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.


mepal1 said...

Regarding come there is no mention of prototype '2014'?....just curious.

Feng said...

We have not seen it, so it does not exist as a flying one right now.