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: