Wednesday, December 25, 2013

2013 Chinese Air Force Review

This was the year when many of China's new military aviation projects appeared, so it was very exciting to all of the PLAAF followers. Although there weren't as many news coming out this year about J-20 and J-31, many other projects really came out and took center stage. So this entry will try to look at them.

Y-20 - Although we started see pictures of Y-20 performing low speed taxiing late last year, it did not make it's maiden flight until late January of this year. The second Y-20 prototype made its maiden flight very recently. It looks like this program is progressing well so far. PLAAF is desperate for something like Y-20 to not only do the role of strategic transport but also as the platform for next generation AWACS (and other C4ISR roles), large aerial tanker and airborne laser platform. It has been forced to purchase a number of refurbished IL-76s from Russia in the past couple of years as a stop gap until Y-20 comes into service in 3 to 5 years. I think there is a chance that they will also purchase some new built IL-476 since the production rate for Y-20 is likely to be low in the beginning. In my opinion, this is the most important aviation project for PLA.

J-20/J-31 - It has been a less eventful year for the 5th generation projects. Many of us expect the prototype 2003 to come out this year, but we were disappointed for most of the year (although there is some recent photo that indicate 2003 might be ready). It looks like major improvements are to be made in this third prototype, whereas the first 2 are probably more like technology demonstrators. J-31 has been making some more test flights, but it's not known at the moment what exact role it will have for PLAAF. Similar to J-20, this first prototype is probably more like a technology demonstrator while 601 Institute works on creating a prototype that satisifies all of PLAAF requirements.

Flanker family - While rumours about Su-35 purchase continues unabated, we do know that J-15 project has moved to production stage this year. We are still waiting to see production version of J-15 to appear on CV-16. That will probably happen next year. It looks like J-16 project is also moving toward a first pre-production batch. J-11B/S production has continued this year, but will probably be replaced by J-16 very soon. At which point, J-15 will be produced for the naval aviation and J-16 will be for the air force. J-16 and J-10B are likely to be the main multirole fighters in PLAAF until the 5th generation aircraft enters service.

J-10 family - The production of J-10A finally came to close this year with the 7th batch. Most recently, we saw the last J-10A regiment with the 124th brigade. Earlier this year, we saw J-10A with the 12th division. The 124th brigade maybe all J-10As or a mix with J-10Bs. We now have 10 regiments (FTTC, 44th, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 24th, 9th, 15th, 12th, 124th brigade) in service with PLAAF, 1 regiment (4th division 12th regiment) in service with PLANAF in addition to 12 in service with August first flight demonstration squad. That will total to over 300 single and twin-seated versions of J-10As, which is a very healthy production run. We have already seen the first production version of J-10B in the air fields of CAC, so they should join service next year. In many ways, J-10B's flight tests lasted a lot longer (5 years) than all of us had estimated. That's probably a combination of 611 Institute/132 factory devoting most of their resources to the J-20 project and the complexity of changes from J-10A to J-10B. It will be the first fighter jet in PLAAF to have AESA radar and a whole host of new generation avionics. There are rumours of a J-10C variant under development, but it's unlikely to have anywhere near the level of changes from J-10A to J-10B. By that time, the production of both the hi (J-20) and lo (J-31) 5th generation fighter jet will both have already started.

Helicopter projects - Most recently, the much speculated Z-20 (the 10-ton general purpose helicopters) made its maiden flight. We can tell from the photos that it is heavily inspired (or cloned) from S-70 blackhawk series of helicopters. As shown with S-70 and NH-90, this class of helicopter can be used for a wide variety of roles for both the army and the navy. One would imagine Z-20 would be very popular in PLA too. It can replace Mi-17 and Z-8B in most of the transport and SAR roles, while serving as the primary SAR/ASW helicopter for medium sized PLAN surface combatants. The other project that will be very important is the Z-15 project. The first Chinese version using WZ-16 engine should be flying next year. Similar to Z-20, it should be a tremendous help for both the army and navy. It can replace many roles currently handled by the undersized Z-9 series of helicopter. Up to this point, the main problem with Chinese helicopter industry is the lack of helicopters between the 4-ton class Z-9 and the 13-ton class Z-8. Z-10 has now filled the space of 6-ton attack helicopter, but Z-15 and Z-20 will now fill the space of 7-ton and 10-ton helicopter to finally provide PLA with a full compliment of domestic helicopters.

UAVs - Two major UAV projects took step forward this year. The first is the X-47B like Lijian (Sharp Sword) UCAV from 601 Institute and Hongdu. It had it's maiden flight in November and really gives China a stealthy UCAV that can perform a variety of attacking roles. Going forward, much work needs to be done (like getting a new engine that fits the engine nozzle) to actually bring this into service, but looks like PLAAF is really putting a lot of resources in this area. The other major project is the "second generation" of Soaring Dragon. The first demonstrator version came out in 2011. After 2 years of relative inactivity, we saw it again this year with numerous modifications. It should eventually join PLAAF as a HALE UAV similar to RQ-4. Outside of these two developments, we also saw Wing Loong (similar to MQ-1 UCAV) joining service with PLAAF and numerous other UAV projects like CH-4 that are being developed for both export market and PLA.

Bomber/fighter-bomber - We continue to see the H-6K bomber entering service with PLAAF this year. I don't expect a large production run of this bomber, but it can serve as a bomb truck until a more advanced bomber (which is currently under development) comes into service. That is something I don't expect until later this decade. After much speculation, we've finally seen the maiden flight of JH-7B recently. Contrary to earlier speculations, JH-7B has very few external modifications from JH-7A. The changes are the inclusion of a retractable IFR, strengthening of wing/fuselage to carry larger/heavier missiles and a new generation of avionics. JH-7B is likely to be developed for naval aviation since PLAAF is likely to purchase J-16 in the role of fighter-bomber.

As a whole, this has been a very busy year for Chinese military aviation. The appearances of Z-20, the second Y-20 and first JH-7B have been very exciting to PLAAF followers. At the same time, it's great to see J-10B production finally starting. J-10B and J-16 should be the main fighter jet for PLAAF until the end of this decade. The biggest things to look for next year will be the changes in the third prototype of J-20, the appearance of a next generation bomber and the development of new UAVs.

2013 Chinese Naval Review

2013 was another interesting year to look back on for the Chinese Navy, even if we did not see the commissioning of CV-16 or the launching of 052D. Here are some of the progress of the major projects and the anticipated launching for next year.

Carrier Project - For much of the first half of the year, CV-16 rested in Qingdao while China continue to study what it learnt from 2012. As you will be able to find on this SDF thread and this link containing recent Jane's Article, China has built a naval aviation training facility with multiple take-off and landing strips along with hangars for J-15s, trainers and helicopters. By June, we finally had the second round of flight tests from sea trials for CV-16. After which, 5 pilots have been certified for carrier operation. So far, we have only seen prototype No. 552, 553 and 554 conducting test flights off CV-16. Hopefully as we go forward over the next year, we will see production versions of J-15s and more pilots join flight operations. We have also seen J-15 conducting flights with payload like YJ-83, AAMs, bombs and buddy store. This is still a very early stage of flight operations for PLAN. We should see continued expansion in flight envelope and scale of flight operations over the next couple of years. Without help from existing carrier operators, PLAN have to proceed slowly to learn all of the lessons of carrier operations.

The other part this project is the construction of new carrier. Whereas CV-16 has the designation Type 001, the first domestic carrier is already given the designation of Type 001A. By all account, it should be a STOBAR carrier similar to CV-16. The question at this point is what kind of changes we will see from the not so well designed Admiral K class. Work for this type 001A class has reported been started in the second half of this year in Dalian shipyard (which did the refitting work for CV-16). We saw modules earlier in both Dalian and JiangNan shipyard, but those may just be demonstration modules. Over 2014, we should see more pictures of the modules taking shape. We may see both Dalian and JiangNan build 1 Type 001A carrier.

