Sunday, December 25, 2016

Notable things from 2016

This was a year of many major events for PLAAF and PLAN. This was the year that China came a major or even dominant exporter of UAVs and dramatically expanded its activities in South China Sea with the installation of HQ-9 SAMs. I will look into and review activities from different departments.

This year, PLAN declared that CV-16 is finally combat ready. Throughout much of the year, we saw that the intensity of the flight operations were going up. By the end of the year, CV-16 went on a major exercise where it did much live firing exercises. During this exercise, PLAN went through a much more intensive flight activity with J-15s set up to takeoff in rapid succession. We saw as many as 13 J-15s and 1 Z-18 on board CV-16. The J-15s have been carrying anti-ship missiles as well as anti-air missiles. One of them was even carrying a UPAZ-1A refueling pod. This is the largest air wing we have ever seen on board CV-16. It's hard to say how many more aircraft could even be fit on board CV-16, since Admiral Kuznetsov class has rarely gone with its full complement of aircraft. At this point, at least 21 J-15s that have gone into service by now, so many more could be in the hangar area awaiting takeoff. As this was happening, Type 001A, the first domestically produced carrier, was slowly taking shape in Dalian shipyard. As expected, Type 001A CV-17 looks to be the exact replica of CV-16 in dimensions. CV-17's island is a little smaller than that of CV-16 from what we can see. I also would expect the interior of the carrier to be refined and improved from CV-16. And finally, the CATOBAR variant of J-15 (J-15A) flew for the first time, being powered by WS-10H engines. The 2nd domestic carrier, Type 002, is expected to be a CATOBAR carrier.

As carrier activity heated up this year, more and more blue water surface combatants also joined service. The first Type 055 modules were photographed from JN shipyard this year. They probably won't be launched until 2nd half of next year, so we do not know their exact sizes yet. I wrote an entry previously on how I think Type 055 will look like. Initially, at least 2 Type 055s have been identified at JN shipyard. There has not been any Type 055 modules at Dalian shipyard, but I would expect it to also participate. A new series like Type 055 comes with more risks, so Type 052D construction continues to be very hectic. No. 117, the 5th 052D, was shown in the past month in North Sea Fleet. Basically, we have a full flotilla of 4 052Ds in service with South Sea Fleet and another one that is about to join service. Aside from that, at least 2 more 052Ds are on sea trials and another 4 are fitting out at the shipyards (2 at Dalian and 2 at JN). The 052D production run seems to already have reached more units than I expected (which was 12). A lot of progress was also made among the destroyers going through extensive weapon system upgrades. The lone Type 051B destroyer, No. 167, recently went out for sea trials after long period of time in the shipyard. A lot of progress has also been made in No. 136, the first Sov destroyer. It will be interesting to see the exact upgrades that have been performed over the next year.

Of the remaining surface combatants, the production run for Type 054A appears to be coming to a close. Only 2 Type 054As joined service earlier this year with 2 more ready to join service soon. Both HP and HD shipyard will move to other projects after the current batch is completed. They have both been very active with Type 056 production, as have Wuchang and LiaoNan shipyard. At least 6 Type 056s have already joined service this year. Up to this point, at least 40 of them have at least been launched. About 12 to 13 Type 056s have been identified in both HP and HD shipyard, with another 9+ have been identified in each of the other 2. There may be 60 Type 056s by the end of its production run. There does seem to a lull in the production of larger ships. There were 1 Type 071 LPD, 1 Type 815A AGI and 3 Type 903A AOR joining service in the earlier part of this year, but HD shipyard hasn't launched any other large naval ships recently. PLAN may be moving on from these series of ships to newer classes. The first Type 901 AOR was launched at GSI shipyard and has recently gone on sea trials. It is much larger than Type 903A and far more suited for supplying a carrier group. There is also the rumoured Type 075 LHD class which should be noticed soon. I expect HD shipyard to carry the task of building this series. It remains to be seen if an upgrade Type 071A LPD will also start production. Production of Type 081 minesweeper and Type 082II minehunters also seemed to have drawn to a close.

