Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Some thoughts on 5th gen projects

Last week, we got news out of India that they are not happy with the progress of PAK-FA project. The article says that IAF found FGFA (their version of PAK-FA) to be too expensive, not have enough technology sharing with India and use inadequate engine solution. On top of that, IAF has also declared in the most recent meeting that the radar is inadequate and the stealth features badly engineered.

So, what does all of this tell us? It sounds to me that IAF's biggest concern here is with their work share in the project. They are trying to put the pressure on the Russians to share more of the technology that Russia is simply not prepared to share. We've heard similar complaints from India in the past regarding other projects with Russians. The other complaint of escalating costs seems also be a negotiation tactic. Cost overrun seems to be a common issue with all the new military aviation projects. The article itself even mentioned that MMRCA project's escalating costs is part of the reason that IAF is complaining here.

The technical issues are something that I think PLAAF followers should look carefully at. We know that China still depends very heavily on Russia in high performance turbofan engines right now. China invested large amount of resources in the 99M project, which is still lagging in progress to the 117S project used on Su-35. If Russia is having trouble developing and mass producing a new generation of engine for 5th gen aircraft, then one can imagine the stumbling blocks facing WS-15 project and other next generation Chinese turbofan projects. Up to now, all indications are that WS-15 development is going well, but as we've seen from WS-10 project, the mass production version of a new engine takes some time to sort out problems. So, it remains to be seen whether or not WS-15 will be ready by the end of this decade.

The other issue of inadequate radar with PAK-FA is less of an issue with J-20. China is ahead of Russia in electronics and are ready to cost efficiently produce the components needed for AESA radar, whereas Russia is not. I believe that China has even tried to sell AESA radars to Russia. It appears that J-10B and J-16 will be equipped with the 1st and 1.5th generation of AESA radar, so China's AESA technology should be a lot more mature by the time J-20 is in mass production. Even so, one has to look at the whole systems of avionics. F-35 is said to have more than 8 million lines of code to manage all of the weapon and sensory subsystems to give unprecedented situation awareness to the pilot. However with such a complex system, any software engineer can tell you that it would take a long time to test out such a complicated system. There is quite a few articles on issues with the complexity of F-35 code. When it comes to J-20, CAC has smartly been using J-10B as a testbed for a bunch of next generation avionics that will help with J-20's integrated avionics architecture development. I think it partly explains why J-10B took so long to go into production. When it comes to J-20, we are likely to see similar delays due to avionics that we've seen with F-35. My guess is that IAF chief will be complaining a lot about avionics delays on PAK-FA as we get closer to induction time.

Stealth is probably the biggest issue with PAK-FA compared to western definition of 5th generation aircraft. When I look at PAK-FA, it looks to be stealthier than the 4th generation fighter jets, but just can't compare to F-22/35. IAF chief would have known about this all along. Just in my non-professional eyes, J-20 looks to be stealthir than PAK-FA, but is probably closer to PAK-FA in lo technology than F-22/35. Stealth technology is probably the biggest advantage that Lockheed and Boeing have over the Russian and Chinese aircraft companies.

So I find that IAF complaints over PAK-FA just shows how difficult it is to develop 5th generation aircraft. Only US, China and Russia are actively developing these aircraft. And if you ask some Western defense analyst, they would say J-20 and PAK-FA don't qualify as truly lo platforms. These are extremely advanced technologies, so it's not surprising that Russia is reluctant to share them with India. Cost escalations are common. We don't really hear about it on Chinese military aviation projects, but it probably has similar cost escalation as F-35 and PAK-FA. From that, I think it's quite interesting that China can still afford J-20 and J-31 (supposedly will be made official PLAAF project) at the same time.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

A quick update before Chinese New Years

In less than 2 weeks, we will have Chinese New Year. Every year as with other Chinese companies, all of the military industrial complex stops working from a few days before Chinese New Year until 2 weeks (sometimes longer) after the Chinese New Year. This is a very short update before that period hits.

This past week, we saw a new J-20 prototype (No. 2011) coming out. It seems like the previous J-20 prototypes were all part of the technology demonstrator phase of the program. This new prototype features some changes like redesigned intakes, installation of nose mounted EOTS, smaller wing actuators, clipped tail fins, frame strengthened canopy and frameless holographic HUD. It is said that unless major problems are found in this prototype, the changes before the production version will be minimal. The changes in this prototype explains why we had such a long wait until this prototype. This prototype had its first low-speed taxi test on the 16th. I think it will not make its maiden flight until sometimes after Chinese New Years. Here are two comparisons of No. 2011 vs previous J-20 Prototype No. 2002 from different view. In both cases, No. 2011 is the one on the bottom