Submarine Program - I've written extensively this year about China's nuclear submarine program. We finally saw a newly launched Type 093B + newly launched Type 094 from the GE photos. Based on Kanwa's measurement, the Type 094 is also modified based on the location of the hump relative to the bow. Based on all that we have heard, a lot of improvements are needed in the upcoming boats before they can really become the deterrent that China needs.

The conventional submarine program was also quite active, but a lot more under the radar. The type 032 testbed was unveiled in July, whereas the type 039B production continued. It looks like the first 8 to 10 039A/039B have now replaced the Song submarines in the 22nd flotilla at Daxiedao and the newer 039B submarines (2 to 4) are going to the 12th flotilla at Lushun. We have also seen a new submarine launched at WC shipyard that's either a new modified version of Yuan (Type 039C or a new designation). In 2014, it will be interesting to see what this new boat looks like.

052C/052D - Over the past year, we've seen the 3rd and 4th 052C join service. The 5th and 6th should join service sometimes next year. The progression of this batch of 052Cs hasn't been as fast as expected. We've seen them numerous times in sea trials and at naval bases before they were commissioned. The time from launching to commissioning is over 2 years compared to about 1 year for 054A. The first 052D went on sea trials this year. We saw that it is still using the Type 517H long range radar as 052C. Seems like Chinese navy really likes the anti-stealth quality of this radar vs the possible benefits of a more modern volume search radar like S1850M. Outside of that, it seems like Dalian shipyard has also started building 052D. I think this class will eventually reach 8 units, although there are speculations this might reach 12. Type 055 might be on hold as they are really ramping up type 052D production next year.

054A - The production of 054A has continued this year with 3 more units launching. We saw some changes on the 10th 054A from HD shipyard equipped with a new generation of variable depth sonar (also seen on Type 052D ships). By this point next year, we should have 20 054As + 2 054s in service. Not sure if that will be the end of 054A production finally, but this has definitely turned out to be the most successful of Chinese naval projects in the past 10 years.
>br/> 056 - This program has a chance to compete with Type 054 series in success. We have already seen 18 of these ships joining service, in sea trials or launched less than 2 years after the first launching. Most recently with the 5th 056 from HD shipyard, we saw a new large variable depth sonar installed in the back. This might mark a new ASW variant of Type 056 intended to replace the Type 037 sub-chasers. Other Type 056s are probably going to replace the other versions of Type 037s in service. This class may end up with 40 units by the end of its production run. At which time, all of the older patrols boats should be retired from active service.

AOR (Type 903A) - This year, the 2 Type 903A AORs in sea trials from Guangzhou and HD shipyard both joined service with East and North Sea Fleet respectively. That gives them a total of 4 Type 903 AORs. Most recently in November, we saw a new AOR under construction at Guangzhou. We will find out in 2014 if this continues to be a Type 903 or a new class of ships.

Zubr - There has not been much movement in the construction of new Type 071 or LHD, so the main amphibious project this year has been the import and domestic construction of Zubr hovercraft. In June, the first Ukrainian built Zubr arrived at Guangzhou. At the same time, the first domestic Zubr has been building at a brisk pace in HP shipyard and now looks to be ready to be launched. The second domestic Zubr looks to have started construction too. The original contract called for 2 to be built in Ukraine and 2 in China. I would not be surprised if more are built in China. It is quite possible that they will only end up taking one from Ukraine and end up with more than 4 Zubr. While I don't think the current threat environment calls for many Zubrs, it certainly would not be a suprise to see a production of 8 to 10 of them. We will find next year if that will be the case.

Looking back now on this past year, it did not unveil as many new platforms as 2012, but was still a very productive year in terms of newly launched and commissioned ships. Looking forward to 2014, I expect more new classes of ships to be unveiled. It would be interesting to see what that newly launched conventional submarine look like. I expect Type 001A pictures to start coming out. Works on a new LHD will probably start in HD shipyard and same with new AOR from Guangzhou shipyard. The pace of maritime cutters construction will continue unabated in the various shipyards around the country. One visible fruit of this modernization is the growth in the export of naval ships to other countries. Most recently, 2 Type 035 submarines were purchased by Bangladesh. With all of this optimism, one still needs to curtail some of the enthusiasm. A lot of sailors need to be trained to use all of the new hardware. The results of training all of the sailors to new ships and technology will determine the success of Chinese naval modernization programs. Although we don't hear as much like we do with USN programs like LCS, there have also been many issues with certain PLAN programs like 051C. Overall, that's to be expected out of such a comprehensive modernization effort.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Conventional submarine update

While this is still early, but it looks like a new type of conventional submarine has been launched in WuChang shipyard. Some on the Chinese forum are calling this an improved Yuan, but I see this to be quite different with quite noticeable differences in the sail, the height/location of hump, the shape of bow and the hull in general. Here is a good shot of it:

Thursday, November 28, 2013

CV-16 Liaoning's sea trial in South China Sea

This week, CV-16 sailed forth with 2 051Cs and 2 054As escorts to South China Sea for what China calls a scientific and training mission.

There are some concerns that CV-16 was sent there for political purposes to intimidate neigbhouring countries. I personally think that's wildly inaccurate. As I talked about in the previous entry on 091, No. 404 (the first production version of Type 091) was sent to South China Sea for testing at PLAN's deep water testing facility in Hainan. It should not be a surprise that China's first carrier would spend time here given how little space it has to operate around the Qingdao naval base. One of well known posters on Chinese military forum recently posted the following list of uncompleted tests that will need to be carried through this time.

  1. Temperature related tests - Due to the colder temperature of north, certain tests that require hot climate (like air conditioning systems and refrigeration equipments) can only be completed in South China Sea at this time of the year. All of this will happen in the relatively high water temperature of South China Sea, which cannot be replicated around Qingdao.
  2. Deep water tests - The Bohai sea shelf around Qingdao is generally pretty shallow. South China Sea has long stretches of water depths of greater than 100 m (several hundreds of meters in many cases). ASW tests, especially against deep diving submarines, can really only be carried out here. Other tests including under water communications, acoustic countermeasures testing and deep water anchor testings,
  3. Testing command & control - As part of having 2 051C and 054A in this sea trial, CV-16 will be able to test the command & control systems leading a flotilla formation. More C&C tests can be completed in South China Sea given the concentration of new combat aircraft and naval ships in the area (including the nuclear submarines stationed at Sanya naval base). He also listed that 054As are part of the flotilla due to their strong ASW suites, which is important given the number of foreign submarines that will be looking to gather CV-16 acoustic signatures. I tend to that's a lost cause.
  4. Testing the new Carrier base - There is a new carrier base being constructed in South China Sea. Having this flotilla there will test out the ability of the new naval base to support a carrier group.

So there are a number of tests that will need to be carried out this time. In the long term, there will be probably multiple carriers home based in the carrier base in South China Sea. After all, there is far more room to operate there than around Qingdao. I think this will be the first of many trips that CV-16 makes to South China Sea until SSF gets its own carrier.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Other new Chinese military projects

Recently, I’ve talked about future projects for PLAN’s nuclear submarine fleet and surface combatant fleet, because they have been the hot topics that have grabbed the attentions of PLA followers. This blog entry will focus on several other important projects that are under way.

