Thursday, December 25, 2014

China 5th generation project and Russia

It's always interesting for me to look back 10 years to see where things were to see how much have changed. I often do this with surface combatants because 10 years ago China did not have a fleet of 054/As or 052C/D or Type 071s or Type 056 that now form the backbone of their navy. It's less apparent when we look at the air force because China still has many J-7/8s around and still severely lacks strategic transport, tankers, large AEWC&C and helicopters.

Recently, I have been looking at J-20 progress and wondering about whether or not it is ahead of PAK-FA. I also have been talking with some people on India's participation in the PAK-FA program. Looking back now, was it possible for China to join the PAK-FA project with Russia instead of India (India would go for F-35 + MCA)? This is important question because India's participation in PAK-FA program means that China would probably not be able to buy PAK-FA until a much later point if at all.

Looking back on things, it's hard to see how things could have turned out differently. At the time, India was still buying most of its weapons from Russia, since it was not yet getting access to the most advanced US hardware. Russia also trusted India more than China, so was willing to give access to more advanced systems. In this case, it offered the co-development opportunity to India, which happily took up the offer. China at the time had just welcomed J-10 into service after 18 years of development and was in the process of indigenizing flankers. Although China had already started working on the 5th generation R&D, it was unclear just how long it would take them to finish. These efforts were given the designation J-XX and speculations ran wild on SAC's work on them. There were speculations on Chinese sites that this project would be ready by 2015. All of that were wild speculations that by now have been invalidated. Given the amount of R&D required to develop a 5th generation aircraft, it was unclear if China would be able to have something in service before 2025. For someone like me that was outside of the situation, I would've recommended to China to co-develop with Russia as well as work on its own program if the former was offered. That way, China has something that is reasonable capable if the domestic program does not progress on schedule. It would also have to divert resource, so would only have one domestic program focusing on a medium sized design. One of CAC or SAC will license produce the co-development and the other one produce the indigenous fighter jet. Even though China could afford to fund two such projects, this kind of investment would certainly divert money from improving domestic industry at a time when it was growing without Russian help.

We know that the Russian cooperation with China since 1992 have been very beneficial to China. China at that time already knew Western companies were very good at guarding its secrets and unlikely to assist China's modernization efforts. Russian companies simply lacked that expertise, so it sold a lot of technology to China quite cheaply. By early 2000, China had already obtained most of the non-strategic and matured weapon that it wanted from Russia. As Russia would see later on, China was also very good at copying the stuff that it liked. At this time, Russia had to offer China weapon system that was still in development stage to China. In the case of Su-30MKK, the project was delivered very quickly by KNAAPO, because China was looking for something that was rather mature. So while the avionics were not very impressive, China did get something that was able to carry a lot of payload and have long range. China has since used its experience with this platform to develop J-16. While some of the weapons that came with Su-30MKK were mature and got delivered at the same time, other subsystems were still to be delivered and came way behind schedule like SAPSAN-E. Similarly, while Russians were able to deliver things they already developed very quickly and cheaply, the development of new subsystems were late more often than not. Even though J-10s have been getting AL-31FN engines on time for years, the 99M project that China funded have lagged behind 117S development to the point that China has been considering Su-35 purchase just to access 117S. At the same time, PLAAF must have had a lot of confidence in the continued improvement of AVIC1 and the progress of their R&D to believe that they will be able to complete the projects in a reasonable manner.

Back a year ago at this point, it looked like the PAK-FA was quite ahead of J-20, since it had 5 vs 2 flying prototypes. Since then, we found out that China was planning some major changes that moved J-20 off the demonstration phase and produced 4 J-20 prototypes this year in what looks to be LRIP. PAK-FA's T-50-5 prototype suffered fire problems in a demonstration in front Indian representatives in June and that may have slowed down the program somewhat. Even so, I would imagine PAK-FA program have had far more test flights than J-20. However, there is speculation that a 2nd stage of PAK-FA development is coming with some major changes in store. I guess these changes are to address deficiencies found in the flight tests of the first prototypes. It would be interesting to see if the level of changes will be the same as we saw on No. 2011, but the new PAK-FA prototypes should be more cleaned up that are closer to production version. Since J-20 prototypes are already at that point now, it could be the case that J-20's airframe is now further ahead in development than PAK-FA. As far as the subsystems, I think J-20's engine solution is a bigger issue now than PAK-FA, because it's probably using AL-31FN Series 3 which would have less thrust (13.5 ton) than Type 117. Even further iterations of AL-31FN series is likely to have less power than Type 117, which is probably why China is trying to get Type 117S. This effort also points to uncertainty to the improved variant of FWS-10 engine. For the long run, it appears China's WS-15 project will probably be ready for mass production at around the same time as Russia's Izdeliye 30 project. I think out of everything, J-20's avionics subsystems are probably further ahead than that of Russia. The AESA radar, modern MMI and the integrated electronic system for the modern network centric warfare will be tested on J-10 series first. While it's hard to predict what level all of this will be, J-20's subsystems will not be China or CAC's first kick at the can. For example, J-20's radar will most likely use GaN T/R modules rather than GaA T/R modules. Russia is still in the process of bringing down the cost of producing GaA T/R modules and PAK-FA will be their first fighter jet to use AESA radar. We should get a better idea of the progress of the two project by this point next year, since the 2nd stage prototypes of PAK-FA should come out by then. With the appearance of FC-31 project, it certainly seems like China is better off going alone even if it had been offered co-development of PAK-FA. At this point, J-20 looks slightly closer to joining service than PAK-FA (albeit with underpowered engine) and also looks to be far more stealthy than PAK-FA.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

2014 PLAAF Year in Review

This was a particularly eventful year for PLAAF when one looks at the progress of the various new projects. The most noticeable of which is J-20, but this most will look at various other projects too.

Coming into this year, the J-20 project seemed to be a little behind schedule compared to PAK-FA. There were a lot of questions about when the 3rd flying prototypes will come out. Earlier on, we saw the appearance of a heavily modified prototype No. 2011 which first flew in March. As previously discussed, this prototype really transitioned the project from the concept/demonstration phase to pre-production engineering phase. The next prototype No. 2012 appeared in July and had its maiden flight near the end of the month. Most recently, prototype No. 2013 and 2015 appeared in quick succession in the past month and had their first flights. These 2 prototypes have their pitot tubes removed. Speculations have been that No. 2016 and 2017 will also appear soon to join the flight testing phase. With the quick succession of these prototypes, it appears that J-20 may have moved into LRIP. I have in the past compared these prototypes to F-22's EMD phase, which had 9 flying prototypes. Bu in that case, the 9th EMD first flew 5 years after the first EMD. So it seems like J-20 is using a more aggressive flight testing program. We know that there is already a radar testbed testing out J-20's radar and possibly other avionics. So next year, we should see more of the initial prototypes coming out and getting transferred to CFTE for flight test programs. At some point, I think we should see J-20 prototypes starting to using domestic engine options. We should also see J-20s starting to be delivered to FTTC for developing tactics and testing out flight envelopes. But a lot of that stuff really cannot be tested fully until WS-15 becomes available. Despite all of the fast progress by CAC the past year, it's unclear what they will do with the engine problem. The earlier J-20s will probably use an underpowered engine.

The other project that received a lot of attention this year is FC-31, because of its appearance at Zhuhai air show. From what we've seen, it is still in the conceptual demonstrator phase waiting to get picked by PLA. J-20's first 2 prototypes were probably further along than No. 31001, so this project is several years behind J-20. PLAAF have the option of going with hi-lo option of J-20 and FC-31 or J-20 and some heavily modified variant of J-10. The next generation of naval aviation can either go with a naval variant of FC-31 or something completely different. At this point, it does look like FC-31 will be picked up by PLAAF and the official version will feature much changes compared to No. 31001. They will probably have to use some under powered interim option from Russia in the beginning while the domestic option is even further behind than WS-15.

J-10 program was in the background this year, but it may have been the most active PLAAF program. J-10A production and delivery continued into this year. J-10B production finally started at end of last year after a very long flight testing period, but the production level this year has been quite high. Most recently, the 48th J-10B came out. We've seen one brigade of J-10B joining service with FTTC aggressor squad. A second regiment/brigade will also be formed from this year's production. After this first batch of J-10B production, things are a little muddled. We saw a J-10B in primers with factory number 201 that came out at end of last year with some minor changes from the first batch of J-10Bs. Chinese bbs have speculated that this is the first of J-10C variant. The big speculation is that J-10C will be using AESA radar (as opposed to PESA on J-10B) and improved avionics compared to J-10B. I'm not sure that really deserves a new variant, but it seems like this particular aircraft has went through more flight testing than a usual production aircraft. So the second batch will definitely be different from the first batch. This second batch should be the first PLAAF aircraft to be equipped with AESA radar.

We did not see as much movement with flankers this year. It seems like more J-11B regiment joined service, but J-15 and J-16 project did not seem to move much. There is speculations that one or both programs may be waiting for an improved variant of WS-10 engine to become available.

Outside of that, we saw a lot of Y-20 program this year when it appeared at Zhuhai airshow. It seems like flight testing is going pretty well and the aircraft is likely to join service in a couple of years. Y-9 production has continued along with different special missions aircraft using Y-9 airframe. KJ-500 may be the most high profile of these projects. A recent satellite photo shows 3 KJ-500 at SAC airfield. The big challenge for the Chinese aviation industry is to be able to build more of these Y-9, Y-20 and other transport airframes to support various PLAAF operations. At current time, PLAAF is still relying on IL-76/78 series for transport airframe and aerial tanker.

As with all other recent Zhuhai air shows, we saw many UAVs, PGMs and missiles displayed this year. The GJ-1 Wing Loong project finally joined service this year and participated in Peace Mission 2014 exercises after years of display at various defense exhibits and export deals to UAE and Saudi Arabia. The next major UAV/UCAV projects to watch for are XiangLong and Lijian.

So this was definitely a more eventful year for PLAAF than the last couple of years when I had hard time writing the reviews. I didn't really talk about helicopter project as much because the progress in Z-18 were mostly covered by PLAN review. For next year, I would say the continued progress of J-20/31 will be the most followed items. But for me, the second batch of J-10B/C and the induction of J-16 will be just as interesting. They will be the main heavyweight in PLAAF for the next couple of years.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

2014 PLAN in review

As usual, I’m taking a look at this time of the year of all the things that has happened to PLAN. 2014 has been an active year like 2013, so it’s a good time to look over what they are doing and where they are going.

Aircraft Carrier - I think PLAN is making very cautious steps in developing their naval aviation capabilities. CV-16 Liaoning spent a large part of the year in Dalian going through regular maintenance and overhaul before going on another long sea trial afterward. At this point, I think the intensity of flight operation training still have not increased much from when it first joined service. It looks like most of the sea trials are aimed at testing out different subsystems (like propulsion unit, electric generator, radar installations) and the sea worthiness of CV-16. Most of the pictures of take off and landing exercises are still taken with the J-15 prototypes rather than the production ones. It’s quite possible that they are practicing takeoff and landing on the land based training facilities before putting them on the carrier. So in the upcoming year, hopefully we will see more J-15s on CV-16 conducting carrier operations out in the sea. One encouraging sign from this year is the abundance of new Z-18 based helicopters for a variety of roles (transport, AEW and ASW/SAR) that seem to becoming ready for service. The induction of these helicopters and training on CV-16 is an important part of operationalizing CV-16.

Amphibious Vessels - After a couple of years of rest, they have restarted the production of amphibious landing ships in Type 071 and 072 series. As I wrote the past few years, they have continued to conduct a variety of new amphibious landing exercises with Type 071, 072, Type 726 LCACs, amphibious armored vehicles, Z-18 transports and even Z-10 helicopters in these exercises. I think they needed these years of training and exercises to determine what changes needed to be made to the newer Type 071/072s. It sounds like they originally planned for this new batch of Type 071 to have more firepower but ended up going for more lightly armed version like the earlier Type 071s. It will be interesting to see what differences will be to accommodate their developing amphibious warfare doctrine. I think the deliberate pace of operationalizing and training Type 071 with the marines is a good starting point of reference to see how long it will take them to develop carrier operations. One would obviously expect carrier operations to take longer to develop, but Type 071 spent its first couple of years going through going through long sea trials and commanding flotilla that we are seeing with CV-16 right now. At the same time, we can expect the future LHD design to go through the same process that we have seen with Type 071. They have shown numerous LHD designs for export in various naval exhibit, but it seems like the domestic version will be a lot larger with more landing spots and greater hangar space. Hopefully, we will start seeing that late next year. The other amphibious project is Zubr, which picked up pace this year when the Ukrainians delivered the second one earlier as a result of the Crimea conflict. It will be interesting to see how many Zubrs China end up building.

Large Surface combatant - There were 2 major developments this year with the induction of the first 052D and the appearance of the Type 055 land based simulator. The induction of No. 172 was surprising because the last 2 Type 052Cs had not been commissioned at that point. Even now, the commission status of the last Type 052Cs is a little ambiguous. It seems like the induction of No. 172 was fast tracked to allow PLAN to start testing out all the new systems that they have incorporated onto and developing tactics on using it. The following 052D, especially the 4 other ones that are launched at JN shipyard, could really benefit from the lessons they learnt from PLAN’s experience with No. 172. On the other hand, the last 2 Types 052Cs were under no similar pressure, so they’ve had a much longer induction process. I’m sure the actual crew has already been training on them for a while (based on their photos from the ZhouShan naval base with the 3rd and 4th 052Cs), so they have yet to be inducted. The Type 055 land based simulator really caused a lot of excitement earlier this year, because it had been speculated on Chinese forum for a while now. Considering that PLAN has only built similar simulators for carrier and nuclear submarine project, one can surmise this platform is held with the highest regards. We have yet to see Type 055 modules at JN or Dalian shipyard, but I think that will start to come out next year as Type 052D production start to wind down. Also, it would be interesting to finally see Dalian built Type 052Ds, since JN is already so far along in this program. Finally, it sounds like the Sov program will finally go forward with modernization. There was a picture of one of the Sovs at the shipyard recently with a lot of scaffoldings. Since they will have to replace all the Russian subsystem with Chinese ones, I would think that the modernization would be even more extensive than what we saw with the 2 Type 052A ships. Even though this kind of modernization is quite costly, PLAN does prefer that to decommissioning and building new ones. After that, the only candidate left for modernization will be No. 167. I think retiring this ship in 5 years makes more sense than modernizing it again since it was originally built as more of an experimental platform to test out 6000-ton class of surface combatants for PLAN. At this point, there is not a lot of value to keep around such the only hull of this experimental class.

Smaller Surface combatants - This year, we saw that the new Type 054As been built at HP and HD shipyard had numerous improvements over all of the earlier ones. The biggest change was the installation of the VDS on top of the TAS installation to really improve the ASW capabilities of these ships. I think that the commissioning of the 4 Type 054As at these shipyards have been slow because of the new VDS system. After that, I think they would move on with the next major iteration of Type 054 project, so these last 4 are testing subsystems that will be used there. Also, we saw a bunch of new Type 056s been commissioned this year. HD and HP shipyard have been leading the way, but the other 2 shipyards have also been launching at a fast rate. A new Type 056 variant (dubbed 056A) is now been built that have VDS installed in the back. It looks like this one is just better equipped for ASW mission than the earlier ones. As I talked about in a previous entry, I think we have seen some real development in improving hardware for ASW missions on various ships. This is reminiscent of 5 years ago, when PLAN really started to build ships with technology to handle AAW missions. The other product of the improving Chinese naval ship production is the number of export contract that they have been winning. Just recently, we have seen the launch of the second P-18N OPV for Nigeria and the first export version of Type 056 for Bangladesh. This is on top of the C-28A, P-18N and Ghanaian patrol boat that were built earlier this year. Starting from F-22P project with Pakistani Navy, Chinese shipyard have been doing well in export market of the smaller ship classes (OPVs, light frigates and patrol boats). Going forward, I think the next step is for them to win more contracts of diesel submarines, larger surface combatants and amphibious landing docks. Type 056 is a good design that could be attractive to many smaller navies around the world.

Submarines – I think they have started building a new variant of Type 039B Yuan submarine this year with a more hydrodynamic sail, but it’s hard to quantify how many of these submarines are launched at the moment. We know that at least 4 Type 039A and 8 of the earlier Type 039Bs are in service in East Sea Fleet and North Sea Fleet. After a couple of years of hectic production, Yuan production seems to have slowed down. I hope they are taking the time to develop a newer and more advanced diesel submarine design. It is possible their discussion with the Russians on using the Lada hull will be finalized next year, but China has pretty demanding positions. I think China only want the Russian hull design at this point (and fitted with Chinese AIP engine, electronics, sonar and weaponry), but the Russians might not be happy with such an exchange. There is a lot more secrecy around the nuclear program, but it seems to me that the new modified Type 093 class is still in sea trials. More GE photos are needed to see further progress.

Auxiliary fleet - The large auxiliary ships have also been building across various shipyards. At GSI shipyard, we have seen the 5th Type 903A AOR and the 2nd Type 904 supply ship launched this year. The former should continue to compliment China’s blue water fleet and the latter will join No. 888 in supplying the naval bases that China is building in South China Sea. Going forward, I think larger AORs will be launched, since something larger is needed to support a carrier strike group. At GSI shipyard, we also saw a new large submarine cable laying ship launched recently. Not much more info about it is available at this point. HD shipyard was also busy with these larger ships. We saw the 4th test ship No. 894 join service this year. It’s kind of baffling to me that they need this many test ships, but I guess they really just have a lot of new subsystems to test out. Two Type 815B AGI ships were launched this year. They are an improved version of Type 815 AGI ship that HD shipyard built earlier. They should probably join service next year and augment the three AGI ships that they have in service. And finally, China has continued to build newer Type 081 minesweepers. I think the older Type 6605/6610 minesweepers should be retiring soon, so the Type 081 production should continue into next year.

Cutters – China’s coastal guard fleet (Maritime police agency) has also been really on a massive expansion this past year. HP and WC shipyard have been leading the way with a bunch of 5000-ton, 4000-ton, 3000-ton and 1-ton class cutters for the costal fleet. Prior to the merger of 4 of the 5 maritime agencies, these had already been ordered the expansion of CMS national/regional fleet and FLEC fleet. Since merger, they are being built for the same agency but probably still for the same roles. The many provincial coastal guard flotillas will now be equipped with these new cutters for maritime disputes in East and South China Sea. JN is building two 12000-ton class cutters with the first one recently launched. They are not large warships that will be terrorizing East China Sea contrary to some speculations. Outside of these larger cutters, a lot of smaller 600-ton and 300-ton class cutters are being built in the smaller shipyards around the country. The other thing we see is a lot of rescue ships and scientific research ships being built at HP shipyard and smaller shipyards. Out of all the shipyards, HP seems to have been getting most of the orders and have really been building them at a very fast pace. WC had historically been building most of them, but has been launching them a lot slower than HP.

So overall, another really active year in the Chinese shipyards and things are not likely to slow down in 2015. I will actively looking for the appearance of LHD and Type 055 modules in the coming year along with more news on the nuclear submarine fleet.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Zhuhai airshow and other PLAAF news

The time around Zhuhai air show is always interesting for PLA followers, because we see a whole bunch of new models displayed. This year was no different. A lot of pictures of different PGMs, ground attack missiles, army vehicles and air defense systems came out before the show even started. In many ways, Zhuhai is more like a defense exhibition rather than an air show. All of these systems are displayed for export purposes and many of them will never serve in PLA. The two items that attracted the most attention were FC-31 and Y-20.

