Sunday, September 20, 2015

J-20 and more thoughts on 5th generation projects

Most recently, a 7th prototype of J-20 project (No. 2016) appeared and made its maiden flight on September 18th. It’s been 9 months since the last prototype had come out, so this new prototype is a sign that the program has not hit any major stumbling block and was just going through the next iteration in its development. As a refresher, 2 prototypes (No. 2001 and No. 2002) came out and flew in 2011. They were probably the demonstrators of this program. Over 2 and half years later, the 3rd J-20 prototype (No. 2011) came out and was followed by 3 more prototypes (No. 2012, 2013 and 2015). They had some major redesign and changes compared to the demonstrators. So they should be considered the first pre-production prototypes and were probably produced in the same batch. CAC and CFTE have been testing them since that time. I expect that more J-20 prototypes will be coming out in the next few months, since they seem to be building them in batches on this and past CAC project. Compared to the last batch of J-20s, the most noticeable changes have been on the DSI bump and the engine nacelle. The DSI bump looks to be a little larger and people have speculated that some EW equipment may be installed inside. From the relatively few changes between the batches, one can surmise that the J-20 design is more or less frozen.

Indeed, there have already been speculations that the first production J-20s will come out next year to be tested and evaluated by FTTC. While I think that is certainly possible, I think it is also best to tamper one’s expectations and expect some problems along the way. Every 5th generation projects so far have experienced some bumps along the way. The PAK-FA project had fire on one of its prototypes and still has not flown a new prototype since. IAF have continually complained recent years about the technology and progress of PAK-FA. The F-22 and F-35 projects are far more open, so there were many reports of issues along the way. One would expect J-20 to encounter similar issues along the way even if those reports only come out in the rumour mills of Chinese military forums.

With everything that we can see, I think that CAC has been doing a great job with the J-20 project. At this point, I already consider J-20 project to be ahead of PAK-FA in both the design and timelines. In terms of design and technology, J-20 looks to be better configured for stealth from most profiles vs PAK-FA. The next generation AESA radar and the rest of electronic suite are already been deployed J-10B/C and J-16 compared to lack of such Russians platforms. Even the next generation missiles (like PL-10 and PL-15) seem to be further along in development and deployment than similar Russian systems. PAK-FA only seems to be using a more advanced engine at this phase of testing. Considering that the Russians started to research on 5th gen fighter jet in the 80s and first flew PAK-FA a year earlier than J-20, this does not speak very well of Russia’s aerospace industry.

For the past year or two, I’ve read numerous articles coming out of India that complained about the technology, cost and lack of their work share in the PAK-FA project. Since then, there was a fire on one of the PAK-FA prototypes when they were giving a flight demonstration to Indian delegation and have not shown a new prototype since. There have also been numerous online posts about the build problems and quality issues with those prototypes. Now most recently, I’ve also seen a report where India is thinking of pulling out participation in the development of PAK-FA and just buying them straight out of Russia. They probably realized Russia was unwilling to share its most sensitive secrets so they needed to devote more of their R&D resources on their domestic project MCA. At the same time, it also appears that some in IAF is favouring for purchase of more Rafael and less PAK-FA. There are numerous components of PAK-FA project like stealth and propulsion, which are not up to par with the standard established by F-22. If the leap in technology over Rafael is not big, then it makes all the sense to buy the more of the mature platform. Of course, that could also create a disastrous scenario for IAF if J-20 and FC-31 turn out to be much better than Rafael.

If all goes well, J-20 looks to join service in a couple of years. This version of J-20 will be quite underpowered and have to wait a few years before getting WS-15 engine. That would be the next major change for J-20. It looks like the second demonstrator or first pre-production prototype of FC-31 may be coming out soon. I think most people expect some significant changes vs the first demonstrator. In the recent years, CAC has devoted most of its resources on J-20, whereas other projects like J-10B/C have been a little slow in development. SAC is tasked with the development of numerous flanker variants and UAVs. It may not be able to devote the same amount of resource on FC-31 project, so I would expect the progress on FC-31 to be slower than J-20. Even if FC-31 becomes ready several years after J-20, it may still become available to export market at the same time as PAK-FA (after Russian and Indian orders). So I think FC-31 could capture a good chunk of the non F-35 market.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

More on Yuan submarine.

Recently, I saw a good article that Chris Carlson posted on USNI regarding Yuan Submarine. Although I have not attempted to do any GE measurement of Yuan that I had done with 093 class, I find his assessment on the size of the Yuan submarine to be well done. I previously would have estimated the ratio of Yuan's beam to that of Song at higher than 8.4 to 7.5 based on photos, but he uses a very thorough approach, so I will accept his numbers until anything else comes up.

On the topic of China using Yuan as an anti-ship cruise missile platform, I think he is also on the money here vs the other USNI author. At this point, China has put a lot of investment into different types of torpedoes whereas much less noise have been made about submarine launched anti-ship missiles, so I think their preferred method of attack on surface ships is going to be through blowing a whole underneath rather than hitting something on the midsection. There have not been any sighting of submarine launched anti-ship subsonic missile that's newer than YJ-82. On top of that, it's highly unlikely YJ-18 is designed to be launched from torpedo tube. With the specs of Chinese navy's new CCL VLS system, I think the diameter of YJ-18 is likely to be larger than 53 cm which is the requirement to fit inside the torpedo tube.