The first of which is the next generation of diesel submarines. At the current time, 12 Yuan class submarines have joined service with PLAN. Out of which, the first 8 (including the original + 3 improved 039As) joined the 22nd flotilla replacing the 8 Song class submarines that were there. These boats are 330 to 337. Two of them were visited by the Deputy Chief of US Naval Operations very recently. The next 4 (338 to 341) joined service with NSF. Based on what I can gather from Chinese sources, it looks like we should be seeing the next generation of diesel submarine come out shortly. Although, we will probably see a few more Yuan (probably 4) join NSF to complete that flotilla. Back when Type 032 came out, I thought it might be the next generation of submarine, but it turned to be a replacement for the Gulf class missile test bed. One thought is that the next generation will be collaboration with the Russians based on the Amur class submarine. As I talked about in a previous blog entry, this project would make sense due to access to Russia’s latest generation of noise isolation technology along with single hull design. From all I have heard, the negotiation over this collaboration is continuing, but has not been signed off. China is looking to put its own engine (with AIP technology), sensors, combat system and weaponry on the boat. Due to the normal protracted pace of negotiation on an export deal, this project will not get under way for a couple of years even if it gets signed off. Also, something based on Amur class would be smaller in size than China’s existing fleet of Yuan and kilo submarines. I think PLAN will only be looking for a limited fleet of this type of submarine (maybe 4 boats) for shallow waters rather than as a replacement for the larger and more ocean-going Yuan submarine. From this deal, it will be looking for technology transfers in hull design and noise isolation technology that it can apply to future classes. If China does launch a new submarine class in the near future, the production of this boat must have started while Yuan class submarine is still ongoing, which means the design work would have started a while ago. From this, I would infer that the boat would have minimal input from any possible deal for the Amur class. Since the conventional submarines of SSF need to be replaced and submarines there have much greater room to operate, I think this new class will probably be a large conventional submarine like Yuan. It will be smaller than the Type 032 class, but building larger conventional submarines seems to be the direction that PLAN is going.

The other project that is already bearing fruit is the KJ-500 AEWC&C aircraft project. It is PLA’s second generation of AEW aircraft based on the Y-8/9 airframe. Unlike KJ-200, which sports balance beam radar, KJ-500 will be housing a large AESA disk like KJ-2000 plane. Until more IL-76 or Y-20 airframes become available for china, PLAAF is unlikely going to get any new KJ-2000 aircraft. At this point, we have more identified KJ-200s in service with PLANAF than PLAAF (although PLAAF unit does have more hangars). This could indicate that the radar of KJ-200 may not fully satisfy the requirements of PLAAF. A more powerful AESA radar using newer generation of T/R modules is developed and housed on the Y-8/9 airframe to produce KJ-500. We have already seen pictures of this radar on a Y-8CE test bed a couple of years ago. This year, we are seeing the first two prototype units of KJ-500 in the airfields. It will probably go into service with PLAAF over the next couple of years. By the end of this decade, China should have more IL-76 and Y-20 airframes, which would usher in a replacement for the KJ-2000 aircraft.

And finally, we have recently seen the second generation Soaring Dragon (Xiang Loong) prototypes appearing in the Chengdu air fields. We saw the original back in 2011 doing high speed taxiing runs, but it disappeared after a while. It may have been a technology demonstrator. The second generation prototype appears to be much smaller in length and wingspan. It also uses the canted vertical stabilizers + ventral stabilizing fins vs the single vertical stabilizer in the original. This and other more subtle changes indicate a stealthier profile than the original. It also features fairings in the fuselage that could house different types of sensors. Due to its smaller size and less powerful engine, it's unlikely to have the range and endurance of a predator, but should be more than sufficient for PLAAF at the moment. The partnership of 611 Institute/GAIC has already produced the Wing Loong/Pterodactyl UCAV (similar to MQ-1 Predator). With the Soaring Dragon project, it looks like they have won the competition to develop a HALE UAV for PLAAF. Similarly, the 601 Institute looks to have won the competition for long range UCAV with the appearance of Sharp Sword project. At this point, I think Soaring Dragon will probably join service earlier than Sharp Sword due to the greater complexity in the UCAV project, but it will probably take at least another 3 to 5 years for Soaring Dragon to join service.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The future of PLAN destroyers

Most recently, the 4th 052C joined service with PLAN as 151. Over the next half a year or so, the final 2 052Cs should also join service in the same flotilla. The first 052D started sea trials a little while ago and the construction for this program is proceeding very nicely. We have 3 052Ds launched along with modules for 2 others in JN shipyard. There is also speculations that Dalian shipyard also got works for 052Ds. The product run for 052D is expected to reach 8. That would mean a total of 16 052B/C/Ds. A big question is what will happen after this production run is over. These 16 ships will form 4 destroyer flotillas. At this point, 052D is already as fully loaded with weapon/sensor as its hull could handle. As part of PLAN's continuous modernization, a new Type 055 class is expected to be built to lead the next generation of PLAN surface warship.

There is a lot of discussions on SDF recently regarding whether or not this Type 055 class is needed, so I'm going to just jump in here to talk about what i think of this speculated class. If we look at recent new classes, typically the first one or two ship of a particular hull type gets produced with current generation of sensors of weapons. In the case of 054, it was equipped with radars, missiles and close in weapon systems that were already on other ships. In the case of 052B, it was equipped with newer subsystems than 051B and 052, but they were proven Russian or Chinese copy of Russian subsystems that were on Sovs. Although both 054 and 052B were said to use a newer generation of combat systems, the visible weapon subsystems were already mature. And the reason for that is PLAN generally does not like to create a new surface ship hull type (with new propulsion system) and also putting new weapon or sensor subsystems on there. When one considers how new some of these subsystems are to PLAN, it certainly makes sense that they would want to be conservative and evaluate them on existing platforms first. As a result of this, the new VLS, radar suite and CIWS were installed on 052C and 054A class.

And with the introduction of the impressive 052D class, a even more complete VLS (and associated radars) along with a new main gun, the HQ-10 CIWS and new type of variable depth sonar are squeezed onto this existing hull after already getting that new generation of 052C subsystems. I would expect this new VLS to be on all future major PLAN surface ships. From that stand point, any new missiles that's designed for this VLS would be usable by all PLAN surface ships post 052D. I do expect that the first 055 will use a lot of the subsystems that we already see on 052D, but with more VLS and larger radar or one with higher placement. The first couple of ships will be used to test out a new larger and more stealthy hull using a new propulsion system. There has been quite the discussion on SDF on whether this class is needed when China can just keep on mass producing 052D like it is doing with 054A. I think it's important to note that 8 052D + 6 052C is quite an extended production run for this class of ships. As PLAN becomes more of a blue water fleet, it believes that a larger platform with more modern propulsion system is required to be better suited for blue water operation. This would allow better speed and manueverability in escorting carriers, smoother operations in bad weather conditions/sea state and greater ability to lead a flotilla. On top of that, 052D's hull has very little left for expansion in the future and would not be able to support any future weapon system like laser or a more powerful ABM radar that would have greater power requirement than what the current propulsion system offers. The 055 platform does not need to be the size of a 12000 ton cruiser like some have suggested. Something along the lines of Arleigh Burke class or Kongo class with future expansion possibilities would more than satisfy PLAN requirements. Once PLAN is satisfied with the 055 platform, it will then proceed with installing new weapon subsystems.

Similary, although 054A has been one of PLAN's most successful program, it will need to be succeeded by a new platform using the new standard VLS along with a new type of propulsion system.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Type 091 and what it tells us about China's nuclear submarine program

Recently, there were a rather significant release by Chinese news on the performance of PLAN's first generation nuclear submarines 091 and 092. While these news releases probably don't satisfy the curiosity of many PLA followers waiting to hear about the latest generation of attack subs, I find the release to be quite helpful in understanding PLAN.

One of the things I really enjoyed doing is comparing the 091 program to the CV-16 Liaoning project. Bear in mind, the two programs happened in two different periods of PLAN history. The construction of the first 091 started in the late 60s and the last unit did not launch until 1990. Its development lasted through the political turbulent years of 70s and the decade of military cuts in the 80s. In comparison, the CV-16 development lasted through this past decade when PLAN had its most budgetary and political support for naval power projection.