For the latter, we saw pictures of it next to C-17 and IL-76. It was quite interesting also to see the current medium transport Y-9 side by side with Y-20's prototype 783. We also found out that a Y-30 turboprop medium transport is coming out to either replace Y-9 or compliment Y-9/Y-20. Either way, there is good progress in this area for China that has long been needed. The bigger issue is whether or not AVIC1 can build up the industrial capabilities to produce large numbers of this class of transport. American aerospace companies are far more technologically advanced than AVIC1. Just as significantly, Boeing and Lockheed has the ability to mass produce large numbers of aircraft that AVIC1 currently simply do not have the capacity to do. Lockheed can produce well over 100 F-35 a year in the future and have the ability to produce 500 F-16s a year. CAC produces around 50 J-10s in a high production year. Chinese naval shipyard have been able to produce large number of high quality ships because domestic shipyards have developed very advanced shipbuilding capabilities as well as high quality management from all of the civilian shipbuilding projects. As a result of the COMAC's C-919 and ARJ-21 project, China's aerospace industry will also develop greater industrial capability to produce airliners. AS this is happening, AVIC1 subsidiaries are developing more efficient production and assembly process. It will be interesting to watch how well this affect the production of Y-20 transport, new UAVs and next generation fighter jets.

FC-31 definitely drew more attention from the Western press. It's always amusing for me to read eye catching headlines about a jet that we have seen for a couple of years. Thankfully, there were a couple of articles that got me to think a little more. Reuben Johnson from JDW wrote a CNN article that is rather unflattering on FC-31. He was not very high on the flight performance of the jet. I think he is making a rather presumptuous judgement here, because this is quite a concept demonstration mule as I've explained in the past. Based on the picture of the FC-31 model from the air show, David Axe has already written an article on War is boring on what could change on FC-31. From air show interview, it sounds like that both an export and domestic version of the aircraft will be developed. The latter case is dependent on PLAAF orders. I would think that if this proof of concept aircraft did not achieve the desired flight performance of PLAAF, SAC would have to go back to the drawing board and make some serious changes. When J-20 project came out with its demonstrator prototypes, it was already a PLAAF sanctioned project, so 2 flying prototypes + probably 2 static prototypes were built to be tested out before they went through the major incremental change with the appearance of No. 2011. When one thinks about, it's quite an impressive achievement to go from conceptual prototypes to pre-production prototypes in just over 3 years. It looks like we will see at least 3 new J-20 prototypes this year with the possibility of a 4th one. The J-20 is really making a big push this year. In comparison, FC-31 may go through a major redesign just to satisfy PLAAF requirements and then another big change to correct the issues found in the first redesign. We've seen this with Soaring Dragon UAV project where CAC/GAIC made siginficant changes based on issues found in the demonstrator aircraft. The change was so large that I thought a new UAV project came out when the redesigned aircraft came out. Regardless of Chinese bbs speculations, FC-31 is years away due to lack of appropriate engine options for the next few years. I would think it to be prudent to take the time to make sure the final design achieves all of PLAAF requirements.

Outside of the air show aircraft, we also saw some interesting movement with production aircraft. It looks like we have finally detected a first operational unit of J-10B aircraft. Although the unit numbers are smudged in the photos, these first production J-10B looks to be forming a new FTTC brigade (maybe Brigade No. 169). That is not too surprising since J-10A also joined FTTC before the first operational regiment was established in 44th division. Enough J-10B have been produced in this first batch for 2 operational units, so I would imagine the first non-FTTC unit would also be established this year. The first batch of J-10Bs should all be using AL-31FN series 3 engines which have increased service life and thrust over the earlier series. In a recent interview with 606th Institute rep at the Zhuhai air show, it was claimed that a 14000 kgf thrust version of WS-10 engine have been developed that may be installed on J-10B in the future. If that version is in production, it would represent an engine option that's competitive with what the Russians are offering, so we may finally see J-10B installed with domestic options in the future. Continued improvement in WS-10 engine would also be very helpful to the J-20 program.

The other interesting development is the first production brigade of GJ-1 (Wing Loong) UAV with 151st brigade. Huitong's website claims this brigade is with FTTC and was operational for this year's SCO military exercises. The development timeline of GJ-1 project is quite interesting. We first saw Wing Loong (aka Yilong) display in 2008 Zhuhai airshow. At that time, it had already made its maiden flight in 2007 and conducted flight & ordinance testing. We continued to see its displays in 2009 to 2011 with some major modifications like the appearance of head bulge similar to RQ-4. By the time we saw the production version in 2012 airshow, it came with ground attack weapons, air attack missiles, E/O sensors, Satcom antenna and ground control station. UAE was already identified as the first export customer. Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan have also purchased unknown numbers. So from the first flight of demonstrator to induction into PLAAF takes about 6 years. It could be shorter for export opportunities depending on the needs of the customer. If we translate this timeline to CAC's Soar Dragon HALE UAV project, the China hawk would join service around 2017. The even more advanced Lijian UCAV project from SAC first flew last year and might join service by the end of this decade. Out of all the UAV projects, Lijian UCAV maybe the most important going forward. It is probably dependent on the success of the WS-13 turbofan engine and also the next generation engine designed for FC-31. The recurring theme here is that the WS-13 engine developed for JF-17 project (and can be used by other project) has unknown status even after years of development. The next generation engine of this class has lower priority than WS-15 and is years away from completion.

So as usual, a lot of interesting development, but domestic engine options are holding them back.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Small update on China's 5h gen project

Most recently, we've seen a set of 3 photos coming out of CFTE testing center at Yanliang. The test aircraft in question were J-20 prototype No 2012, Y-20 prototype No. 783 and Y-8FQ (ASW variant) prototype No. 731. All 3 of these projects are obviously very important, but J-20 has the special distinction as China's first 5th gen fighter jet project. This entry just provides a quick look at where China is with its 5th generation project.

Earlier this year, J-20's Prototype No. 2011 came out with significant changes from the earlier prototypes. It was quite clear at that time J-20 project has advanced from the demonstrator stage to pre-production prototypes. When prototype No. 2012 came out in July, PLA followers compared the new prototype to No. 2011. As expected from previous analysis, not much has changed from No. 2011 to No. 2012. As this projects continue to progress, it's likely that no further major changes will be made before certification unless problems are detected in flight tests. I would expect some changes to be made at the rear when domestic 5th generation engine becomes available for testing, but we are a couple of years away from that. No. 2012 had its maiden flight on July 26th and was delivered to CFTE recently for PLA flight tests. At the time No. 2012 appeared, there were a lot of rumors online that 2 more prototypes (No. 2013 and 2014) are likely to come out before the end of the year for flight testing. I would also expect there to be a couple of more prototypes built for static testing. Based on J-10 project where 4 pre-production prototypes (No. 1013 to 1016), this might be all the prototypes that are needed to complete the flight tests. Of course, J-10 had more initial prototypes, but CAC at that time probably needed more time and prototypes to settle on the final design. After these pre-production flight test prototypes are delivered, CAC will probably start producing initial production variant and then deliver them to FTTC for developing combat tactics, flight techniques, training programs for new aircraft and conducting certification of J-20. Further prototypes for the J-20 project will be delivered to CFTE if any major changes are made to the aircraft or when new engine (like WS-15) becomes ready.

More recently, we have seen a bunch of flight testing photos of prototype No. 31001 posted online. This led to a lot of speculations online surrounding the status of the project. I've even read online that some Chinese military expert proclaimed serial production will start within five years for this project. Now, I personally think that's complete nonsense. At this point, this project still seems to be at demonstrator phase. It looks like a model of this aircraft might appear at Zhuhai air show for export interest. I do expect PLAAF to pick up this project to create a high-lo combination with J-20. While it will most likely be given the designation of J-31, I try not to settle on that name yet in case it gets a different designation in the end. The problem with this project is that the lack of available engine options. We know J-20's final production variant will be using WS-15. Even though that engine is not ready, it has been worked for a while and should become available for flight testing in a few years. Until then, upgraded variants of WS-10 engine could be used in the first batch of J-20s. For J-31, there is no current domestic option for flight testing, since WS-13 is not certified yet. The development for this next generation engine in its class began more recently and is not given the same level of importance as WS-15. Even if PLAAF picks up this project in the next year, all of the initial testing would be done using an engine whose power and propulsion will be quite different from the eventual engine. So, I always thought that this project will go into service probably 5 years after J-20 does.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A recent CV-16 article and trouble with interpreting Chinese sources

There was a recent entry on War is boring which later got published on business insider talking about trouble that China is having with engine compartment of CV-16 in recent sea trials. As usual, such articles created a lot of debates on Chinese military forums.

Now, I have actually watched the original CCTV news report that this story is based on. It mentioned that CV-16 has just completed 6 months of maintenance and overhaul at Dalian shipyard before going out to sea again. The report focused on the electrical department of CV-16. Traditionally, it has been customary of Chinese news reports to interview naval personnel, talk about one challenge they had to deal with to give audience an idea of the challenges facing these sailors and then emphasize how their great works saved the ship or mission. These kind of new reports are common and are tools used to foster patriotism in the population. So in this particular praise, this news report was trying to praise the works of the electrical department of CV-16 and give the impression to Chinese population that the Chinese navy is making great progress with its historical mission. In reality, any real life and death scenario would probably be considered confidential and never reported on Chinese news.

Back to the war is boring article, it appears to me the author does not understand the context of such news report. He summarized that China is having a lot of problems with CV-16 and especially with its engines. What we do know is that Chinese navy is at its infancy when it comes to naval aviation and working hard to improve capabilities. We also know that while CV-16 has spent a lot of times at shipyard, it has also spent a lot of times in the ocean. Currently, it has been out on sea trials for 50 days after 6 months at shipyard. Even the most competent navy USN could have engine problems on a long deployment, because complex machines like the naval propulsion systems do breakdown. So it is completely expected that CV-16 would suffer breakdowns on various subsystems while on sea trials or deployment. We know that the problem was identified and fixed quickly without delaying take off/landing training of that day. That tells us the mishap was not major. The original news report was trying to show the head of electrical department is good at identifying problems in his department and working to fix them while at sea. These are all good signs for Chinese navy going forward. That is not a surprise, since these reports are meant as positive propaganda for the population. The irony of this story is that real problems with CV-16 power plant would never get reported on CCTV.

