 and all recent aviation projects is the improved manufacturing capability, improved funding, access to advanced civilian technology and improved project management that came through the trade liberalization. For example, how would companies like NRIET be able to develop radar and avionics for PLA if China did not become competitive in the electronics industry? After 18 years of hard work by CAC, J-10 finally achieved operational status in 2004. With the success of the J-10 projects and advancement in civilian industry, we have seen a lot more stories of successes in Chinese military aviation industry in the recent years. I have read some real praises recently toward the aerospace engineers at CAC about their youthfulness and energy. I don't think we would've seen something like J-20 come out this soon, if CAC did not gain so much experience from the J-10 program.

Back when J-10 first came out, there were a lot of skepticism about its capabilities and deployment status. Even though the first J-10 regiment achieved operational status by 2004, many people questioned its status until it was officially declassified in late 2006. At the same time, I read many reports about its successes in exercises against different flanker variants. Most people were rightfully skeptical toward such reports. As time went on, it became more and more obvious that J-10 was taken over the reign as the backbone of PLAAF from flankers. Even now, we still often read reports about J-10s crushing flankers and J-8s in different training exercises. Even with all of its successes, the J-10 program still has experienced some stumbles along the way. I think most people would agree that propulsion is the biggest bottleneck for J-10. Due to lack of available domestic options and the Western arms embargo, China was forced to select AL-31FN as the powerplant. After the initial batch for J-10 prototypes, China has since placed orders for batches of 54, 100 and 122 AL-31FN engines for production variants. Many of us thought WS-10A might be available after the second batch of engines, but its production problems in the past 2 years have been well documented. As a result, China had to make that third purchase in 2009 for 122 AL-31FN costing $500 million. Due to the delays in WS-10A, J-10 production basically came to a standstill for most of 2008 and early part of 2009. Although, it is believed that some of the first product batch of J-10s delivered to 44th division were brought back to CAC to be upgraded to the latest configurations. From the first 154 AL-31FNs, CAC delivered J-10s for FTTC (60x8x), 131st regiment of 44th division (50x5x), 8th regiment of 3rd division (10x4x), 5th regiment of 2nd division (10x3x) and 2nd regiment of 1st division (10x2x). After signing the 3rd AL-31FN contract, CAC produced a 4th batch of J-10s to 70th regiment of 24th division (30x5x) and the special August First flight demonstration squad of 24th division. In this past year of 2010, CAC produced a 5th batch of J-10s of 37 single seaters + a good number of twin-seaters to fully convert the 25th regiment of 9th division (20x0x) and a good portion of the 12th regiment of 4th PLANAF division (83x4x). Since late last year, we have started seeing test trials of a 6th batch of J-10s from CAC. This batch will most likely be delivered to fill the 12th regiment of PLANAF and also convert a new PLAAF regiment. I think this will be the last batch of J-10s that can be produced from the third AL-31FN contract. Here is a breakdown of production J-10s at the moment:
  • 6 PLAAF regiments (28 J-10s each  6 x 28 = 168)
  • 12 J-10s serving in the August First demonstration squad
  • Around 16 J-10s serving in the FTTC aggressor squad
  • 10 to 20 J-10s serving in the 12th regiment of PLANAF
So, my guess is that there are around 200 to 220 J-10s in service at the moment for different branches of PLAAF and PLANAF.

So, where does the J-10 program go from here? Some fans are already gushing over the first flight of J-20 and about ready to stop J-10 production very soon. Some question whether or not J-10B is needed at all. I definitely think those talks are crazy. China will have many J-7 regiments retiring in the coming years. I think some regiments will not be replaced, but PLAAF also does not want the fleet to shrink that much. I have brought up the talk of using JF-17 to fill a good number of the third tier regiments, but J-10s are still needed to replace more strategically located J-7 regiments. CAC has shown that it can mass produce J-10s at relatively low cost of less than 200 million RMB. Until J-20 joins service, J-10 and J-11 will form the core of PLAAF. Even though J-10 is smaller and cheaper than J-11, it has been the more capable air defense fighter jet. Therefore, even after J-20 becomes available, J-10 should still be continually produced. As we saw with J-7, CAC kept producing newer variants for PLAAF until at least 2007 even though J-10 was already operational with several regiments. So I think different variants of J-10s will be produced for the foreseeable future. In the immediate future, CAC will finish the 6th batch of J-10s to fully convert the 12th regiment of PLANAF and possibly fully convert another PLAAF regiment. I think this should be the end of J-10/A production run (about 240 to 250 using 276 AL-31FNs).