And I'm waiting for his article with Andrew Erickson regarding Chinese supersonic ASCMs to come out.

Victory Parade and Chinese politics

Most recently, China had a Victory parade to celebrate the 70th anniversary of war against Japan. As part of this parade, China rolled out its latest ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, armored vehicles, UAVs, helicopters, fighter jets and special missions aircraft. All of the displayed weapon systems are believed to be in service. For the first time, China publicly displayed DF-21D and DF-26, which are the ballistic missiles designed for attacking moving targets like a carrier. Certainly, I have posted numerous blog entries in the past regarding China’s ASBM program and the challenges around it, so this has always been an area of interest for PLA followers. We have now seen these ASBM missiles on display and know that it is in active service. What we don’t know is how good China is at finding a fast moving carrier group in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, tracking it and then engaging it. Certainly for a missile DF-26 which will have longer range and higher re-entry speed than DF-21D, the engineering challenge of finding carrier upon re-entry and maneuvering to hit something that can move at greater than 30 knots is very daunting task. They also displayed DF-5B, which is China’s first public display of an ICBM with multiple nuclear warheads. The parade also displayed the DF-10A LACM (land based version of KD-20 LACM) and various other short and medium ranged ballistic missiles. The second artillery certainly had a field day at this military parade. Comparing this to the pictures from China’s military parade in 1984, it was quite interesting how backward they were back then. It still had the same nationalistic tone and show of strength from all the Chinese leaders.

Behind all of this, it’s a time of uncertainty and worry for the current Chinese leadership. China’s major leaders of past and present were all there (even ones I didn’t realize was still alive) to present a united front. By this point, most people have seen the crash of Chinese stock market. The Chinese economy has also slowed down a lot by this point. Nobody can predicate what will happen there or anywhere else, but these parades are used to show the power and accomplishments of the communist party and distract people from the worries of economic and other problems. I’ve read numerous articles on the politics of recent events. While I’m not sure about their accuracy, it does paint a picture where the younger generation of leaders is still battling the older generation in their efforts to carry out reforms. China’s previous paramount leader Hu Jintao was quite limited in his power due to the continued influence of his predecessor Jiang Zemin. It seemed like the leadership of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang would get more freedom in their efforts to bring a more market based economy to China since taking control 2 years ago. Reading about their pilot free trade zone in Shanghai, the attempted deleveraging of the credit bubble and wider trading band of RMB, I have gotten the feeling that Li Keqiang has some pretty good ideas about resolving some of the problems in the Chinese economy. In the past couple of month with the worsening stock market and rapidly slowing economy, you can really see a lot of his moves getting reversed. (If you listened to any of Donald Trump’s speech recently, you would hear about the greatest one-day devaluation of RMB of 2%.) To clear up certain misconceptions before we continue: China does have its own foreign exchange market similar to EBS, which allows RMB to be freely traded within the 2% daily band for entities inside China. It just has capital control preventing money from easily flowing outside the country (like Brazil, Korea, India and numerous other nations), so does not appear free-floating to outsiders.

Throughout PRC’s history, elderly members of the politburo have been more reluctant toward reform efforts. Even when the all-powerful Deng Xiaoping was pushing his reforms in the 80s, other party elders like Chen Yun and Li Xiannian limited Deng’s efforts as soon as troubles started. The most reform minded Chinese leaders of their day Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang were pushed out and humiliated after the student protests of 1987 and then the infamous 1989 TianAnMen Square protests. In a functional economy, we have the boom and bust cycle where credit expand during the boom and contract during bust causing problems in the economy. The bust part of cycle allows the inefficiencies and ailments of the economy to be removed. It is natural for any reform and deleveraging economic efforts to cause a period of economic and social problems. The last time China really allowed the bust to happen is during the Asian economic crisis of 1997 and 1998 when the inefficient state owned enterprises were allowed to fail. At the time, unemployment rate, early retirement and crime rate skyrocketed in the country. The FaLanGong movement arose during this period. Since then, China enjoyed 10 years of good economic growth, a slowdown in 2008 and another 6 years of economic growth. While this was happening, it has been accumulating unsustainable amount of debt and credit creation.

In May of 1989, Zhao Ziyang, who was nominally China’s president at the time, told the visiting Soviet leader Gorbachev that he was not really in charge of China in real decision-making. After taking over in 1987 from Hu, Zhao needed to survive 10 years against the pressures of the conservatives inside the politburo, but lasted less than 2 years after refusing to participate in crushing the student movement. Since then, most of the reform efforts have been economically related and is badly needed in China right now. If reform minded leaders inside the day-to-day leadership get pushed every time there is a setback and become blamed by the elders for economic problems, it’s hard for me to see how this new generation of leaders can get anything done while Jiang Zemin and Li Peng are alive and functioning. Looking beyond China’s display of military power in this parade, China’s biggest threat to the world is an economic crash that slows down its major trade partners and vacation destinations.