In spite of all of this, there are also similarities between the two program. In both cases, China had to go alone with almost no help from outside sources. As a result of this, both projects proceeded in a very methodical manner. Aside from the extended research before they start doing work on the ships, land based simulation models were built to help train the crew members. They did not try to do too many things too quickly. For CV-16, they first practised carrier take-off/landing on land based simulation air strip before trying touch-n-go on CV-16 before finally giving each of the original J-15 crew a chance to do take off/landing. In between each steps, PLAN took their time evaluating lessons before moving forward. As we go forward, CV-16 will gradually practice more complicated take-off and landing scenarios in its training process. In the 091 project, the entire test program went through multiple boats. No. 401 went through numerous testing after it joined service in the early 1970s before being forced back to the dry docks for extensive modifications 10 years later and not emerging again until 6 years after that. The long endurance patrol testing that one would expect out of something like an attack sub did not happen until with No. 403 in 1985. Only after No. 404, the first production version of Type 091, was in service did PLAN really finish testing of all the critical mission requirements. In 1988, No. 404 went through deep dive testing to 300 m, submerged torpedo launching tests and sailing at maximum submerged speed of 22 knots. Obviously, the testing period of 091 was very long (over 15 years), but one can see the similar gradual process of expanding on the mission envelope with carrier operations.

The big differences between the two program are obviously the technical preparedness and budgetary constraint of the two programs. China certainly walked into Type 091 project about as technologically limited as one can be in such a strategic program. The first two units were basically test mules that are already decommissioned. Even No. 404 and 405, the production certified units of the class, took 12 to 13 years from laying down to joining service. That's something CV-16 project never had to worry about. China was as ill equipped as one could imagine to start a program like 091 from budgetary, technology and political support point of view. It was as well equipped as it could be for the CV-16 project.

At the same time, looking at the 091 program can also give us clue about the current and future Chinese attack submarines. One of the biggest challenges for the 091 program was getting a safe working nuclear submarine into a submarine at a time when China could not even build its own civilian nuclear plant. One can imagine that the reactors in Type 091 boats experienced its shares of nuclear safety and reliability issues over time. Due to the low efficiency of its generators, Type 091 could only operate at a maximum submerged speed of 22 knots. So I think that the biggest change from Type 091 to 093 was having a safe and reliable reactor that can sustain a much higher submerged speed (say 30 knots). We know that it took 13 years to launch the last unit of Type 091. Let's say that time was cut to half ( 7 years ) fro the lead boat Type 093 class due to improved technology and funding, that would still mean the first unit would've been laid down in the mid 90s. At that time, China's civilian nuclear technology was only able to commission the Qinshan-1 CNP-300 plant employing first generation safety/efficiency. One could imagine that even with improved safety and reliability, these reactors on Type 093 probably weren't very efficient and quiet. The Chinese bbs rumours of pebble bed reactors for 093 are quite ludicrous when one actually thinks about the timelines.

Fortunately for PLAN, China's civilian nuclear industry has made a lot of progress since then. The second generation CNP-600 plants were used in the Qinshan-2 project that were connected to the grid in the early 2000s. With the recent proliferation/localization of CPR-1000 plants, transfer of technology from the AP-1000 project and the development of CAP-1400 power plant, the Chinese civilian industry should be able to design its own 3rd generation nuclear plant in the near future. If we assume that similar progress was made in the military nuclear reactors during the same period in noise level, safety and efficiency, it would reason that quieter and more powerful reactor would be available to power larger submarines. Seeing that the most recent 093B submarine was launch sometimes last year, it could be using a new type of reactor available in the early 2000s that would be a full generation ahead of the ones available for the first two 093s. That could lead to smaller/quieter/more efficient reactors allowing for more space for noise isolation technology and more power available for greater maneuverability. For the next generation of attack submarine (Type 095 class), it should be using a reactor from around 2010 that will be another generation safer and more efficient. If 091 and 093 programs are good indications, the first Type 095 will also likely to be a prototype unit that will have problems resolved in later unit.

Of course, all of that is speculations on my part, but we rarely get new information on China's nuclear submarine force.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

PLAN passing through the Strait of Magellan

Here is a really nice photo of the first 052C, 170, passing through the strait of Magellan. It's the first time this has happened in the history of PLAN.

This is a symbolic illustration of PLAN's continual progress in becoming a blue water navy. No. 170 is in South America as part of a flotilla making port calls at Chile, Brazil and Argentina as shown in this article
SANYA, Hainan, Sept. 3 (Xinhua) -- Two Chinese navy warships sailed out from Sanya harbor in south China's Hainan Province Tuesday on a voyage to Chile, Brazil and Argentina. The fleet is made up of the missile destroyer Lanzhou and missile frigate Liuzhou, both serving in China's Nanhai Fleet, as well as the replenishment oiler Boyanghu serving in the Donghai Fleet, navy sources said. Boyanghu set off from base on Sunday and will join the other warships later. Their voyage will cover about 28,000 sea miles across the Pacific and to the South Atlantic via the Strait of Magellan. It will be the first visit of the Chinese navy to Argentina, the sources said. Lanzhou missile destroyer, with a full-load displacement of 6,400 tonnes, has served in a number of drills and escort missions in the Gulf of Aden and waters off Somalia. Liuzhou missile frigate has a full-load displacement of 4,000 tonnes.
The other two ships in this flotilla are No. 573 Liuzhou (a Type 054A FFG) and No. 882 Boyanghu AOR. Interestingly enough No. 882 is from a different fleet than the other two ships.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Chinese Firm wins Turkish Air Defense competition

In a surprise to many PLA followers, this news of China winning the Turkish Air Defense competition came out today. A lot of us had followed the competition, but thought Chinese and Russian bids were only sought out to bring down the price tag of Western companies. It turned out that an export version of HQ-9 has beaten out PAC-3, S-300PMU2 and Aster-30.

Clearly, this is a huge win for the Chinese military industrial complex. While this was not China's first export deal to Turkey (that would be WS-1B) or its first air defense export, Chinese firms have never won a major export deal like this in NATO countries. As shown in the dropping of price tag for $4 billion to $3 billion, the Chinese system obviously had a big advantage in price tag. Also, they are likely to be willing to share more technology and go for more local production than Raytheon and Lockmart. However, the lack of integration with NATO system along with general pressure from American government put both the Chinese and Russian bids at a disadvantage. What this result shows is that the Chinese system must have achieved at least comparable technical performance in the bidding process compared to its competition and probably won out due to cost + co-production.

On the other hand, one would think that S-300 would have similar advantages to Western systems. So, does this mean HQ-9 performed better than S-300PMU2 or was it more due to lower price? Either way, we do know that China has stopped purchase of S-300PMU2 while deploying new HQ-9 units. At the same time, there are also persistent rumours that China is looking to purchase S-400.

Going forward, I think we will only see Chinese firms doing better in international competition. SIPRI data from recent years have shown increased Chinese military export. Even if this deal does not go ahead, it really shows what PLA followers already know -> that Chinese military industrial complex is really catching up in many areas.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Status of J-10 project

As China’s first advance indigenous fighter jet project, the J-10 program is one of the most important program of PLA. The most recent variant of J-10B made its first maiden flight in December of 2008, but CAC has been producing J-10A as recent as first half of this year.