In the naval side of things, there are some rumours that I think is probably fairly accurate. It is said that Dalian shipyard will probably start the construction of the first domestic carrier. I would expect it to look very similar to CV-16 Liaoning. Dalian shipyard is also expected to start work on the 052D project (if it hasn't already). Previously, Dalian and JN shipyard have both been the shipyards responsible for building larger surface ships designated in the destroyer class for PLAN, so it's not surprising that they will be participating in the 052D project. The production run of the 052D class is now estimated to hit 12 ships. 4 of which will be produced by Dalian shipyard and the other 8 will be by JN shipyard. We know that 3 052Ds have already been launched at JN shipyard. Based on the current rate of production and commissioning, all of 052Ds from JN shipyard will probably be handed over to PLAN by around the end of 2016. It is likely that the Type 055 project will start before then. All of the above are from a pretty good source, but things could obviously change before then.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Things to look out for that don't show up in the headlines

When it comes to PLA watching, there are the developments that get people excited and also the developments that people just don't care about. Many of the latter developments are in that category because they don't really improve the combat capabilities of PLA that much. However, there are selected developments that I think are pretty important and are not being talked about enough.

The first of which is the Type 081 MCM class of ships. Up until recently, PLAN had a very old fleet consisted mostly of the 50s era Type 6605 and Type 6610 minesweeper and several smaller Type 082 minesweepers that entered service in the early 80s. Clearly, this MCM force badly needed newer technology. Since the PLAN modernization begun in the last decade, we have seen the new Type 081 minesweeper and the Type 082 II minehunter entering service. The latter gets more press because it is uses the latest sonar technology, ROVs and remote controlled drone ships. Type 081 is your typical 90s era minesweeper with different types of sweeps. It has become PLAN's work horse in MCM operations within the first island chain. In the first wave, 4 Type 081s (805, 810, 839 and 840) were built. By late 2011, we saw No. 841, the 5th Type 081, launched in JN shipyard. Since then, we've had 4 more Type 081 (842, 843, 844, 845) that have been launched and either joined or close to join PLAN. Which means 5 Type 081s were launched in the period of less than 2 years. This building pace is as impressive as any we have seen in PLAN. Only Type 056s have had more launches in the past 2 years, but Type 081s are complicated ships with smaller number of replace. As a whole, Type 081 is not expected to be part of blue water fleet, but it will still be very important in any possible conflicts around China.

The other naval class that I don't think is getting enough attention is the Type 903 class of AOR ships. The first two of this class (No. 886 and 887) were commissioned in 2004. They and no. 885 have allowed PLAN to make these long blue water missions that they were not making a decade ago. They have been especially important in the Gulf of Aden missions due to the lack of blue water AORs in PLAN. Seeing the need for this, 2 new Type 903s (No. 889 and 890) were commissioned this past year. They should be just as important as the first two in PLAN's quest to become a blue water navy. It looks like Guangzhou shipyard has recently started to build a new AOR. It's not clear if the new one will still be Type 903. Maybe they will need to be larger to support a carrier group in the future, but we often overlook the important of the replenishment ship when looking at the missiles on a combat ship. In the aviation projects, the first one I look at is JH-7B. From all of the rumblings over the holidays, we have finally seen the pictures of JH-7B for the first time. According to huitong's link, it has been test flying in CFTE for a over a year. There have also been a lot of speculations about this over the years, but it never compares to some of the other programs like J-16 or J-10B. Or else, we would probably have seen pictures of JH-7B for overly eager military fanboys from outside the air fields. The external changes on JH-7B seems to be minimal compared to what we've seen with J-10A to J-10B. It looks to have a retractable IFR and strengthened wing structure to carry the heavier payloads. One would surmise that the biggest changes are going to be the avionics and the weapons that it will be carrying. At this point, JH-7B sounds like a PLANAF project (just like the original JH-7 was), whereas PLAAF has embraced the J-16 platform. While I don't think too many additional regiment in PLANAF will be converted to JH-7, its appearance will bring additional strike fighters with long range (vs fighter jets) and the ability to carry potent new AShM, LACM and ASM to threaten all neighboring naval forces. In addition, some of the technology from the program could be used to upgrade the existing JH-7/A in service with both PLANAF and PLAAF.

Another other programs that have been flying under the radar are the non-AWACS versions of the high new program. Recently, we have seen the newer units of these programs been built with the Y-9 airframe. This development makes a lot of sense, since Shannxi AC had been using two separate lines to build Y-8 Category III platforms for KJ-200, ASW variant of Y-8 and Y-8 Category II platform for the remaining ones. Recently, we have started seeing High New 7 program with Y-9. This will likely happen with all of the remaining High new programs and the new KJ-500 AWACS program. The high new programs have provided force multiplier kind of capabilities to PLAAF and PLANAF. The ones built on a newer Y-9 platform will have greater range, endurance and comfort. All of which should continue to improve PLA's C4ISR capabilities in surrounding theaters.

These are just a handful of programs that don't get noticed as much. We have seen a lot of exciting aviation development over the holiday season such as the appearance of Prototype No. 2011 of J-20, the first production versions of J-15 and J-10B, the first flight of Z-20, photos of JH-7B and appearance of YJ-12 missile. I had wanted to explore all of that, but I will have to leave it for another day.