As I look at PLAN this year, the focus has mainly been on the development of carrier group. A lot of time and effort have been devoted to the construction of new carrier and building up naval aviation fleet. Type 055 and Type 056 series have also enjoyed a lot of attention, but other areas have begun to slow down. It appears that numerous branches of PLAN surface combatants have finished hardware modernization. PLAN is continuing to develop a fleet with more fire power and blue water capability. It should not be surprising that areas like MCM fleet, medium sized AORs, AGI fleet and icebreakers slowing down production after a while. Even PLAN's fleet of frigates have mostly completed modernization now that Type 054/As have taken over all the major flotilla.

While PLAN's marquee project was making significant progress, PLAAF's marquee project J-20 also experienced much progress this year. The first LRIP version of J-20 appeared at the end of last year and made it's maiden flight this year. As the year went on, more photos of LRIP J-20 appeared. They were tested carrying various different missiles, fuel tanks and other ordinances. By the time of Zhuhai Airshow, J-20 made its first public appearance in a fly by. Not much was shown, but that is expected for a fighter jet that has yet to complete all of its flight and weapon testing. By the end of this year, FTTC formed a new 176th brigade for the first 6 J-20s to begin the process of expanding its flight envelope and developing tactics and training programs. The first 2 J-20s were officially handed over this month, but there have already been rumours of DACT between J-20 and 3rd generation fighter jet. Much of the rumours sounded like the early stories of F-22 vs F-15/18, so I will be keeping an eye out for more stories like this in 2017. At this point, it looks like J-20 will achieve IOC in 2017, which is just 6 years after it's first flight and 3 years after the first flight of No. 2011. A whole new series of missiles have been developed for J-20. J-10B/C are already in service with PESA/AESA radar along with a new generation of integrated avionics and combat system. One would imagine J-20 would be much further along, but it's unknown how that would compare to F-35 (often referred to as a flying computer). Either way, the largest question mark left for J-20 is its propulsion. WS-15 is still a couple of years away from design certification. Therefore, the initial J-20s are flying with under powered engines. It may be a while longer before we get details on exactly what kind of engines are powering these early J-20s. The J-31 project appears to have fallen much first behind. There were numerous reports in this year that both PLAAF and PLAN have rejected the current iteration of this aircraft. It looks like SAC is continuing to privately fund this project and recently flew the second prototype. Since J-20 is unlikely to be purchased in large number (probably in similar numbers of F-22), there will be a requirement for a lower cost 5th generation fighter jet. SAC is building a limited number of prototypes to continue to showcase an improved demonstrator. At some point, it is hoping to capture more funding from PLA in order to really ramp up the development work for J-31. It would be a sad day for SAC if it looses both the light 5th gen aircraft and 2nd generation naval aircraft project to CAC.

The other major news in PLAAF this year was the entry into service of Y-20 transport. Two Y-20s were handed over to the first 4th division in June. More Y-20s may have been handed over by the end of the year. Ramping up the production of an aircraft the size of Y-20 is no easy task. Even Airbus and Boeing experience much difficulties in ramping up production level of new aircraft like A350 and B787 while trying to lower the production cost at the same time. I don't think Y-20 production needs to reach that level, but it will be a big challenge for XAC to go from building 1 Y-20 every 2 months to 2 Y-20s every month. The Y-20 platform is badly needed in PLAAF for various missions, so it's critical for XAC to be able to ramp up Y-20 production. Until then, PLAAF is reliant on 3 IL-78s and some H6U for refueling + various Y-8/9s for special mission platform. On the major question of propulsion, I think the initial batch is equipped with WS-18 engine. WS-20 seems to have already done a lot of testing, so it may be ready to equip Y-20 in the near future.

As J-20 captured all of the spotlight this year, J-10C production has continued int he background. After the first batch of 55 J-10B was produced, there probably will be around that many J-10Cs being produced in this second batch. As many as 4 J-10B/C regiments have been formed on top of the J-10B/Cs servicing with 2 different FTTC brigades. Currently, close to 40 J-10s are produced every year. At the same time, the deal for 24 Su-35s with Russia was finally agreed to. The first Su-35 appears to have been delivered in the last couple of days. I know a lot of Chinese military fans are wondering why this was signed. It seems like PLAAF prefers Su-35 over J-11D and wanted another flanker regiment in the air superiority missions in service. Development work for J-11D has continued. It's major improvements over J-11B seems to be all related to electronics, so I don't think it should take too long for this aircraft to join service. Work on J-16 has also continued. A recent photo showed a second batch of J-16s under construction at SAC. Some from the first batch appears to be going through the testing process at FTTC. I have yet to confirm an official J-16 regiment. On the whole, SAC continues to look a step slower than CAC in production and development. It took a good 5 years (2008 to 2013) to go from J-10B's first flight to joining service with PLAAF. It took the same number of years for J-11B to go from first flight in 2002 to joining service with 2007. All of this happened while CAC had to divert precious resources to the J-20 project. More recently, it seems like CAC moved from J-10B to J-10C a lot more smoothly than SAC from J-11B to J-11D. In both cases, the major changes were all related to avionics and combat system. At some point, production version of J-10s will finally move to using WS-10 series of engines. The original WS-10 engines finally achieved production certification this year, which is quite a huge milestone. A couple of J-10Bs were fitted with WS-10B engines at the end of the first batch, but the J-10Cs have continued to be equipped with AL-31FN. The upgraded WS-10G engine, aka WS-10IPE?, supposedly achieved design certification year, so we should be seeing it join service soon. There are some speculations that we will a J-10D variant with this engine and some other upgrades, but that is to be seen. And finally, WS-13E engine achieved design certification this year. The second FC-31 prototype may be powered by this engine. It could also be used to power JF-17 and UCAV projects. So, I think this is one development that should be carefully watched.

In all of the remaining areas, I think the explosion of UAV/UCAV exports this year has been quite fascinating. The CH series have now becomes the AK-47s of drones. Many of the middle Eastern countries have purchased some Chinese UAVs and put them into action. It remains to be seen which of the UAV prototypes tested in CAC and SAC airfields in the recent years will be put into service with PLA. There have also been a lot of movements on both army and naval helicopter forces. Most recently, Z-15 had its maiden flight with WZ-16 engine. This helicopter is expected to make its way into PLA at some point. Z-20 helicopter has been going through a lot of testing and may still be a couple of years away. China had been lacking a non attack helicopter between the 4 and 13 ton class for the longest time. Now, it will have two in a couple of years when both Z-15 and Z-20 are ready. They may not be both needed. Z-10 and Z-19 have continued to proliferate with Army Aviation. A more power attack helicopter is said to be under development. Newer turboshaft (WZ-10 and WZ-16) are now available as part of Z-15 and Z-20 project which could be used to power such an attack helo. Various Z-8 and Z-18 helicopter versions have shown up on CV-16 and Type 071 LPD. They are the mainstays of larger ships. The Kamov and Z-9C series of helicopters are still the work horses of PLAN rotary aviation forces for the destroyers and frigates. At some point, these helicopters will need to be replaced since Z-9Cs are too small whereas Ka-28s are too old.