Most recently, news came out of Chinese bbs that the first batch of production J-10Bs have started to make test flights. This news was not surprising since we had already seen pictures of J-10B production units inside CAC factory a couple of months ago. At the current rate, this first batch of J-10B should be delivered to the first regiment by the end of the year. Even though a lot of us were hoping that J-10B would be able to go into service by the end of 2011, it has taken 5 years for this to happen. When it goes into service, J-10B should be equipped with a new generation of integrated electronics systems consisting of PLAAF’s first fighter jet AESA radar, IRST, EW suite and new software architecture. J-10B is likely to serve as a testbed for various new technologies for J-20. In terms of engine, it will still be some version of AL-31FN for the first batch. AL-31FN has been improving with each batch, so it’s unknown if these new engines will bring additional thrust needed to carry the likely greater payload. There is also a speculated J-10C variant that is rumoured to make first flight later this year. It will be interesting to see how this variant will be different from J-10B.

As J-10A program draws to a close, the question we get is often how many are actually in service. We know that they have one PLANAF regiment of 24 J-10s. There are also 12 J-10AY and J-10SY serving at the August First Aerobatic Demonstration Team. Within PLAAF, there are 8 regiments (44th, 3rd, 2nd, 1st, 24th, 9th, 15th and 12th) of 28 aircraft each along with probably 16 to 24 J-10s serving with FTTC. Based on the above, there are around 280 J-10s of various J-10/A/S units in service.

Monday, September 2, 2013

PLAN nuclear submarine development

As we see new Chinese warships come out, there is always the inevitable question of how capable are these new hardware. We can make assessments based on pictures we see and reports that we read. Nothing is harder to assess than nuclear submarines. We don’t get many pictures of them. We don’t know about the capabilities of sonar, torpedoes, combat system or the crew. And most importantly, parameters such as acoustic signature, maximum speed and depth are completely confidential. I have to rely on talking to folks who are much smarter than me on these issues, because I certainly don’t have the data or submarine background to do more than guess these things.

We know that the first 2 Type 093s were launched around 2002/3 and joined service in 2006. PLAN followers saw pictures of Type 093 coming out at that time and made optimistic assessment regarding follow-on units along with talks of Type 095 class. Most of us guessed that Type 093 was at or better than Victor III in acoustic performance (based on 1996 ONI assessment) and that Type 095 would be close to Akula I in performance. The interesting part is that PLAN stopped building Type 093s despite speculations and pictures of what appears to be new Type 093 submarines out of Huludao shipyard. Type 091s were upgraded and continued to be actively used. At the same time, a 2009 ONI study came out with chart indicating that they believe Type 093 to be louder than Victor III class and not that much quieter than Type 091. This chart caused a lot of anger online on Chinese military forums. Looking back, we can also see DoD reports of greater number of Chinese submarine patrols after 2006 along with comments from US naval services that they are able to track PLAN submarines at long range. If we combine this with the sudden stop of Type 093 construction, it would seem to indicate that Type 093 did not achieve the intended goals (of Victor III class?) in terms of noise level. At the same time, due to the greater reliability in reactor technology and improved sonar/combat system, these Type 093s and upgraded Type 091s were probably making a lot more extended patrols. I would imagine they get picked up as soon as they leave the naval base. Or else, DoD would not have such precise numbers of PLAN patrols. Certainly, Song and Yuan class have also been going out to sea for exercises, but they do not really have the endurance and would probably also expose themselves if they go too far out.

Based on everything I see, it seems like Type 093 had more reliable propulsion unit, but also a noisier one due to the need to generate greater power for a slightly larger submarine, more power sonar and higher speed/maneuvering requirements. Since the space for Type 093 probably did not increase that much inside pressure hull, they did not have much additional space for more noise insulation. At end of last year, we saw what appears to be a new type of attack sub coming out. Satellite pictures from Huludao earlier this year showed a new attack submarine and a new Type 094. This submarine was labeled as Improved Type 093 on Chinese forums. According to the latest report by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, China began building first of 4 improved 093 SSN in 2012. This improved Type 093 looks on the satellite photo to be slightly shorter and wider than the original Type 093. From the overheard satellite photos, it looks like this new submarine has a “hump” (like the one on kilo & Yuan) and a possible TAS installation on the tail. I would imagine the new submarines would have more space across for passive noise reduction technology, newer active noise reduction technology as well as newer generation of nuclear reactor. With the improvement in China’s civilian nuclear technology from the late 90s to mid 2000s, it is possible the newer reactor would be a lot quieter than the ones on the first two Type 093s.

This new attack submarine has now gone on sea trials. It is probably not considered Type 095, because a brand new class of attack submarine would probably have larger dimensions for more power nuclear reactor and associated propulsion gears along with more space for missile installation, sonar, living space and noise insulation. Everything I’m throwing out here is speculations. Up to now, PLAN hasn’t been able to develop a “quiet” attack submarine. USSR made a really big leap in Victor-III class (especially the later units). With lessons from the first 2 Type 093s, improved construction techniques along with other possible improvements, it’s possible that the improved Type 093 could make that leap (later Victor III units). Only time will tell where PLAN intends the performance of this improved Type 093 to be and if they will match the expected performance.

The same US-China Economic and Security Review Commission report also stated that China is continuing to build Type 094 while developing Type095 and Type 096. From past satellite photos, it looks like China launched its 4th Type 094 this year. There is at least one 094 at Sanya naval base and another at Jianggezhuang. The third one has moved around a bit, but the most recent photo from Huludao show two 094 at the piers. That could either be the 3rd and 4th or maybe a fifth one has launched. Although, I think the former case is more likely. The latest Type 094 seems to have its sail and missile installation shifted forward compared to the earlier Type 094s, but its overall dimension or the number of missile hatches did not seem to change. Compared to Type 093, I think type 094 is considered more or less successful by PLAN. The ONI charts indicated Type 094 to be quieter than Type 093 and the production of Type 094 didn’t stop for the same period as Type 093. I think PLAN is satisfied that it has a reliable second strike platform even if it is kind of loud.

As for Type 095, I think we are likely to see the lead unit of this class launched while the improved Type 093 is still under production. It is customary for PLAN to mass produce an earlier class while testing out the first unit of a new series. For example, Type 039 was still in production when the first Type 039A was launched. That would probably but the launching of first Type 095 toward the end of this decade. Type 096 would most likely come after that.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The state of domestic military aviation projects

Over the past 5 years, we can see the dramatic improvement in the hardware of Chinese navy from all of the really nice new ships that have come out. As naval fleet has improved, it’s always been a wonder if the same advances can be found in aviation projects.

So far, we’ve seen both real success stories and areas where things are going slower than expected. In the civilian field, it seems like most of the projects are going rather badly. ARJ-21 is turning into a nightmare. At this point, it appears that AVIC-1 completely underestimated the work needed in integration that components, going through all of the needed test flights and most importantly actually certifying an aircraft. Even the certification process in China has dragged on way past the original delivery date. I think that C919 started off on a much better footing with greater involvement from foreign partners. However, we are now hearing news on those partners rethinking their commitment to the program and impending delay of maiden flight. These are not surprising since most major airliner projects experience delays these days. However, I think all that we have seen from ARJ-21 and C-919 projects would indicate that China has a lot to learn here. The learning curve in designing, certifying and building airliners is a very complicated process. There is a reason only Boeing and Airbus are capable of building the larger airliners. China needs to accept any help it can get from Western partners in an industry where few companies are willing to share their secrets. These are the reasons why China was so eager to partner up with Bombardier and also set up local production with Embraer and Airbus.

One of the bright spots in both civilian and military field is the improvements we have seen in the helicopter industry. There was a time when China was only capable of producing single digit number of helicopter per year, but that is no longer the case. When I first started following PLA, the insufficient number of helicopters was very obvious to see and widely talked about, but we have finally turned a corner. In this past 2 years, we’ve seen 5 new Z-10 regiments deployed on top of the original one in addition to 5 Z-19 regiments. That works out to be around 120 helicopters a year. This is on top of the different variants of Z-8 and Z-9 helicopters that we are seeing coming into service with various arms. We’ve seen civilian Z-8 (AC-313), Z-8J/H for the larger naval ships, Z-8K/A for the air force and 5 regiments of Z-8A/B for the army in transportation role. This trend should only get better as China continues to get more involved in the world’s helicopter market and have license to build more advanced turbo-shaft engines. The dual use nature of the helicopter industry has really allowed transfer of knowledge/technology from civilian projects to military projects. In a decade or so, the Z-15 project should become the work horse of PLA and PLAN. The Z-20 and the heavy helo transport project will also join service sometimes this decade, which will finally fill the void in 10 ton class and 20+ ton class.