So I think this shows that a lot of experience and cultural knowledge is needed to decipher Chinese military news. Since PLA is still lacking transparency compared to most military around the world and most of their articles are in Chinese, English articles talking about news reports coming out of China often lacks understanding and context of the original article. Depending on the bias of the author, we could get different interpretation which could either sound fear mongering or overly dismissive. Real honest truth about problems facing Chinese navy is not easy to find in the midst of their modernization and building boom. One can decipher problems facing certain programs from delays in construction and commissioning. One can also decipher problems based on the subsystems used on certain ships. And finally, some insiders are candid on Chinese forums about the issues facing Chinese navy. Contrary to popular belief, the Chinese navy does not have unlimited budget. A lot of its decisions are financially related just like they are for USN.

Monday, October 13, 2014

More Amphibious Ships for Chinese navy

As the Chinese national day golden week passed, a lot of really high quality photos from PLAN bases were posted online. As newer ships get commissioned and the oldest ships get retired, many other ships get moved between different flotillas. In the past year, the main mass produced ships have been the type 052C/D series destroyers and the type 056 light frigate. It has certainly been a busy year when we factor in the other new ships. This past month, we are seeing what appears to be the modules of the 4th Type 071 LPD really taking shape at Hudong shipyard. On top of that, production for the smaller Type 072A landing ships have restarted and the first one has launched at WuChong Shipyard as No. 981.

Type 071 can be effectively used for South China Sea and Taiwan scenarios, but provide the additional blue water capabilities that Chinese navy never had. The restart of Type 072 series is aimed at either replacing older landing ships or responding to the increased tension in South China sea. Either way, it shows that Chinese navy will continue to have landing ships of this class for green water missions. PLAN has taken the approach of continuing to build modern littoral ships like Type 056 and Type 022 series while it is building up its blue water navy. The restart of Type 072A seems to be a continuation of this approach of building cheaper and less capable surface combatants for traditional missions. PLAN's identity certainly has not transformed to that to a power projecting blue water navy like USN.

The picture below shows modules from the new Type 071 under construction:

We first started to see photos of Type 071 under construction in 2006 and it was launched by the end of that year. It was commissioned by the end of 2007, but the process of learning to operate this new behemoth has been ongoing since. The second and third Type 071s launched in quick succession in late 2010 and 2011 while joining service a year later. There were speculations of modules for a 4th Type 071 at the time 3rd one was launched, but were proven to be false.

So, why have we not seen more Type 071 until now? There is both the human factor and also the supporting system factor. In the former case, PLAN and PLAMC have really just started operating something with the size ond blue water projection of Type 071. No. 998 was sent out on to Gulf of Aden relatively early on and other Type 071 units have been sent since. Most recently this year, all 3 Type 071s were out on different missions at the same time showing their value of this blue water asset to PLAN. It seems like at the time that PLA really needed more units of this class. Even so, only in the past couple of years have we seen the marine corp starting to conduct large scale amphibious exercises in South China Sea involving Type 071 + helicopters/hovercrafts/boats operating from it. All of this shows that it really takes time to recruit the personnel and train the crew member and the new marines to operate something like Type 071. At the same time, all 3 Type 071s have been assigned to the Zhanjiang naval base and there is probably a limit to how many Type 071s that base can handle before needing further expansion. So even if Hudong shipyard is capable of building one a year, PLA may not be able to accept them at that pace even if it has high need for this series. I don't see this as a problem, since it just gives them more time to identify problems and make incremental updates to the ship.

The other part that Type 071 depended on are the helicopters and hovercraft. Type 726 LCAC was designed to be operated from Type 071. According to some CGs in Chinese TV news and pictures of the inside of well deck, 4 Type 726s can be fit in there. In reality, we have never seen more than one such LCAC inside the well deck, because they have only built 3 Type 726s up to this point. It looks like Type 726 has finally been certified with the commissioning of 2nd and 3rd unit. Type 071 may have been held back while Type 726 is reaching this point. At the same time, more variants of Z-18 has come out recently. In Gulf of Aden missions, we've seen Z-8S, Z-8J and Z-8JH on Type 071. More recently, the more capable Z-18 series have entered service with PLAN as part of the carrier project and they could increase the capability of Type 071. It's quite possible that AEW and/or ASW variant of Z-18 will get stationed on Type 071 on missions where it is operating as the command ship of a expeditionary strike group, whereas transport variant of Z-18 will be used for more amphibious missions. According to mockups we've seen, 4 helicopters can be stored in the hangar of Type 071 with 2 Z-8 sized landing spot on the helipad. In reality, I've seen at most 2 Z-8s and 1 Z-9 operating on Type 071. This will probably change as more naval helicopters are inducted. The other thing we've seen operating in amphibious exercises are the amphibious armoured vehicles. At least 15 of which can be parked in the well deck of Type 071 and more of them can be parked inside Type 071. Since these vehicles already started to exercise with Type 072 landing ships, they are probably the most mature of the amphibious units operating off Type 071.

In conclusion, PLA is continuing with its practice of building amphibious ships for littoral and blue water missions. The construction of the 4 Type 071 would indicate that PLA is feeling more comfortable with this class of ships and ready to accept new unit.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014


Recently, we got some new photos of J-15S coming out, which is always exciting. J-15S is the twin-seated version of China's naval flanker J-15. Its prototype flirst flew from SAC airfield on November 2012. All of the J-15S photos we've seen so far have shown Taihang engines powering the aircraft. That would suggest J-15S will be powered by Taihang right from the time it enters service and that the single seated J-15 could be powered by Taihang after the first batch.

We know that J-11BS entered service relatively soon after J-11B entered service after a relatively short flight testing program of around 2 years. It probably could've been even shorter if not for the problems with Taihang engine at the time. We saw very few photos of J-11BS in flight testing. In comparison, it seems to me that J-15S will be having a longer flight testing program, although not as long as would be expected out of a new variant like J-11B or J-16.

Going forward, I think it is likely that J-15S would be used in more roles than just as twin-seated trainer. First of all, J-15S could be developed in navy's version of J-16. The J-15 airframe should already be strengthened to handle the punishment of taking off and landing on a carrier, so J-15S may not need too much additional work to handle the additional payload expected out of a strike fighter. J-15S would not have the range or payload of J-16 due to restrictions of taking off from a STOBAR carrier, but it could be installed with similar avionics and combat system for strike missions as J-16. It will be able to carry different types of anti-ship missiles, anti-radiation missile and ground attack munitions/missiles that can be launched by the pilot in the WSO seat. Having the second pilot should make J-15S a more effective strike aircraft than J-15. Aside from just anti-shipping missions and ground attack missions, it could also be fitted with the subsystems for SEAD missions and EW warfare. When Su-30MK2 came out, there was a lot of talk about its usage as a "mini-AWACS". While that is a little overblown and CV-16 will already have several Ka-31 and Z-18 AEW helicopters, J-15S can certainly be equipped with the necessary avionics to process data from a group of J-15s and direct their actions.

In summary, J-15S will be a very useful naval aircraft for China's burgeoning naval air arm. It will likely have many use beyond that of a trainer.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

PLAN ASW Modernization

The Chinese navy has done a lot of modernization in the past 20 years, but some areas have been lagging behind others. Even while China was still buying large ticket items from Russia, there was a lot of talks on China's growing submarine force and anti-ship missiles. Not only did the imported ships have some over-hyped supersonic missiles, the domestic built ships and aircraft were also equipped with a fairly modern YJ-83 missile. The path to modernization in ASuW is relatively small compared to other areas, so it was not surprising that PLAN made the largest jump here at first.

By 2005, Chinese navy was in the midst of inducting Type 052C and 051C capable of providing anti-air area defense. Even including the interim Type 052B class, this was a very significant jump from point defense in most of the surface combatants to having ships capable of detecting multiple aircraft and missiles at long distance, processing them on the combat system and engaging them with modern long range vertically launched surface to air missiles. As Type 054A started to proliferate in Chinese navy and becoming the backbone of many flotillas, this became no longer an area of weakness. With more Type 052Cs joining service and the first Type 052D being commissioned, Chinese fleet has now become modernized in the area of AAW.

The one area that PLAN has always lagged is in ASW. For a long time, most of the surface combatants only had hull sonar and some ASW rockets. By the turn of century, the new ships have been installed with Yu-7 torpedo. However, China's limited number of naval helicopters mean that only a limited number of ships can travel with ASW helicopters. Since helicopters are rotated between ships, that would limit the ships training with them and their effectiveness. Before the induction of 054A, China's most advanced ASW assets were diesel submarines and Type 037 sub chasers. They are both limited to littoral waters and cannot be expected to escort a fleet. Even in littoral water, they are limited by their own noisiness and lack of speed or range. The 093s could be useful in blue waters, but they are also very loud.

Type 052As were China's most well equipped ASW ships until Type 052C came along. The Type 052C destroyers were the first of surface combatants to be installed with the new generation of Towed array sonar and acoustic decoy. The Type 052s had their original imported French variable depth sonar replaced with this new towed array sonar. The induction of Type 054A really brought a lot of added ASW capabilities. They were also equipped with towed array sonar and acoustic decoy in the back along with bow mounted sonar in the front. Lack of permanent naval helicopter remains to be an issue, but at least they can launch ASROC type of missiles from VLS. That really extended the range of engaging submarines when a helicopter is not available for such duty. Even so, the passive TAS by itself has limitations and is still more suitable for littoral water.