In many ways, PLAAF have grown in more areas than PLAN this year. Aerospace engine remains an area which holds back most PLAAF projects. The progress of J-20 projects has surprised many people. The Y-20 EIS is also very significant. Z-20 is also very far along in its production testing. After J-20, Z-20 and Y-20 join service, the final major ticket item is the H-20 bomber project. Can China go from a bomb truck like H-6K to a subsonic fly wing design similar to B-2. Of all the major ticket items, this appears to be the most challenging of all.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

J-20 and other news from Zhuhai Air Show

China made it official this week that J-20 is coming to Zhuhai air show. All of this is quite interesting when one compares this to how long before J-10 made its first visit to Zhuhai Air Show. Clearly, China has taken a more confident and transparent approach in its military programs in the past 10 years. At this point, J-20 has started Low rate initial production batches, but has yet to achieve IOC. To that end, AVIC must be confident enough in the progress of flight-testing program to allow J-20 to appear in China’s most prominent aerospace exhibition.

A couple of years ago, PAK-FA had an epic failure when one of the prototypes had fire damage while delivering a flight performance in front of IAF officials. Certainly, the pilots were most likely instructed to put on a show to impress PAK-FA’s largest export client, but the aircraft was also clearly not up to task. The result of that embarrassing incident was extensive delays in the flight-testing program while that prototype was getting repaired. More recently, Russia finally officially adjusted the initial induction of PAK-FA to 2018. It had been obvious for quite a long time that they were not going to make end of 2016, since the fixed up prototype and new prototypes have just recently surfaced. I have not kept up to the progress of J-20 units, but it seems like the first LRIP frames may have already arrived at FTTC. FTTC should very soon start training with this new aircraft. IOC may be achieved by late next year. Of course, engine remains to be a major concern for the J-20 program. It’s still not known at this point what is powering aircraft. It would seem to be a special variant of AL-31FN, but this will be an interim solution until WS-15 is ready. At its induction, J-20 will be quite underpowered.

Aside from J-20, other big-ticket items like J-10B, KJ-500, Y-20, Z-10K and H-6K will all be physically displayed in the air show. Since a real J-10B came, the serial number was finally allowed to show. Maybe after this appearance, China will allow J-10B pictures to be published without the serial numbers photoshoped. Zhuhai air show has traditionally been an occasion for China to show its latest UAV and missiles (many of which are still in conceptual stage). It will certainly be the case again this time around. While we have already seen well know UAVs like CH-5 and Wing Loong-2, we are also seeing new concepts that could very well make their mark in the export market. The latest one we saw is Cloud Shadow UAV which looks a lot like SkyWing UAVs that have already test flied.

Finally, a recent national day parade in Turkmenistan showed that all of its SAMs, missiles, radar systems and UAVs are all imported from China. All of this is quite unexpected since Turkmenistan has traditionally been under the overwhelming presence and influence of Russia. At this point, China is clearly making inroads against Russia in many export markets.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Looking at cruisers and Type 055

When I read Pop3’s comments that an initial estimate of the Type 055 design’s displacement was over 20,000 ton, the first thought that came to my mind was Kirov class cruiser. Since the retirement of Iowa class, Kirov has been by far the largest non-carrier surface combatant. There has been numerous estimate of Type 055 size based on the land simulator in Wuhan. I want to look over cruisers from around the world and comparing them to what Type 055 might look like.

The first one to look at is Kirov class cruiser, which was built around the P-700 Shipwreck AShM. It is estimated to be 252 m long, 28.5 m in beam and 9.1 m draft for full load displacement of 28,000 ton. In order to achieve 30+ knots in speed, it was installed with nuclear and steam turbine propulsion (CONAS). As one could imagine, the propulsion unit takes up a lot of space. In terms of missiles, Kirov is installed with 20 P-700 AShM, 96 S-300F long range SAM, 128 SA-N-9 short range SAM and 40 SA-N-4 point defense SAM. It is also installed with 8 AK-630 or 6 Kashtan CIWS for last-ditch defense. And finally, it has one AK-130 main gun, ASW rocket launchers and torpedo tube launched torpedoes. At 20 knots operating on nuclear power, it has unlimited range. This allows Kirov class to operate by itself far from home base. However, such design requires additional storage space that would not be expected out of a normal surface combatant.