Another relatively bright spot is in the development and deployment of UAV and UCAV projects. China has really been putting a lot of investments in the recent years in civilian and military UAV. Every Zhuhai air show, we see a host of new UAV models of display. Some of them have now been exported, while other ones have entered service with PLA or civilian arms. We’ve seen an increasing number of S-100 servicing in the navy, BZK-006 with the army while still waiting for the air force to settle on UAV and UCAV.

Moving onto the world of fighter jets, we can assess China’s progress by looking at AVIC1’s two big players: SAC and CAC. Two years ago, CAC looked to have finally become the top dog of AVIC1. J-20 had just been unveiled; J-10B was in the middle of testing and UAVs like Wing Loong and Soar Dragon were popping up everywhere. All this was on top of mass producing the backbone fighter jet of PLAAF (J-10) and PAF (JF-17). For much of last 2 years, it seemed like CAC was muddling along with not much progress while SAC was really well. It felt as if CAC had devoted all of its resources in developing J-20 and did not have enough left for other projects. Most recently, we have seen some good news out of CAC. It appears that CAC may finally be getting a third flying J-20 prototype (if that hasn’t happened already) and the low rate production for J-20 may have started. The J-10A production has finally drawn to a close with J-10B finally entering mass production after more than 4 years of test flight. There are also speculations of J-10C, but we haven’t seen any of that yet. In the world of UAVs, Wing Loong had its first export sales while soar dragon is finally making test flights. Probably the biggest deal recently was when rumour came out that CAC has beaten SAC for the next generation naval fighter jet project. So, we may see a naval version of J-20 in the future rather than J-31.

SAC have been enjoying a more successful past two years. It had received a lot of criticisms for slow progress in J-11B program and continued production of J-8 series, but a lot of those blames should be placed on Shenyang Liming and PLAAF. Since WS-10A mass production has really started, we’ve seen many new regiments of J-11B/S entering service with both PLAAF and PLANAF. J-15 and J-16 projects seem to also be going well recently, which has continued to raise their profile. I’ve definitely heard of some bad things in all 3 flanker projects, but Shenyang has been doing well with them over all. The J-31 project has also been a pleasant revelation in the past year or soon. Now, there is news that they are about to showcase a new 5th generation design that will be more impressive than J-31. Just as importantly, their stealthy UCAV design Lijian surprised a lot of people this year. As a whole, SAC has been very busy and showing a lot of good results.

Xi’an AC and Shaanxi AC have been progressing, but not seem to be advancing too much. We have seen continued production of JH-7A, but have not seen any possible replacement for it. It is quite possible that J-16 will be taking over that role and reducing XAC/SAC to only developing strategic bombers and transports. Y-9 and H-6K are nice improvements over Y-8C and older H-6 variants, but they are not next generational designs that would push forward Chinese aviation industry. It’s quite possible that most of their resources have been spent on the Y-20 project, which made its maiden flight this year. It will be a few more years before we can see mass production of Y-20. The one really bright area is the ever increasing number of Y-8 based special mission aircraft that have entered service. Hopefully, we will continue to see improved production rate in XAC and SAC factories, so that China will not have to depend on imported Il-76 /78 much longer.

The one area that has really been dragging China behind is aerospace engine. The problems experienced in WS-10A program caused delays in J-11B program. I think Shenyang Liming and other AVIC engine factories have really experienced the difficulties in taking a new design and maintaining quality/reliability in mass production. China has never developed a high performance turbofan engine like WS-10A before this, so the problems in J-11B should probably be expected. As we go forward with projects like WS-13, improved Taihang, WS-15, WS-18 and WS-20, it’s important to note that it takes time to really sort out issues with a new engine. Hopefully, AVIC1 has learnt lessons from Taihang projects in going from testing out a few prototypes of an engine to mass producing it. We have yet to see WS-13 really equipping JF-17, even though it should have happened by now. Until then, China’s Achilles Heel remains propulsion. Since Russia is not exactly fast with its new development, high priority aircraft projects will be delayed if these domestic options fall behind.

On a whole, China’s aviation industry definitely has experienced ups and downs in the last couple of years. We’ve seen some real improvements in many helicopter and fighter jet projects, whereas civilian aviation and engines have been struggling. As a whole, I think this part of the growing pain. China’s civilian aviation industry will need continued investment if it hopes to catch up to Western competitors. Military aviation projects can only benefit from that.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

China's Type 32 class submarine

We've known about this class for a while, but it has now been officially unveiled as shown in image below.

For those who don't know, this is the super class conventional submarine with a lot of lada/kilo influence that was launched in Wuchang shipyard back in 2010. At the time, we thought it might be a new conventional submarine class to replace Yuan. However, it turns out this is basically a one ship class that will be used to replace the old No. 200 Gulf Class ballistic missile test bed. This will likely be used to test out ballistic missiles as well as new vertical launch system. It is Chinese navy's new submarine test bed.

Some more information on this class:
  • Program was established in Jan 2005, ship launched in September 2010, completed test run by September 2012
  • Was handed over Oct 16th, 2012 and has already started to be used for testing.
  • It is double hull, has length of 92.6 m, 10 m width, hydroplane width of 13 m and largest height of 17.2 m.
  • It has draft of 6.85 m when surfaced with displacement of 3797 tons. Its submerged displacement is 6628 tons.
  • It operates at 160 m depth with maximum dive of 200 m.
  • Its maximum surfaced speed is 10 knots and maximum submerged speed is 14 knots.
  • Can operate with 88 crew for 30 days without resupply, or 200 crew for 3 days.

Friday, June 28, 2013

A little PLAN update

It's been a while since I posted due to work and personal commitments. Things haven't really stopped moving in the world of Chinese military, but it also hasn't been the most hectic spring season.

The biggest news from the past while is probably CV-16 (formerly Varyag) going on its first training exercise of the year out in the oceans. Since the take-off and landing tests in November of last year, they've been busy making preparations and training crew members in the naval aviation training facility close to Tianjin. There is a really nice thread here talking about the facility. From what we can see, the take-off and landing exercises in this second trip are done by the same two J-15 prototype aircraft that did the first one. Since J-15 has reportedly begun serial production, I was hoping to see more J-15 aircraft out in the ocean this time.

Other than that, Type 056 continues to be launched and commissioned into PLAN at a very fast pace. There have been at least 12 of them launched with at least 5 being commissioned. They are mostly replacing Type 037 currently in service with PLAN.

The production of Type 054A seems to be winding down. At least 15 have being commissioned now, with 3 more in HD shipyard that are in various stage of completion.

We are also seeing the unified Maritime Police fleet taking shape. Many of the larger cutters from CMS and FLEC have now been repainted and numbered into the new agency's colours.

And finally, I think one of the better articles I have read recently is this one by James Bussert. It's something I have been saying for a long time. You can see the scope of PLAN modernization by works done on their three weapon trial ships. For PLAN followers, this is the best place to look for what PLAN has in store.

Monday, May 6, 2013

PLAN amphibious development

For PLAN followers, the past couple of months have brought some really interesting developments for PLAN amphibious warfare. The first Zubr was handed over from Ukraine to China on April 20th and the construction of the second one is well under way. The original contract called for 2 to be built in Ukraine and the other 2 to be built in China. It remains to be seen whether or not PLAN will see the need to procure more than that.