In the past year or so, a new generation of home grown variable depth sonar has been developed. One of those versions has been installed on Type 056, which should be able to replace Type 037 sub chasers for littoral ASW duties. With the existence of helipad that can land Z-9 helicopter, installation of Yu-7 torpedoes and this new VDS, it should be a huge leap over the Type 037s that are retiring from service. An improved version of 054A has also come out recently with this new variable depth sonar installed next to TAS (position of acoustic decoys on earlier 054As) and the new 11 barrel CIWS. This combination of active VDS and passive TAS is installed on the most recent 4 054As (2 each from HD and HP shipyard). Although more of this type could be built, my guess is that they are just testing out this new ASW combat suite and CIWS for the next class of ships. The new Type 052D destroyer (No. 172) is also fitted with this new combination of active/passive sonar in the back along with a bow mounted sonar in the front. It is also said to be able to launch a longer range ASROC type of missiles from VLS than Type 054A. All of this should give Type 052D very balanced combat capability in ASuW, AAW and ASW. A new type of ASW helicopter based on the developing Z-20 project is needed to really allow this ship to hunt and engage modern submarines. Of course, Chinese navy does have a new ASW helicopter in Z-18F, but it is probably too large to be carried in the hangar of Type 052C/D. However, Z-18F should be able to serve on CV-16 along with large future combatants likes Type 055 and LHD/LPD classes. Z-18F is larger than other ASW helicopters like SH-60, NH-90 and Ka-28. It can carry more sonobuoy and has more snobuoy openings than SH-60. It can also carry dipping sonar along with up to 4 Torpedoes. The rest of the electronics and combat system has been upgraded from Z-8 with a new large surface search radar and modern MAWS and RWR antennas. It also has the range to really hunt modern nuclear submarines. That's why it is expected to be a part of the air wing of CV-16 and future Chinese carriers.

As a whole, the hardware for ASW in PLAN has definitely modernized, but they still lack in many areas. While they finally have a Y-8 maritime patrol aircraft, it's still years behind P-3C and serving too small in number. While Z-18F is a nice addition, a Z-20 or Z-15 based ASW helicopter is badly needed for ships in the class of Type 052D and 054A. And finally, the biggest help to Chinese navy would be newer and quieter nuclear submarines with more powerful sonar. Until that happens, the Chinese navy would always be in a place of danger when it comes to underwater warfare.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Past and present of China/Russia military cooperation

Two recent articles about military exchange between China and Russia. The first one is Robert Farley's article about 5 ways Russia could help China's military. The second article is about Russia looking to buy Chinese electronic military/aersopace components.

I have written on numerous occasions about what China is still interested in buying from Russia and what China would be interested in buying from Europe if the embargo is lifted. The reason is that the balance of military technology prowess has changed so much between Russia and China in the past 20 years that we have gotten to the point where Russia is looking to now buy Chinese military components. Back in 1990, the gap between the collapsing Soviet Union and China was so great that China had to pick which area of its military it had money to import. In the end, despite the army's overwhelming influence in PLA, the much greater gap in air force and navy led to purchasing Su-27s, S-300s and Sov destroyers instead of MBTs and IFVs. People talk about post TianAnMen square arms embargo as the reason that China turned to Russia, but it's quite obvious to me they would've turned that direction regardless of whether or not an embargo was in put. By 1990, China had already experienced how tightly US and other Western companies safe guarded their technology and IP after numerous projects like the J-8II Peace Pearl project. In the end, China spent $500 million without really getting any kind of industrial boost, while US got a thorough look at what was China's most advanced plane at the time (without being very impressed by it). It was with that backdrop that China turned to Russia for help after warming of the relations in the late 80s. It quickly found that Russia had very lax protection of technology compared to Western countries. On top of that, most of Russian military hardware were on fire sale after the Soviet collapse with pretty much anything available to anyone who had money for it. From there, China got a lot of support from Russians in not only the J-11 project, but all of China's indigenous projects. It's hard to imagine that China could've paid $2.5 billion to anyone else and got anywhere close to the amount of technology transfer, industrial help and advanced fighter jet that China got here. It wasn't until early 2000s that Russia started to catch on top how much China's military industrial complex was improving and how much success it was copying a lot of what Russia was showcasing at the time. By that time, China had already noticed that Russia was increasingly pitching non-existent projects requiring China to pay for development cost, so it was already slowing down purchases even though it seemed like the trade was still booming to the outside world. By 2007, the failed IL-76 purchase stopped all ongoing military cooperation between the 2 side. After that was resumed, China continued to purchase more aerospace engines and helicopters from Russia, but not many other major items. Even the much discussed Su-33 deals never came to fruition as China managed to build J-15s with Ukrainian help.

That brings us to the current state of cooperation between the 2 countries. The most recent deals have been AL-31FN/RD-93 engines, Mi-171E/26 helicopters and refurbished IL-76 transports. The 5 items in Farley's article are aerospace engine, Tu-22M bombers, leasing of Akula subs, S-400 SAMs and ballistic missiles. Outside of Tu-22M, I would agree with all of the other items, although China would be interested in the more advanced Tu-160. Aerospace engines and S-400 have already been proposed to China and have high likelihood of been purchased. The other items are all strategic and Russia have been reluctant to share them with China in the past. With the current international climate, Russia is relying more and more on China as it becomes isolated, one wonders if Russia would change it's mind. China would certainly gain a lot from a similar Akula II leasing deal like India got. I would imagine Tu-160 and Yasen class attack subs are completely off limits.

I have been reading for a while that China has been trying to sell electronic components to Russia for it's military products. One of which was T/R modules for Russia's AESA radar. According to the article, the Russian space agency is looking to purchase several billions of dollars of such components from China, which would be a wide range of products. Maybe this could start military export from China to Russia in other areas where Russian manufacturers have simply fallen behind like in building naval ships. Although, I would say it's far more likely that Russia would purchase subsystems and components.

So things have certainly changed in the past 20 years and the recent change in Russia's isolation around the world has seemingly pushed military cooperation even further in China's direction.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Present acquisition plans of Chinese air force

I've spent a lot of time talking about the progress of the J-20 project, because it is the most interesting project going on, but it's a good time to catch up on the aircraft that are actually been procured by the Chinese air force.

Most recently, huitong's website listed what appears to be a new PLANAF regiment of J-11B. I was expecting J-11B production to stop with works well under the way for J-15 and J-16 project, but it looks like SAC will produce a few more J-11B/S to complete the 5 PLAAF regiment/brigade and 3 PLANAF regiments. At the same time, we've seen the appearance of Serial Number 108 of J-15's first batch, which would indicate that we have at least 9 (100 to 108) J-15s already painted in PLANAF colors. Since we have yet to see any J-15s from this batch practice takeoff/landing on CV-16, I would imagine they have yet to be delivered. At the same time, we saw J-16s with serial number 1612 and 1613 at SAC from earlier this year. If the prototypes are number 160x, then it would appear 161x may be the first batch of J-16s delivered to PLAAF. If that's the case, then somewhere around 1 dozen J-15s will probably be delivered to PLANAF while a small number of J-16s will be delivered to PLAAF this year. Going forward, these two projects along with J-15S (and possibly some J-11BS) should carry the load of production at SAC.

Also, a lot of us were surprised earlier this year when J-10s started showing up at the 124th brigade of PLAAF. That was the 10th PLAAF regiment/brigade (also with FTTC and 44th, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 24th, 9th, 15th & 12th division) along with one PLANAF regiment. Since J-10B production has already started, the remaining J-10A production from the 7th batch should be going to this brigade. I have already seen Factory serial number 120 on one J-10B in the past month, which would indicate that we should see the first J-10B regiment get most if not all of its aircraft this year. It would not surprise me if the first ones have already been delivered. This first batch of J-10B will be using AL-31FN series 3 engines, which have increased thrust and reliability over the earlier AL-31FNs.

Outside of these 2, I have not seen any new JH-7A unit this year, which could mean the production for it has stopped. It would be replaced by JH-7B and J-16 in service. There is also no sign at the current time that PLAAF will be inducting JF-17 into service, but that may change when they have the domestic engine option available.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

More on US/China naval dialog and J-20 project

In my last post, I talked about China's participation in the Rim PAC 2014 exercise. As this was happening, Admiral Greenert, Chief of US naval operation, made a visit to China and was the first US (possibly first foreign) service member to visit CV-16 Dalian and speak to its crew member. You can see the DOD article here.

Admiral Greenert had what seems to be a good overview and very frank conversations with his Chinese counterpart Admiral Wu about the near future of Chinese naval aviation program. I don't think it's a surprise to Chinese naval followers that they are building another STOBAR carriers similar to CV-16 before moving on to a more modern design. And it's certainly not a surprise that he saw all of the Russian equipments ripped out and replaced with brand new Chinese ones, because that's what we've seen from all of the TV reports. Even so, I really do encouraged at the increased level of communication and discussion between the two sides even though they have feel like they are dealing with possible adversaries. That's the kind of discussions that will hopefully eliminate or at least reduce miscommunications in the future. Greenert also visit a 039B (Improved Yuan) class submarine and some other ships in the North Sea Fleet around where CV-16 is based. The 039B that he boarded was one of the most recently commissioned PLAN submarine, so it certainly seems like Chinese navy is not holding back. From that, I get 2 thoughts:
  1. China is certainly reciprocating US efforts for greater transparency. It is also showing greater transparency in general.
  2. Biggest factor to the greater transparency and willingness to show what they have could be their improved hardware and professionalism. A large part of China's secrecy is due to not wanting to be embarrassed with less advanced ships and non-professional crew members.

