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.