Last year, we were introduced to a LHD design that Chinas was offering for export. A couple of months ago, we’ve seen this LHD design displayed for export to Turkey and also at Abu Dhabi. This mysterious design is said to be 211 m long, 32.6 m in beam and 26.8 m high for a displacement of 20,000 to 22,000 ton. It’s a little wider than Type 071 and has a flat top, so it can hold 8 helicopters with the hangar space for 4. This is an increase over Type 071, but I would imagine the first Chinese LHD (let’s call it Type 081) to be much larger than this (30,000 to 40,000 in displacement) and able to hold carry more helicopters and armored vehicles. I personally think PLAN has studied USMC long enough that it would also want the LHD to be able to support STOVL fighter jet. Such a ship would be much more complex than Type 071, but is well within the technical capabilities of Chinese shipyards.

More than anything else, the most interesting development for me to watch recently is the recent exercise involving 999, the second Type 071 ship, launching attack and overtaking a defended island in the South China Sea. While I’m sure this development scared a couple of people in the Phillipines and Vietnam, it was interesting seeing all of the news report videos talking about what they tried to do in that exercise. It was also interesting to see that Type 071 can carry more hardware than I previous thought. Its hangar is said to be able to carry 4 helicopters of Z-8 class (the main helicopter used with Type 071 right now). Its well deck can hold a maximum of 4 Type 726 LCAC. Although in reality, we’ve never seen more than 1 Type 726 and several fast attack boats in the well deck due to the fact that only 2 Type 726s have thus far been commissioned. Each of the Type 726 is said to be able to carry 2 IFVs and one tank. It can also apparently transport 80 soldiers. It can travel at 50 knots and can reach 55 to 60 knots. So, it’s an impressive hardware if China can build enough of it. In front of the well deck, there is also a door to a large compartment of 2 floors holding armored vehicles and other heavy machineries. We’ve also seen numerous photos of well deck holding 1 Type 726 along with 15 or more amphibious IFVs. Depending on the number of Type 726 and boats it carries, a Type 071 could hold different numbers of IFVs and tanks based on the mission. According to news report, Type 071 has allowed PLA to launch assault 40 nm from the beach.

In this recent exercise, we can really see PLAN practicing different kind of maneuvers and learning how to really use Type 071. Z-8s were used in flanking maneuvers to attack the rear along with Type 726 sometimes later. This is used to soften the opposition while amphibious IFVs and fast attack boats are storming the beach. The first Type 071 was commissioned at the end of 2007 and this was the first time we’ve heard about this type of exercise. Maybe this would have happened sooner if Type 726 was available earlier, but I think this also shows how long it takes PLAN to learn to start using a new ship like this. They still have a shortage of Z-8s and Type 726s when we consider how many Type 071 they already have. So they will have to ramp up the production of those assets if they want to continue training and developing more advance doctrines and tactics in storming a guarded coastline. They will also need more of those if they want to build a much larger LHD. Attention has been shifted away from PLAN’s amphibious build up over the past year due to the development of CV-16, but it remains an important part of PLAN modernization.

Friday, March 29, 2013

What to make of speculated deals for Su-35/Lada?

In the past week, there have been a lot of speculations regarding a deal where Russia would export 24 Su-35s and 4 Ladas to China.  Now, there have been official denials from Russian government and sukhoi has also not put this on their website.  That would indicate this deal is definitely not done yet.  I normally would ignore these su-35 rumours from Russia, but there have been enough support reading through the Chinese sources for me to think that there are serious discussions for this.  In addition, Chinese sources also indicate that there could also be sale of S-400 and IL-476 as part of a large deal.  Obviously, this would be the largest sale package from China to Russia since probably 2002.  I will just look at the individual parts of the deal and whether they make sense from a Chinese point of view.

Back in 2008 when the su-35 rumours first came out, it made sense for China to buy 2 or more regiments of Su-35.  As time went on, it seemed like the domestic flankers produced by SAC have been more or less satisfactory for PLA.  I often read on Western/Russian news sources about how they are shocked to see Russia is still willing to sell such an advanced aircraft to China even after China “cloned” Russian fighters, but those articles really do not seem to have a good grasp on reality.  We know that China has two “stealth” fighter jet programs under development that will probably achieve IOC sometimes toward the end of this decade, so it doesn’t make sense for China to buy and then “copy” a large number of su-35s.  Shenyang AC is actively developing and producing naval and fighter bomber versions of flankers in J-15 and J-16.  Su-35 is mostly an air superiority aircraft, so it’s not going to help those projects.  At the same time, China is also not exporting any of its flankers to other countries, so this export deal will not threaten Russia’s other export markets.

One of the reported reasons from Chinese side for purchasing Su-35 is the coming end of production of J-11B.  They have requirement for 1 regiment (24 aircraft) of air superiority version of flankers before the more advanced 5th generation fighters can enter service.  While that is possible, I think su-35 will create a logistical problem in the future like the Sov destroyers with the Chinese navy.  They will need to maintain a new type of aircraft, a new engine, a new generation of Russian avionics and Russian missiles.  That would seem to be a lot of trouble for just one regiment.  That would lead to my conclusion that they are purchasing this strictly to get their hands on the 117S engine.  Russia made it clear to China early on that they would only be willing to sell 117S to China as part of a Su-35 order.  I think 24 is probably the minimum number of Su-35s that Russia would be willing to sell to China to allow Chinese access to 117S engine.  China does have the largest MRO plant for AL-31F outside of Russia.  All maintenance work for AL-31 is done inside China.  I would assume 117S maintenance and life extension work would also be done there.  Despite improvements in the reliability of WS-10A, I still read about problems found in deployment.  If there is one problem that can cause real delay in J-20, it would be not having a reliable engine solution in its development and early deployment.  117S would also be possible options for J-10 and J-15/16 projects.  If China does choose to purchase Su-35s, access to 117S engine would be the primary motivation.  And Russia would benefit by exporting su-35 and possibly large numbers of 117S engine later.

The deal for 4 Lada submarines is more interesting.  Many PLAN followers have asked why China would be interested in purchasing so many units of a submarine that Russia has not even accepted into its own service (its AIP system is not going to be ready until later).  Typically, China chooses to only purchase mature systems that it can quickly induct into service.  On top of that, it seems to some that Chinese submarines seem to have reached the technology levels of their Russian counterpart with that mysterious new conventional submarine in 2011.  The reality is that Chinese submarines still have a way to go in stealth.

As part of this deal, China will be getting transfer of technology along with local production for 2 of the 4 submarines.  On top of that, some unreported Chinese subsystems will be going onto these submarines.  So, the question is what is China providing as part of this submarine and what is it interested in?  The currently mass produced 039B submarine are already equipped with AIP system that can be installed on the Chinese version of Lada submarine.  On top of that, China could install its own sonar system and combat systems onto Lada.  The latter part should not be surprising since China has also installed its own sonar on kilo submarines.  What China seeks as part of this deal is the Russian’s design of Lada submarine and its noise insulation technology.  From Lada, China could learn how to design and build a single hull submarine with conformal sonar.  If we look at China’s new submarine that came out in 2011, it seemed to adapt numerous features from Lada submarine.  This submarine is supposedly one of a kind built to replace the old Gulf class ballistic missile test bed.  It is probably too large and expensive to be mass produced.  Based on their experience from this submarine and Lada project, it’s quite possible that China’s next series of submarine would look somewhere in between (possibly single hull) and have many of the features currently on Lada class.  Russia also has a lot to gain here, because it needs a new submarine for export to replace kilo.  Regardless of whether Russia chooses to use any Chinese subsystems for Lada in the future, Chinese involvement in this project will ensure that the export version of Lada becomes fully developed and commercially viable.