There has also been more news coming out on the J-20 project. The new prototype No. 2012 has made its maiden flight. From all the pictures I've seen so far, it seems to have minimal changes from Prototype No. 2011. The word is No. 2013 and 2014 will also be coming out sometime this year for test flights. So, I think they will now start comprehensive flight testing programs. On SDF, one of my fellow PLA watcher compared the first 2 flying J-20 prototypes (no. 2001 and 2002) to YF-22 while comparing this new batch of prototypes to the F-22 EMD program. It took over 5 years from the first flight of F-22 EMD prototype to the first production F-22 being delivered to Nellis AFB. I would say it will probably take similar amount of type for the first production batch of J-20s to be delivered (so around second half of 2019). Even though the Russians have been saying production version of PAK-FA will be delivered in 2016, I think there is a good chance that won't happen and we will see the 2 aircraft enter service at around the same time.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

China participating in RIMPAC and J-20 updates

This year, China has been invited to RIMPAC for participation. China is sending No. 171 (Haikou), No. 575 (Yueyang), No. 886 (Qingdaohu) and No. 886 (Peace Ark) to the exercise.

I'm sure some others would disagree but I think such participation is great for not only relationship between the 2 countries and lowering naval tension. Aviation week posted a good article of its visit on No. 171 Haikou. It's certainly no surprise to me that the reporters were allowed to take pictures and interview the captain and crew member, since China has had this kind of "open house" on its new ships in different port calls around the world. The article promised an "exclusive and rather frank sit down with Senior Capt. Zhao Xiaogang" coming up, so I'm interested in seeing how that goes.

We are also seeing what appears to be a new prototype of J-20 coming out this past week for low-speed taxi test. From what we've seen so far, there is no much changes on this new prototype (No. 2012) compared to the last prototype (No. 2011). There might be some changes in the tail area and around the engine going forward, but I think CAC has mostly settled on the design of this aircraft. We can see it below:

Would be interesting to see how this proceed vs PAK-FA going forward.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Updates on CV-16 Liaoning

Most recently, CV-16 came out of dry dock in Dalian. It had entered there for regular maintenance and repairs in middle of April after over a month of training and exercise. It looks like the hull has been repainted and the non-skid layers got re-applied.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

What China still seek from Russian military export

With the recent signing of the major gas deal between China and Russia amidst the entire situation in Ukraine, there has been a big push by the media and Putin himself to frame all of this as somewhat of an alliance between the countries. While I generally think this is overplayed, I think the military cooperation part of things can be explored. Russia is coming to China from a position of weakness and is probably willing to sell technology they were not willing to before. The question is what China actually wants from Russia at this point.

Last year, I talked about the possible Su-35/Lada deals here. At this point, I would bet that neither deal goes forward. Even if some kind of conventional submarine deal gets signed, it will be more for a design based on Lada that will use mostly Chinese combat systems, engine and weaponry. The Su-35 talks have floated since 2008 and still have not ended up anywhere. The closer we get to J-20, the less it makes sense for China to purchase Su-35. In the recent visit by Putin, the 2 countries signed deals for cooperating on a new upgraded version of Mi-26 and large airliner. In the aviation fields, China’s biggest import from Russia remains to be high performing turbofan engines.

In the most recent join sea drill between China and Russia, Russia sent a fleet consist of the Slava-Class Cruiser Varyag, a Udaloy class destroyer, a Sov class destroyer and a landing ship. Chinese fleet was consisted of No. 151 Zhengzhou (Type 052C), No. 139 Ningbo (Sov class), No. 112 Harbin (Type 052), 2 Type 054As and landing ships. The drill lasted for 5 days in East China Sea, so it was probably the largest such drill between the 2 countries. If this exercises had taken place in 2005, there would’ve been many articles about how this is a showcase of Russian weaponry for export to China. We certainly don’t hear that kind of talk now. Just by focusing on Type 052C Zhengzhou and Slava-Class Varyag, we can see the different approach China has taken in its naval modernization vs Soviet naval philosophy. In the role of area air defense, Type 052C probably has comparable to superior capabilities to Slava with its 48 cell HHQ-9 VLS and more modern AESA MFRs + combat system vs 64 cell S-300 VLS. It’s pretty much weaker in everything else (close-in air defense, ASuW and ASW). Like its big brother Kirov class, Slava class can operate and pack a lot of punch (with 16 P-500 missiles) by itself, whereas 052C is better served as an air defense escort in a flotilla with other offensive options. When looking at where PLAN has proceeded in its modernization, it makes a lot of sense why China did not purchase the unfinished Slava class Ukraina when it could have done so in the middle of last decade. I have talked about how Sov class had become the white elephants of PLAN, because they could not effective communicate and operate with other ships due to having different combat system, communication equipments and data link. Numerous projects were started in recent years to create subsystem to solve these problems when the Sov destroyers go through their mid-life overhaul. Purchasing the Ukraina or any other Russian warships will have cause similar difficulties in combat and logistics. PLAN seems to have a pretty good direction forward with mass production of Type 052D and Type 055, so it has not been tempted to buy Russian hardware since early 2000s.

Since combat aircraft and submarine purchases also seem unlikely with the slow progress of talks over Lada and Su-35, what else is China still buying from Russia outside of the engines? New purchase of S-400 SAMs is possible, but China seems to be doing pretty well with the success of HQ-9 in the Turkey competition. Transport and utility helicopter is another such area. Russia is just finishing the delivery of 48 Mi-171s to China this year and has signed agreement for developing an improved Mi-26 with China. It looks like both of these helicopters should see more orders in future even as more domestic options like Z-15 and Z-20 become available, since they occupy different roles. Another area is in large transport aircraft and tankers, where China has been purchasing refurbished IL-76s from Russia and IL-78s from Ukraine. The ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine could possibly give Ukraine more incentive to sell refurbished IL-76/78s and former Soviet designs (possibly improved version) to China. One interesting example is Zubr class LCAC where Russia and Ukraine argued over Ukrainian right to sell license production of Zubr class to China. The second Zubr was shipped early to China due to its shipyard’s location in Crimea. Now that Crimea has become part of Russia, China will probably continue to build more Zubrs as needed without further negotiation with Russia.

The final area where China would want Russian help is nuclear submarines and strategic bombers. I think even with China’s stronger bargaining power, it is still nearly impossible for Russia to sell plans for Tu-160 or Akula-II to China. The most it could get here are design help for these strategic platforms.

As we move forward, I think we will get to a point where Russia will start buying military subsystems from China. That will be quite a shift from where things were 2 decades ago.

Monday, May 5, 2014

052D’s role in PLAN

In my last blog entry, I looked over the future of PLAN surface combatant fleet. Part of the reason I did that is the emergency of the new Type 055 cruiser. For any future PLAN carrier group or expeditionary strike group, Type 052D will be expected as important escorts even with Type 055 in the fold. What roles can Type 052D and how will it be utilized by PLAN?

If we look at Type 052D’s ancestors Type 052C, we have a surface combatant that is clearly designed to provide area air defense. It is the first modern Chinese AAW ship that has advanced multi-functional radar system with Active guided long range SAM along with relative modern combat system. It is also expected by many to have an advanced AEGIS like combat system allowing engagements using inputs from sensors on different ships and aircraft. While it is also equipped with the advanced YJ-62 (also replaceable with LACM) and advanced sonar system (looks to be same Towed Array Sonar as on Type 054A), there is no question that the emphasis of the ship is for area air defense. Type 052C’s ancestor Type 052B can be looked at as a stepping stone from Type 052 to 052C. Its production stopped at 2, because Type 054A is cheaper and provides almost all of the capabilities of 052B (including much stronger ASW). A large PLAN flotilla prior to 052D would surely need both Type 052C and 054A to provide required air defense and anti-submarine defense.

Type 052D provides PLAN with a lot more flexibility. That’s why more Type 052D is expected to be produced than Type 052C. It is equipped with a newer generation of multi-functional radar, new variable depth sonar along with other new sensors. More importantly, it’s the first surface combatant with the universal VLS. Type 052D could also maintain a more balanced profile with 32 cells for long range SAM, 8 cells for quad-packed medium range SAM, 8 cells for anti-ship missiles, 8 cells for LACMs and 8 cells for ASROC like missile. That would provide comparable air defense to 052C while having increased firepower in ASuW and ASW. If 052D is given the task of area air defense, it can utilize all of its VLS for the purpose of air defense. They can use 48 cells for long range SAM and remaining 16 cells for quad-packed medium range SAM or even 56 cells for long range SAM and remaining 8 cells for quad-packed medium range SAM. Both of which would provide solid protection for the ship itself and surrounding fleet once we factor in the 24-cell HQ-10 SAM and 7-barrelled PJ-12 CIWS for point defense. Another possible usage is in BMD, although I'm not sure if the technical characteristics of 052D's radar allows it to do tracking and target discrimination of ballistic missile threats. This role might be left for Type 055 cruisers. In theory, you could put the reported HQ-26 missile (or some other SM-3 like missile) on 052D along with other air defense missiles in the BMD role.

With the addition of PJ-38 artillery gun and VLS launched LACMs, 052D could be PLAN's first ship to have major land attack capabilities. PJ-38 would provide 052D with the ability to support amphibious landings like Sov destroyers. Long range LACMs would finally give PLAN the ability to attack land target from far away. This is a capability that PLAN really never needed when they were a brown or green water navy. Even though YJ-62 launchers were removed, 052D could also be fitted with 16+ anti-ship missiles in an ASuW profile. All of the SAMs should also have secondary anti-ship mode. If they develop PJ-38 into being able to launch over the horizon anti-ship projectiles, 052D could be quite powerful in ASuW missions. Finally, Type 052D can also be PLAN's most effective surface ship in ASW missions. Its universal VLS can hold longer ranged ASROC missiles than Type 054A's VLS. Type 054A is almost limited to the short legged Z-9C helicopter while 052D could also use Ka-28 helicopters (and Z-15/20 in the future). With a more powerful sonar suite than Type 054A, it would be better suited for ASW missions in blue waters.