At the same time that Kirov was being built, the smaller conventionally powered Slava class Cruiser was also being built around the P-500 Bazalt AShM. It is estimated to be 186 m long, 20.8 m in beam and 8.4 m draft for full load displacement of 12,500 ton. In terms of missiles, Slava class is installed with 16 P-500 P-500 AShM, 64 S-300F long range SA and 40 SA-N-4 point Short range SAM. It is also installed with 6 AK-630 CIWS and a AK-130 main gun.

Looking at Slava class, I think it’s quite obvious why China was not interested in purchasing the almost completed 4th unit (Ukrayina) when the Ukrainians offered it for S600 million. The much smaller 051C carries 48 S-300F missiles (using 1 Top Dome FCR instead of 2 on Slava) along with 2 PJ-12 CIWS for air defense. Having a pair of 051Cs probably offers stronger area air defense than 1 Slava class. More importantly, 052C/052D has become a major success compared to the slightly larger, but less powerful 051C class. The size of the S-300F VLS along with the large and bulky top dome FCR took away the option of installing a hangar on 051C.

Turning our eyes away from former Soviet cruisers, KDX-3 is another very powerful cruiser currently in service. It is 165 m long, 21.4 m in beam and 6.25 m in draft for full load displacement of 11,000 tons. It is installed with 4 LM-2500 gas turbines along with 2 shafts in COGAG configuration allowing for 30+ knots in speed. In terms of missiles, it has 80 cell MK-41 VLS and 48 cell K-VLS for Korean LACM and ASROC. It is also equipped with 1 Goalkeeper CIWS and 1 RAM CIWS for point defense. And finally, it has a MK-45 main fun and 2 triple barrel torpedoes.

The Arleigh Burke class has similar layout to KDX-3. Flight IIA is 155 m long, 20 m wide and 9.3 m in draft for full load of 10,000 ton. It is also installed with COGAG propulsion (4 LM-2500 turbine + 2 shafts) and capable of 30+ knots. In terms of armament, it’s installed with 96 cell MK-41 VLS, 1 MK-45 main gun, Phalanx CIWS and 2 triple barrel torpedoes. It also carries hangars for 2 MH-60 helicopters for ASW/SAR missions.

I think the 4 examples show that the Soviet system is bulkier. Similarly sized cruisers like Slava class does not carry anywhere near the firepower of Arleigh Burke class or KDX-3. The Cold launched S-300F has many advantages over hot launched MK-41 VLS, but also takes up more space and has less flexibility. The combined nuclear/gas turbine and steam turbine option on Soviet cruisers are likely to take up more space than the COGAG arrangements on Arleigh Burke class. Most of the electronics on older Soviet cruisers are heavier. The most visible proof of that can be seen in the FCR for S-300F, which takes up much more space than SPY-1D.

So I think it’s quite obvious that PLAN will go for something similar to KDX-3 than Kirov class. Type 055 should be a much stealthier design than that, since newer AAW destroyers like Type 045 have set blueprints on how to design really stealthy warships. As we spoke in previous blog entries, Type 055 will most likely be using 4 QC-280 gas turbines to generate power for an integrated electric propulsion system. It will use the universal VLS already found on 052D, since it will support both the cold launched and hot launched naval missiles in service with PLAN. Type 055 is probably going to hold 112 or 128 cell VLS with no additional launchers for LACM or AShM. In addition, I think it will carry 2 HQ-10 launchers along with 1 or 2 PJ-11 CIWS for point defense. For a large ship like Type 055, PLAN may also have helipad space and hangar space for 2 Z-15 or Z-20 sized helicopters. All of which would call for a ship that’s probably larger than Arleigh Burke class and probably also KDX-3 class. I would estimate it to be around 175 m long and 22 m wide with full load displacement of around 13000 ton.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Type 055 program update

While reading pop3’s various posts on Type 055, I was struck by how long this project has been planned.