After this point, I think the production should shift to J-10Bs. We’ve seen the Y-8 radar test bed recently testing with what appears to be the nose of J-10B, so all signs are pointing toward J-10B production starting sometimes late this year or early next year. As stated before, J-10B should represent quite an improvement over J-10A when it comes to new avionics architecture, latest range of sensors (AESA radar, IRST and MAWs), new generation of MMI and more integrated EW installations. It should also have better multi-role capability and be able to fire all of the latest generation of AAMs, AGMs and PGMs (many shown in Zhuhai Airshow). The other question with J-10B and future J-10 variants is how it will move into the future world of stealth fighters. Clearly, future J-10 variants can be designed to have reduced signature like hornets to super hornets or eagle to silent eagle, but it cannot be redesigned into a LO aircraft. In fact, we are already seeing some greater consideration for stealth on J-10B when it comes to greater usage of composite material, integrated IRST/ECM, LPI radar and adoption of DSI inlet (although this could be more of a weight/subsonic performance vs supersonic performance tradeoff). There are also plenty of claims on Chinese forums that J-10B has also adopted plasma stealth, but I do not know how I can verify that. The other question is what engine will be used by future J-10s. Will China make a new large order for AL-31FN or will WS-10 series finally reach acceptable performance/reliability level to be installed on J-10B? We will have to keep the wait and see approach to find out. I would say that at least one more order of AL-31FNs is needed before WS-10 can become ready for both J-10 and J-11.

And finally, we should also see more export deals with J-10 in the coming years. As we’ve seen in numerous reports, PAF will be the first export customer for J-10, although we don’t know the exact configuration yet. After Pakistan, J-10 will probably be offered to most countries around the world. It will actually be interesting to see how that will affect JF-17’s export prospects, since most potential export customers would only select one of the two fighters. China will also not be able to export to many countries until WS-10 becomes a viable engine option.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The other side of PLAN

When people talk about PLAN in the West, the modernization and the naval shipbuilding program are often the focus. There is no question that the current shipbuilding program for both PLAN and the Coastal Guard agencies are impressive. However, China began this streak from a very low starting point. What people often miss is how PLAN keep really old and ineffective ships in service to save cost.

Among the frigates that are still in service, no where is more evident than the 4 Jianghu-I ships that are still in service with East Sea Fleet. The 513 and 514 ship shown below first joined PLAN in the 70s and really have no use other than training and patrols. In fact, 2 Jianghu-I ships have already been converted for the Maritime Police agencies (much to their chagrin I must add).

Another big example of extremely old PLAN ships are the Luda destroyers in service with North Sea Fleet as covered by China-defense blog. The sailors on this 40 years old ship is their newly issued cold weather gears. Some of them are still using silkworm anti-ship missiles, manually controlled AAA guns for air defense and antisubmarine rocket launchers for ASW.

At the same time, the current upgrade program gives us an insight on the extension of the relative old ships still in service with PLAN.

The 052 Luhu class ships (112 & 113) joined PLAN after a full production run of the 3600-ton Luda class. These 4200-ton class ships were the first PLAN surface combatants to use gas turbines. 112, the lead ship of the class, uses LM-2500 (imported before the embargo) and joined service in 1994. 113, the other ship of this class, had to use GT-25000 and joined service in 1996. These two ships were upgraded once in 2003/2004 to use YJ-83 anti-ship missiles and upgraded main guns. However, their current weapon systems are vastly outdated when compared against the similar sized 054A class. They are still using HQ-7 and outdated Type 76A guns for air defense. 112 uses a bunch of imported (and now outdated) sensors and combat system. Due to the arms embargo, 113 was forced to use the downgraded domestic copy of those sensors and combat system. Either way, support for these sensors are unlikely to be too great going forward. At the same time, it's usage of Z-9C helicopters, DUBV-43 VDS and DUBV-23 hull mounted sonar are unlikely to allow it to fully perform its original designed role of ASW destroyer.