At the moment, 052D is China's primary surface combatant and expected to provide the most important roles in escorting a fleet. It is likely to be useful in China's navy for a long time because it is using China's first universal VLS and an artillery gun that can launch different type of projectiles. Its close in defense systems could easily be upgraded. New missiles and projectiles could probably be supported on 052D in the future with software updates or relatively small hardware upgrades. PLAN currently has the problem where it often does not replace outdated weapon system because of cost and supply concerns. That's why the recent Type 052 upgrades only changed the CIWS. Type 052D is first ship in PLAN to really benefit from a more plug and play approach that USN has enjoyed for years. Even when Type 055 joins service, Type 052D could still be very useful in land attack or ASuW or ASW roles.

Friday, April 11, 2014

PLAN surface combatant fleet now and future

With the recent induction of No. 172 and the appearance of Type 055 full scale land simulation structure, there has been some questions about how many of these ships will join PLAN and the number of sailors that will need to be trained to operate them. This entry will focus on the hardware part, since that is an easier factor to quantify than the software part. Before all of that, I want to take a quick look at Type 055. Based on the dimensions of the land simulation structure, estimate for width of the ship have been 21+ m and length to be 175 m based on photos. That would make this ship larger than the neighboring Atago class and KDX-III class, which are both over 10,000 ton in displacement. It would be comparable in size to Slava class and only smaller than Kirov class and Zumwalt class. Based on work by online PLAN fans, it seems like Type 055 would be able to comfortably hold 128 VLS cells ¬¬¬and still have enough endurance long range missions. To the best of my knowledge, China has only built land based simulation structures for aircraft carrier and nuclear submarine. Therefore, the construction of such a structure shows the high regard that PLAN has for Type 055. Work for Type 055 is said to be starting at JN this year, so it’s quite interesting to me that they are building the training structure so early.

Looking at PLAN right now, we still have a good mix of Soviet-era ships and modern ships. Amongst what PLAN considers to be destroyers, we have the very old Type 051 class and the very new Type 052C/D class along with many interim classes in between (Type 052, Type 051B, Sov, Type 051C and Type 052B). About half of Type 051 Luda class ships have already been decommissioned and the remaining ones should be retiring over the rest of the next few years as they come up to 30 years in service. After that, it will be interesting to see what PLAN does with those interim classes. Type 052 Luhu class have been in service for 20 years, but just receive mid life upgrade in 2011, so will probably service until next decade. Similarly, No. 167 of Type 051B Luhai class has been active since entering service in 1998, but looks to be getting a mid life upgrade very soon, so will probably stay in service until middle of next decade. The 4 Sov destroyers have the problem that they are using combat system and data link that simply don’t work that well with PLA’s new inter-service data link protocol. Even though they are still relatively new, their combat system and electronics are so backward that the smaller Type 054A frigates are more effective in combat and leading fleet. I had previously advocated that PLAN just retire all 4 of them early, but now it looks like China will put them through extensive mid life upgrade with indigenous parts replacing the older Russian systems. At least, that should allow these ships to communicate better with the rest of the fleet. The 2 Type 051C destroyers have the same problem as the Sovs. They are the last PLAN destroyers to use steam turbine propulsion and also use a different type of VLS (and Air defense system) that needs its own industrial support. Since the latter 2 Sovs and Type 051C ships joined service at the same time as the first Type 052C ships, they will remain in service for a while serving minor roles while Type 052C/D form the backbone of air defense for PLAN. The production run for Type 052C will stop at 6, while Type 052D will probably hit 12 ships. If we add in the 2 Type 052B, 2 Type 051C and 2 recent Sov destroyers, that will total 24 destroyers or 2 flotilla of 4 destroyers for each of PLAN’s 3 fleets. In reality, PLAN will probably have more destroyers than that in service in order to form a permanent blue water fleet, but this provides a simple breakdown for 2020 to 2030.

PLAN’s frigates do not have nearly the number of interim classes. Nearly every jianghu-1 class ships have already been decommissioned as Type 054A have been joining the fleet in mass. By the end of this decade, I would think all of the remaining Jianghu ships will be either be decommissioned or refurbished/upgraded for export or coast guard. The 4 Jiangwei-I frigates should also be close to decommissioning. Aside from that, PLAN has 16 Type 054As (which will become 20 over the next 2 years), 2 Type 054 and 10 Type 053H3 Jiangwei-II frigates. By the end of this decade, these 36 frigates (22 054/A + 14 Jiangwei) will form 3 flotillas for each of the 3 fleet. In order to replace the retiring Jiangwei class and provide escort for the new blue water fleet, a new class of frigates will likely start construction in the next few years using the new universal VLS. It could also be argued that with the induction of the Type 056 class, PLAN no longer needs as many frigates for the nearby waters. In that case, the class that comes after Type 054A will be closer in size to 052B/C and the European “frigates” than the 4000-ton class frigates we see today.

It’s always interesting to speculate how a rapidly modernizing naval force like PLAN will look like in 5 or 10 years time. With most of the older Soviet era ships are close to retiring, we finally have a good idea to project into future, because they are no longer just building interim classes. For me, a major symbolic milestone will hit once all Luda and Jianghu class ships retire. The majority of PLAN’s main fleet will be modernized by then. On the other hand, questions about modernization in software are a lot harder to answer and quantify.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

China's military expenditure

China's annual announcement of its military expenditure is often met with a lot of alarm. The question has often been why China needs to be constantly increasing its military expenditure so much. Here is a chart showing China's military expenditure vs treasury income vs GDP from 1999 to 2013.

Over this period, the military expenditure has generally been between 1.2% to 1.5% of the GDP and 9.5% to 5.5% of the treasury income. so in real RMB terms, military expenditure has not gone up as a percentage of GDP. In comparison to the treasury income, military expenditure has decreased a lot due to improved tax collection in China. The question is why the military expenditure has remained steady when the reported year to year increased is greater than GDP growth. The answer seems to be that GDP is inflation adjusted whereas military expenditure is not. There are 3 other charts similar to this which shows military expenditures going back to 1950. Seems like China maintained higher military expenditure % (4.5% to 9%) up until when Deng Xiaoping took over in 1978. After which, PLA saw its spending vs GDP drop all the way to 1% in the mid 90s. Now, China's definition of military expenditure can be different from that of the west, so there is no reason to compare China to Japan or US here. The important take away here is that China is not in any kind of expansion mode when it comes to military expenditure.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The commissioning of the lead ship of 052D class

Yesterday, China officially commissioned the lead ship in its new class of destroyers. From this article, you can see that this first Type 052D class ship is named after the city of Kunming and given the hull number 172. The ceremony was attended to by Chinese Navy commander Wu Shengli. Videos of the commissioning can be found on youtube.

I have covered Type 052D in numerous entries like this before. In some ways, it represents the final step in the modernization of China's surface combatant. Starting from the early 90s when Type 052 was launched until today, the Chinese naval destroyers have incrementally improved with Type 051B, Type 052B and Type 052C before finally reaching Type 052D. It is equipped with China's first universal VLS capable of launching HHQ-9 series of long range SAM, quad packed medium SAM, YJ-18 anti-ship missiles, LACM and Yu-8 (or similar ASROC). It is also carrying PJ-38 130 mm main gun, 24-cell version of HQ-10 CIWS and PJ-12 7-barreled 30 mm CIWS. A lot of the radar, ESM suite, communication antenna and other electronic installations look like the ones we have seen on 052C, but it is carrying a flat second generation multifunctional radar given the designation Type 346A and a new type of variable depth sonar at back. Whereas Type 052C placed heavy emphasis on AAW as China's first area air defense ship, Type 052D not only improves in that area, but should also become capable in ASW (with the long range anti submarine missile + improved sonar), ASuW, long range missile strikes and amphibious landing support. As the hull of 052D has already been "maxed" out, the next generation of Chinese destroyer would be larger and equipped with more advanced propulsion unit. Here are some of the photos.

The commissioning of No. 172 was surprising for many followers even after its hull number was recently painted. The last 2 052Cs, which were launched before No. 172 have yet to be commissioned. The recent batch of 052Cs have generally taken over 2 years to be commissioned after launching. It appears that the Chinese naval brass rushed No. 172 into service so that it can participate in its 65th anniversary celebration at Qingdao on April 23rd. Now that it has been commissioned into the South Sea Fleet, they can start the process of training and developing tactics for this new class of ships. At present, we have 3 052D launched with a 4th that looks to soon be launched. The production run is likely to reach 12 ships with JiangNan shipyard building 8 of them and Dalian shipyard building the remaining.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The status of Project 310

As we've seen the J-20 project proceed to the pre-production prototype stage, Project 310 (Shenyang AC's 5th gen design) is continuing its flight testing. Although, I and many other have called it J-31, it really hasn't become an official PLAAF project yet, so it has no J designation Many have called it the J-21 project, because they expect it to receive that designation once it becomes official.

There have been a lot of discussions online about where this project is at and how is it funded, so I will give me take here. At this stage, project 310 only has one flying prototype in No. 31001. Some would compare it to No. 2001 of J-20 project, but I consider more as a proof of concept aircraft similar to X-35. For example, I think the pre-production prototypes should not longer see the gap between the engine nozzle and nacelle. From what I observed online, it seems to at least have received some funding from PLAAF to arrive at this stage, although SAC does has enough resource/funding to get here by itself. I think we are unlikely to see a second flying prototype until it becomes an official PLAAF project, since No. 31001 and a possible static prototype can give all the data PLAAF would need to make its decision. Based on all I have read, it seems to be foregone conclusion that will happen. Once it does get designation and full funding from PLAAF, SAC is likely to make numerous changes on the next flying prototype and also start conducting radar and weapon testing.

Just looking from front, Project 310 has the contours that one would expect out a stealth aircraft. One does not need to look far before seeing comparison to F-35 and reading articles about "stolen technology" from F-35. Whether this jet will turn out to really be a stealth aircraft depends on all the little details that the designers have to look through to minimize returns from all around. Until we get to a later prototype, it's really hard to say how well Project 310 will do in that area.