As far back as 1968, the Type 055 designation was given to a new large missile destroyer program. By 1970, the701 Institute, Hudong shipyard and NSF commenced work to develop this ship. As one could imagine, China did not have the money or technology needed to develop a large missile destroyer back in those days. By 1981, this program went from an official program to one under research development. Back in the 80s, many PLAN program was dropped due to underfunding and weak technology base. Type 055 program from that time would’ve required CODOG propulsion, ASW helicopter, ECM/ESM system, SAM, sonar countermeasure system, integrated communication system, 3D search radar and rocket assisted torpedo. Those requirements were probably 20 years ahead of its time. If they had built a cruiser, it would’ve been as large as Kirov to fit all of the missiles and electronics that were available at the time. They would not have the propulsion system needed to power such a ship. Even if they did have the appropriate propulsion system, that ship would still not be very capable. That’s why China ended up developing Type 052 destroyer.

The most recent reincarnation of Type 055 came about in December of 2009. The project calls for 10k+ ton cruiser with high speed, long endurance, long self-sufficiency and excellent global navigation. It would be a stealthy design with lo acoustic, radar, infrared and electromagnetic signature. It will need to be survivable by itself and be able to lead a fleet. It must have early warning defense system as well as long, medium and close range hard+soft kill weapons. So many requirements were included in the Type 055 design that an initial design was estimated to be over 20,000 ton in displacement. A lot of work was put in to reduce redundancies and complexities in order to better utilize space. For example, the new universal VLS system supports 4 different types of missiles from 4 different firms. Each firm has their own control system, so all of this need to be integrated into one system. In addition, Type 055 will use integrated electric propulsion system, which has smaller space requirements, lower noise level and better fuel economy than previous power generation system. Pop3 estimated the cost of each Type 055, excluding missiles, to be about 6 billion RMB ($900 million). I think that’s reasonable since it’s comparable to what South Korea paid for KDX-3 and quite a bit less than what Japan paid for Atago class. While Type 055 may turn out to be better (or at least more powerful) than those 2 classes of ships, I have a hard time making that prediction at this stage.

Type 055 will be China’s first major large surface combatant series since Type 052 series. On SDF, Jeff Head start a thread on 052 Historical analysis and put some great thoughts on the history of this program. The overall dimension and propulsion of the type 052 platform did not change too much from Type 052 to Type 052D, but the firepower increased exponentially to become a truly capable multi-role destroyer. Now that Type 052D has been packed in with the most recent Type 346A MFR, 64 cell universal VLS, HQ-10 and PJ-38 main gun, it is probably at the limit of what the Type 052 hull could fill. PLAN is developing Type 055 to be a blue water large surface combatant that can defend itself against many different threats. Type 055 will also probably go through different iteration until reaching the limit of what the initial dimension and propulsion system could support. Comparing to the development of Type 052, Type 055 contains much fewer risks, since most of the weapons (universal VLS, Type 346A radar, HQ-10 and PJ-11 CIWS, YJ-18A AShM and PJ-38 main gun) have already been tested out on Type 052D and Type 054A+. Using relatively mature weapon and radar systems would significantly reduce this type of delays to commissioning of the ship. The 701 Institute has also built a full sized land based simulator of Type 055, which will allow training programs to start before the first unit is launched. Such a real world model would also identify any unexpected results in signature profile and any electronic interference. All of this would reduce the amount of troubleshooting when the first Type 055 gets launched. The Type 052 program never had this kind of luxury, since PLAN was dealing with integrating imported subsystems from different countries at the same time a new hull with new propulsion system was getting tested. No. 113 also uses different propulsion than No. 112 since arms embargo went into affect by then. All of this added a lot of delays to the Type 052 program. I think it’s really interesting to see how much things have changed in 25 years.

PLAN modernization philosophy

Most recently, I have been reading writings from pop3, a good source for PLAN, on the upcoming Type 055 cruiser. At the same, I have also been reading and discussing the issue of India’s purchase of Rafael fighter jet. While reading pop3’s thoughts on PLAN development leading up to Type 055, it made me really reflect on PLAN’s philosophy in its drive to modernization.