So while I’ve read numerous panic articles online about how this deal will significantly improve China’s capabilities and shift the cross strait balance of power even more toward China’s favour, I think those articles really show very little appreciation of China’s current military industrial complex.  While these purchases will help and speed up PLA development, they are by no means game changers.  However, these purchases will improve ties between the two countries at a time where Russia constantly complains about the trade imbalance.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Comparing Type 056 to LCS

With the recent induction of 056, a lot of comparison has been made between 056 and LCS.  The comparisons are understandable.  Both are just entering services.   Both are expected to be built in large numbers and are also considered to be the lower end ships of their respective navy.  In many ways, their comparison stops there, because Type 054A would be more comparable to LCS just based on the size and dimensions of the ships.  I want to break this down to two sections: the differences in capabilities/cost between the two classes of ships and what that tells us about the two navies.

First of all, despite both ships are designed for littoral operations, one is designed to operate in its own waters, whereas the other is designed to operate in enemy waters.  056 is supposed to replace 053 and 037 in the role of patrolling coastal waters.  It's equipped with enough strike power to conduct ASuW against other regional navy.  With some modification, it can also be useful in ASW operations in the littoral waters.  On the other hand, LCS is suppose to be faster, stealthier, far more modular and capable of operation in other country's littoral waters.  USN has no need for something like 056, since it faces no foreign naval threat within its coastal waters.  For any issues like smuggling, piracy and drug trafficking, it should be up to coastal guard to protect.  At the same time, China has no need for a littoral ship as large or fast as LCS, because it really has no need in the near future for a ship built specifically to fight in the littoral waters of a non-neighbouring country.  While most of the mission packages for LCS have yet to finish development, LCS will be capable of ASuW, ASW, MCM and special ops once that does happen.  You might see more dedicated ASW or ASuW variants of Type 056 coming out, but each ship is really not expected to be doing more than one task.

As a result of this difference in roles and size of the ship, there is also a large gap in the cost of the ship.  Each LCS cost over $400 million to build and equip.  That's about twice as much as the cost of a Type 054A.  Type 056 is expected to be a much cheaper ship than Type 054A, since it's much smaller.  My current estimate for Type 056 is around around 60 million just based on the cost of Type 022, Type 054 and equivalent sized cutters (which run for about $15 to 20 million each).  The relatively low cost of this should explain why China is able to build so many units in such short time while also build numerous other classes at the same time.  If this cost more, China would not be able to use it to replace all of the old Type 053 and 037 ships.  Despite the recent austerity in USN and the higher cost of American shipbuilding, USN still has a far higher budget than PLAN, so it could afford more expensive ships.

The size of crews also show us interesting things about the two navies.  I think the crew size for LCS is supposed to be at most 75, whereas the much smaller 056 is expected to have 60 to 70 crews (even that is a reduction to 1/3 of Type 053).  Even though Type 056 is far more complex and automated than the ships it is replacing, it's probably safe to say that it still lags modern Western ships.  I think a large part of that has to do with the greater number of service personnels at the disposal of PLAN.  Even with the rising labour cost in China, I think it's safe to assume that the compensation for a USN sailor is far higher than that of a PLAN sailor.  Another part to look at is the huge leap facing sailors who are accustomed to operating a low tech ship like type 037 (I was told no training is required to be on that ship) to type 056.  It's simply unrealistic to expect someone who has operated on Type 037/053 for their entire life to be able to be competent on something like LCS.  As PLAN continues modernization, this expected improvement in software is often overlooked when one looks at the new ships that are coming out.  The cost of training crew members will also go up as ships become more and more complicated.

Another interesting thing is the choice that the two navies made in developing these two ships.  LCS is a ship expected to be modular enough to be able to easily reconfigure for different roles by changing to different mission packages.  I expect different variants of Type 056 to come with each variant built with specific role in mind.  Similary to Type 037, I would expect to see a Type 056 emphasize more toward ASW and one more emphasized toward patrol and another more emphasized toward ASuW.  At the same time, LCS had the requirements to be able to travel at faster than 40 knots and also be extremely stealthy.  It certainly pushes the technological envelope, whereas Type 056 does not.  LCS is not only a new ship design but also requires new weapon system.  Whereas PLAN rarely builds a shipping class that requires leap in both the ship design and its weapon system.  I think this shows the background of both navies.  USN always had a lot of money to spend, so it is willing to press for that additional performance on the newest ships in the face of budget overruns and delays.  In comparison, PLAN had very little money back in the days and most of its programs was canned in the 80s and 90s due to lack of funding.  So as a result of this, it has always been more conservative in incorporating improvement from one shipping class to the next.  Compared to USN, PLAN is more frugal in the development of new ships and the management of its existing fleet.  As an example, Type 052 underwent modernization recently, but the old HH-7 SAM was kept around instead of being replaced by more advance HQ-10 SAM.  PLAN has a large stock of HH-7 missiles in stock and did not want them to go to waste by removing them from the ships undergoing modernization.  It will be interesting to see how the perspectives of the two navies change in the future as PLAN continues to get more funding whereas USN starts to face austerity.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

A little write up on 056

I did a little write up today for Type 056 and here it is.

The first 056 class No. 582 was officially handed over to PLAN on the 25th of February as Wu Shengli, Commander of PLAN personally came to inspect the ship. While it is referred to as light frigate by Chinese news, it really should be classified as a corvette or OPV based on its size and displacements. This class is expected to be the next mass produced PLAN shipping class.

The type 056 class fills the gap between the 4000-ton 054A class frigate and 220-ton 022 class FAC. As of now, at least 9 other 056s have already been launched by the 4 shipyards building them. The overall number of this class is expected to be between the final count of 054A (probably around 20) and 022 (around 80). They are expected to replace the 10 Type 053 class Jianghu frigates currently serving in the South China Sea Patrol flotilla and the close to 50 Type 037 class missile boats.

In many ways, the type 056 hull is based on the Pattani class OPV that China built for Thailand from 2005 to 2006, although more signature reduction work is done such as the shielding of the funnels. Currently, 056 is equipped with 4 YJ-83s and AK-176M for ASuW missions along with a 8-cell HQ-10, AK-176M and two automated new single 30-mm barrel CIWS for self defense. Although the first few ships are not fitted with Towed Array sonar, it could provide some support for near sea ASW missions with a helipad large enough to hold Z-9C (and possibly Z-15 in the future), appearance of bow sonar bulb and 6 torpedo tubes installed in what looked to be the hangar. Most likely, the earliest 056 units will be used to replace Type 037s in the Hong Kong garrison and green water patrol missions. I expect a good number of Type 056 to eventually be used to patrol the disputed areas in South China Sea. Compared to the ships it is replacing, Type 056 requires 1/3 of the crew size of Jianghu class while offering more punch and similar endurance. Compared to Type 037, it should have better endurance, seakeeping and far stronger ASuW and AAW capabilities. It should be able to handle the naval threats from neighboring countries like Vietnam, Phillipines and Thailand. The goal is to free up larger ships like the Type 054A class and Type 052C/D class for blue water missions. In the future, I could also see ASW variants of Type 056 replacing the Type 037 sub chasers and more dedicated patrol versions of Type 056 with hangar large enough to hold 2 S-100 size UAVs.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

A good article regarding YJ-8 series of Anti-ship missiles

I was contacted recently about this article on YJ-8 series of anti-ship missiles. I read it and found it to be very well written on the proper designations of different domestic and export missiles. I've long talked about the non-existence of C-803 and I'm glad that this article addresses that topic quite well. Aside from that, it also does a good job of exploring the actual capabilities of each missiles. While one may agree or disagree with the author's assessment, it certainly shows some serious work done in finding out answers and encourages me to do the same (if I get enough time).

I really like the article and encourage everyone to check it out.