I am generally not too concerned about the electronics on the new Chinese aircraft, because I think they have really made huge progress here. I think they can achieve comparable target identification and situation awareness as F-22/35, since it will come into service at a later point when newer technology will become available. I think the biggest concern for this aircraft is its engine. This is a problem with all new PLAAF aircraft. Clearly, RD-93 will not be powering Project 310 in production. The 9.5t class "Medium Thrust" engine models have been around for several Zhuhai airshows. I would imagine that engine will be used on Project 310 and other projects like UAVs. Even though it has great important, it will not be as high priority as the WS-15 project. Since it began at a later point and has lower priority than WS-15, it definitely won't be ready before WS-15. If we estimate that serial production of WS-15 will be under way by 2020, this medium thrust engine won't be ready for serial production until 2025. PLAAF would have to either wait until then or find an interim selection. A large part of its test flight program may need to be done with a different engine.

The other question is what is the expected market for Project 310 outside of China. Unlike J-20, models resembling Project 310 have appeared in air shows since 2011 indicating that it should be available for export sooner rather than later. The problem is who can they sell it to. Ten years from now, most of the Western countries will probably go for F-35. The remaining ones will either go for the eurocanards or for super hornets if they are still in production. Due to politics, they are unlikely to go for a Chinese or Russian aircraft. We know that India and Russia are committed to the PAK-FA project, so what does that leave for Project 310? Most of China's traditional customers in Asia, Africa and Latin America simply don't have the money or the need for a low-end 5th gen aircraft. Project 310 will most likely be exported to Pakistan. After that, it will have to battle against F-35, PAK-FA and Gripen-E in the Middle East, South East Asia, Brazil and South Africa. Its main advantages are its cost and available production slot, but China will have to move fast.

Friday, March 7, 2014

J-20 Program Update

Prototype No. 2011 of the J-20 project had its maiden flight last weekend. As previously discussed, No. 2011 has significant changes to the previous J-20 prototypes that we've seen in flight testing (No. 2001 and No. 2002). There were probably 2 more prototypes similar to 2001/2002 for the purpose of static and RCS testing. It seems like 2001/2002 are more like the demonstrator prototypes whereas 2011 is the first pre-production prototype. It's likely that the production version of J-20 will not see any major differences unless major problems are found in testing. The pictures below show prototype 2001 vs prototype 2011 from different view point with Chinese labels on parts that changed in the first 2 pictures.

Generally speaking, CAC appears to have taken much greater care for the LO properties of No. 2011 compared to 2001/2002. Quite a bit of type elapsed from 2002 to 2011 and it looks like they really tried to address a lot of issues from RCS testing. The workmanship and fit/finishing of 2011 all appear to be better. Some of the more obvious changes include
  • Clipped corners on canard/v-tails
  • Redesign slender intakes with bump larger or protruding more
  • F-22-style light-grey colour scheme
  • Larger weapon bay and smaller wing actuators
  • Straightened leading edge
  • Inner canopy frame like F-35
  • Redesigned front landing gear door
  • New EOTS-like sensor and holographic HUD display
  • Redesigned rear fuselage around the engines and nozzles moved further in with longer tail sting.
It seems like more care is put into all-aspect stealth as the clipped canards has decreased returns from some angles and the ventral fins now seem to completely block engine nozzles from the sides. Looking at the inner edge of the canard, they are modified to conform nicely around intake so as to not create gaps.

Here is a good side view of the front part of the prototype.

Comparing to other 5th generation projects, I think PLAAF had a higher LO design requirement for J-20 than PAK-FA, while still trailing F-22/35. Compared to PAK-FA, it looks like everything conform to the body a lot better leaving fewer gaps and deflecting surfaces all around. Compared to F-22, it still has some areas like engine nozzle (which is covered by thrust vectoring plates on F-22) that are just not as well shielded even after the treatments. This is all from my extremely untrained eyes, so feel free to give me additional insights.

Project 310, China's other next-gen project, at this point still has not received official PLAAF designation. It looks to be in the flight demonstration stage and would probably need to become an offical PLAAF program before proceeding further to where J-20 is right now.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Su-33 or Mig-29K

As we see CV-16 Liaoning class spend more time training in the ocean, one of the often asked question is the choice of air wing. Now, we know that China can build flankers on its own, whereas it would have to purchase Mig-29K from Russia, so it would've been very unlikely that China would go with Mig-29K. The hypothetical question is what if China had the choice of building both Su-33 and Mig-29K, would it have taken Mig-29K over Su-33? Or more realistically, why did naval flankers get picked over naval J-10? After all, both India and Russia have now picked Mig-29K as their naval fighter.

Back in the late 80s and early 90s, China was looking to modernize its air force by purchasing a 4th generation aircraft from Soviet Union. At that time, everyone thought China was going to purchase Mig-29, since it had only operated Mikoyan fighter jets in the past and Mig-29 was the aircraft that Soviet Union exported. In fact, Su-27s had never been exported before then. Against all odds, PLAAF picked Su-27 over Mig-29 due to its longer range and greater potential as a heavy fighter jet. Up to that point, China really was not capable of designing its own heavy fighter jet like Su-27. J-10, the winning design of China's own 4th generation competition, is a single engine fighter jet (between the size of J-7 and J-8). As part of the deal for ToT and local production of Su-27, China got pretty much all it needed to eventually indigenize flankers. Russia was a lot more willing to sell off its technology back at that time. As seen with India's involvement in the PAK-FA project, Russia is now a lot more stingy when it comes to sharing its core technology. The effect of the J-11 deal can be seen today. Shenyang AC is now producing J-11B along with J-15 and J-16. You can even see the effect of J-11 on J-20 (SAC helped with that part of design). Just as importantly, it changed PLAAF's doctrine from one of air denial to one of air superiority. As we can see with J-20 and J-31, PLAAF has made the decision to go with larger hi-lo fighter jet combination for the next generation. Outside of the obvious advantages like range/patrol time/multi-role capability, I've read that PLAAF believes that it can only make up for its technology gap vs Western fighter jets like F-35 by producing larger, more powerful aircraft.

There was a competition between J-10 and J-11 as the first generation naval fighter, but J-11 won due to the aforementioned advantages. I would think that the second generation naval fighter will likely be a heavy fighter too. Operating off a stobar carrier like Varyag, there will be limitations to J-15 take-off profiles. So far, we've seen J-15s with 2 SR-AAMs and 2 LR-AAMs, 2 SR-AAMs and 2 AShMs, 2 SR-AAMs and bombs. We've even seen J-15 just carrying buddy refueling pod. None of these profiles come close to approaching the limits of what's possible from CV-16. With no headwind, Su-33 can take off from the first and second take-off locations on Adm K class with 28 ton. It can also take off from the third take-off location with 32 ton. It's likely that as they get more experience, we will see more weapons carried on J-15. Based on what we've seen from typical PLAAF photos, the stobar limitations probably won't affect J-15 that much. We rarely see J-11B with more than 6 AAM (4 LR + 2 SR) and J-10 with more than 4 AAM (2 LR + 2 SR). Those are quite achievable off all 3 take-off spots on CV-16.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Current Status of JF-17

As PAC starts the production of second block of JF-17, it's good to take a look at where the project is right now. I won't go over the history of the project, since that can be found online or any of the many forums. At this point, PAF remains the only operator of JF-17. They have finished the production of the first block of 50 JF-17s out of the 150 they ordered. There have been persistent news coming out of Pakistan that more will be ordered, but I don't think that's finalized. By all account, PAF has been fairly satisfied with the performance of the aircraft and the project as a whole. I don't have the latest number, but PAC is now capable of producing most parts of JF-17 with engine been the lone major subsystem that is outside their expertise. There have been numerous reports of sales to other country, but none of them have concluded. There were the 12 JF-17s to Zimbabwe and the 24 JF-17s to Azerbaijan, which never came to fruition. There were also the more persistent stories of concluded sales to Egypt and possible sales to Argentina. In the former case, China lost the deal after Mubarak and the new government is now picking Mig-29s over JF-17s. In the latter case, Argentinian economy has bigger issues like hyperinflation to deal with and will not have the ability to purchase fighter jets anytime soon. The problem for JF-17 has always been finding the right customers. China's traditional customers don't have the need or the money for something like JF-17. They have most opted for J-7s and K-8s in the recent years. L-15 is fighting the same issues. In the more affluent markets, JF-17 has been fighting against used F-16s, Mig-29s and other better known 4th generation fighter jets with more customers. It's hard to make the case for JF-17 while PAF remains its only operator. Having said that, I think JF-17 still has a bright future. PAF have really made JF-17 project what it is today by discovering/expanding the flight envelopes of the aircraft and working with various Chinese firms to add support for SD-10A, SRAAM, C-802A, various PGMs and the infamous mach 4.5 CM-400AG. We've heard recently that Saudi Arabia is interested in getting involved in the JF-17 project. Certainly, if KSA does purchase JF-17, that would be a huge shot in the arm for the entire program and its export prospects around the world (especially the rest of Muslim world). More importantly, I think PLAAF will be placing orders for JF-17 in the next few years. In a recent interview from Singapore Air Show, the VP of AVIC-1 said that domestic engine options should be available for JF-17 soon. I have talked in the past that PLAAF is looking for a stripped down version of JF-17 that it can replace all the retiring J-7 regiments. There were a total of 10 J-7E and 3 J-7G regiments produced for PLAAF/PLANAF. Based on the year they entered service and orbat data, most if not all of them should still be in service. There are also 10 or more J-8 regiments still in service including the very ancient J-8B aircraft. All of these regiments will need to be replaced. Although some of those regiments may be disbanded, there are not likely going to be enough J-10B and J-16 production to replace all of those retiring aircraft. There will probably be a total of less than 10 regiments of J-10B/J-16. By the time domestic engine (let's say WS-13) becomes ready for JF-17, some of the older J-7E regiments should be ready to retire. If CAC can meet PLAAF's cost requirements, then I think there will be order for several regiments of JF-17. Once PAF and PLAAF operate JF-17, I think you will see some export deals.