When the news of India’s purchase of Rafael came out, I was quite surprised by how much money they are paying for just 36 Rafael. Of course, India’s leaders were eager to point out they had haggled down price from over $13 billion to over $8 billion. That claim would ignore that the original MRCA rfp was to purchase 126 fighter jets for $8 billion. Even so, it was quite shocking that when they finally settled on direct purchase of 36 Rafael, the average total cost came out to be well over $200 million. If they had actually gotten all ToT and local production from Dassault as they had originally wanted, the cost would undoubtedly have been even higher. If we ignore the service, support, missiles and spare cost of this deal, the fly away cost + “India modification work” would still come out to $160 million per aircraft. I think that would be higher than the fly away cost of F-35, J-20 and probably PAK-FA. For an air force that has continually complained about lack of available squadrons, it seems very curious that price was not a bigger factor in its MRCA competition. To be fair, India is not the only country in the world that ends up paying premium for the weapon system that best fit its performance criteria.

I think that most people would agree PLAN has done a really good job of modernization up to this point. They have managed to do so with little access to Western exporters and relatively weak technology base (at least back in the 90s). At the same time, PLAN also had very limited funding for much of 80s and 90s. The question is what I have they done right to get to this point. It certainly helps that they have a productive domestic shipbuilding industry and low cost manufacturing base. South Korea and Japan have also been able to build very powerful ships at reasonable cost by leveraging their competitive shipbuilding industry. However, they both had access to all the major exporters, which China does not have. So what else allows China to modernize so quickly?

I think the first part is to look at the practical nature of its naval acquisitions. I want to focus on Type 054/054A program in this example. I read that France sold data of La Fayette frigate to China at the same time it had sold the ships to Taiwan. That certainly sped up their development of hull of Type 054, but I think it also showed they were very practical. While La Fayette is a modern frigate design with advanced signature reduction technology, it does have drawbacks in the role of ASW escort. It uses CODAD propulsion that is quite underpowered and noisy (compared to something using COGAG propulsion like OHP class) for ASW operations. Type 054 and 054A have the same shortcomings. Even so, PLAN recognized that it had access to all the components (including the diesel engines) needed to serially produce a much better frigate than Jiangwei class. There was no reason to wait on a perfect frigate for its requirements. The interesting part is that only 2 Type 054 class frigates were built before they moved onto Type 054A. Even after they had built Type 054, they built 2 more Jiangwei class frigates. At the time they built Type 054, most of the subsystems for Type 054A was not ready. The development of Type 382 Sea Eagle radar (looks like Top Plate) completed in 2002. The development of Type 366 OTH radar (Chinese version of Mineral-ME) completed in 2004. The AJK-16 weapon system (which fires HQ-16 missiles) only started land based testing in 2004. The actual testing on sea came after that. The Yu-8 rocket assisted torpedo completed testing in 2006. So none of these subsystems were ready when Type 054 was laid down. Instead, Type 054 was fitted with the AJK-02 weapon system (HQ-7) and Type 360 search radar. Looking at the firepower of Type 054 vs the most recent Jiangwei units, I would say Type 054 is only slightly more powerful than those Jiangwei. Type 054 would be close to twice as expensive as Jiangwei, but PLAN decided it was important to build and test out this new hull design before adding the new subsystems. When Type 054A was being designed, Type 701 Institute could focus on just integrating the new weapon system onto the same hull as Type 054. Since that point, Type 054A has become the workhorse of PLAN even as newer technology and weapon system has become available. I think they found it more important to mass-produce a good enough design since their frigates have been modernized cheaply and quickly this way. Each 054A probably costs around $250 million, which is very cheap. They can now wait for available technology to catch up to design requirements of Type 054B, since all of the older Type 053 frigates have already been replaced.