As such, it appears that 112 is undergoing a hull scale of changes for the past year at the HuDong shipyard. It is likely that LM-2500 will be replaced by QC-280 after 20 years of service. At the same time, the rest of the ships have been ripped apart. I have not seen this kind of upgrade with any other PLAN ships. When looking at the amount of work they are performing on this ship, it makes me wonder why they do not just use that money to build more 054As. Either way, it looks like 112 will remain in service for another 20 years after this kind of mid-life rebuild.

Also as stated in a recent China-defense blog entry (originally from fyjs forum), the Jianghu-V ships are getting an extensive refitting. These 6 ships were built for the South Sea Fleet from 1992 to 1995. They were the result of an emergency program at that time due to the worsening situation in South China Sea. Today, it is hard to see PLAN needing such a program these days to protect its waters, but China did have tough time against the Vietnamese there in 1988. Compared to other Jianghu ships, these ships had more modern and reliably sensors/weapons and much better living quarters. It's certainly not easy for sailors to stay out for long patrols in South China Sea without air conditioning. Even so, these ships are really archaic in terms of hull design, sensors and weapon systems. From the photos below, we can see that they have installed two quadruple YJ-83 launchers, PJ-33A dual-100mm guns, new air search radar and decoy launchers.

From these recent photos of the inside of the ship, it looks like they have also installed new control terminals and combat systems.

The last two photos were taken from 562 conducting New Year's patrols. It is clear that these ships still play a very important part in patrolling the coastal waters. With the extensive refitting we are seeing, they are likely to be in service for quite sometime. So even with the induction of many 054As, PLAN still consist of a large number of old ships.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Activities around Chinese shipyards

Happy Chinese New Year to everyone. In case you missed it, Thursday marked the beginning to the year of rabbit.

With the new year celebration just starting this past week, shipyards around the country have probably stopped work. Having said that, we did get a lot of good photos from the shipyards around the country this past week as numerous people posted pictures in celebration of the new year. Since the work in these shipyard are likely to be interrupted for much of February, these probably won't update much until sometimes in March.

First of all, we have a bunch of new pictures from Dalian showing the latest works on Varyag. It's clear that they still have plenty of work before this thing will start sailing off. Just by the look of all the cranes, boxes on the deck, modules on the side and uninstalled sensors, the installation will continue for a few months longer in my opinion.

We also have some updates of 054A around the country. First of all, it looks like the 4th 054A from HD shipyard is finally ready to sail off. It is all painted in PLAN schemes and ready to join ESF. It will have to wait until after New Years before join service though.

We also have what appears to be the 5th 054A from HD shipyard getting ready to be launched. There are also traces of a 6th 054A at HD shipyard, although it is not confirmed yet.

The 5th 054A from HP shipyard is also remarkably far along. I am not sure if it has started sea trials yet, but looks like all of the sensors have been fitted at least.

The 6th 054A from HP shipyard is hidden behind one of the rescue ships from maritime agencies. It looks to be quite far along and will be ready to be launched soon.

Remarkably, the 7th 054A from HP shipyard is also taking shape. As you can see, the ship module next to the 5th 054A looks like the front section of a new 054A.

We also got an updated photo of the recently launched 052C from JN shipyard. I don't think much has changed since the last set of photos.

At the same time, low rate 022 production appears to be continuing in this remote inland shipyard. It is also building cutters for the maritime police and the maritime surveillance agency.

We also have a picture of Haijian-26 here. It is the final cutter of the 4 that is produced by HP shipyard. The third one, Haijian-66, was recently delivered to CMS.

Finally, it appears that the 5th yuan has been delivered and doing sea trials in Shanghai for a while now. The 2 Yuan submarines in Wuchang should be the 6th and 7th. The word on Chinese forums is that Yuan submarines are also being built by JN shipyard. It looks like Yuan production run might be over very soon if they are continuously churned out at the current rate.