Another interesting element is China’s goal of not utilizing imports for mass production. Back when Type 052 project first started, China simply did have the technology needed to build what PLAN wanted. They ended up importing various parts from various countries, but were dealt a reality check when military embargo was put in place after the June 4th student crackdown. All of that caused delays in the development and production of the 2 Type 052s. I think Type 052 was way ahead of its time in terms of the technology employed, but PLAN simply could not afford to build more Type 052 until their military industrial complex caught up. Once that happened, they were still very cautious in building 2 Type 052B, 2 Type 052C and 2 Type 051C before the mass production of Type 052C happened. They did not want to rely on importing Ukrainian gas turbines, so waited until domestic version of DA-80 was ready for production. They were willing to test out new technology like Type 346 radar and AJK-03 VLS on 2 ships, but were not willing to mass-produce more Type 052Cs until the technology was more mature. Since QC-280 became available, Type 052C and 052D production has been continuous. It does not matter to PLAN if the subsystem is foreign designed or inspired as long as domestic firms can produce them cheaply. Due to cost and lack of import options, PLAN was driven to rely on domestic production for all of the new naval surface combatants. One could say that PLAN modernization has completed now that probably 2/3 of its ships have been replaced with modern designs.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Thoughts on the so called H-20 bomber

After the development of Y-20 and J-20, the next military major aviation project in China is the rumoured H-20 bomber project. Although we do not know the exact designation, PLAAF’s top officer, General Ma Xiatian, recently announced that China is developing a next generation, long-range bomber, which will be seen in near future. Just from his statement, I think it’s fair to say that the project is in advanced development. Since H-20 is a strategic platform, it would have even higher level of secrecy than J-20. Speculations over this next generation bomber project have already replaced J-20 and the fate of J-31 as the hottest subject on Chinese military boards. I remember back in 2009, a similar statement was said about J-20. The PLAAF officer said that the next generation fighter jet is expected to go into service in 8 to 10 years. We saw pictures of the first prototype less than 2 years later. And now, it appears that J-20 project will go into service in 2017, just 8 years after the original statement. From this, we can see that when a top level PLAAF officer makes a statement about a major strategic platform, it will usually be quite on the mark. From that, I would expect the first prototype to be built sometimes next year and make maiden flight in 2018. That also seems to be when our friend Huitong thinks the maiden flight will be.

From what I read on Huitong’s blog and other sources, it seems like 603 Institute/XAC will be the primary developer of this project. That would make a lot of sense given their work in the JH-7 series of fighter-bomber and H-6 series of bombers. With the completion of the primary development work for the Y-20 project, additional engineering resources are now available to really speed up H-20 development. Unfortunately, the “wall climbing” community isn’t as active in Xi’an as it is in Chengdu, so we might not see photos coming out as soon as in J-20. At the same time, H-20 should be considered a more classified project than J-20, so we would likely have fewer pictures and info on it than J-20. One only has to think about the classified nature of F-117 and B-2 compared to F-22/35 to imagine how secretive H-20 should be.

The next part is to look at what China has for attack and bomber project right now. China has operated H-6 bombers since first importing Tu-16 technology from Russia back in the 60s. Over time, XAC improved on the avionics and missiles carried by H-6 to develop various improved models fro PLAAF and PLANAF. When they got access to Spey engine, they also experimented installing it H-6 (but did not adopt it). More recently, XAC worked on the H-6K project, which made its maiden flight in 2007. H-6K was delayed due to engine issues, but resumed production in 2009 after they got D-30KP2 from Russia. Since they purchased large quantity of D-30, they have been able to produce about 1 regiment of H-6K (about 20 bombers) every 2 years. H-6K is a large improvement over earlier H-6 in range with payload. It can carry 6 KD-20s for long-range strike and have participated in numerous exercises. Most recently, it crossed Baishi channel in an exercise with Su-30s, early warning aircraft and refueling tankers. Even with all of this improvement, H-6K still pales in comparison to Tu-95MS and B-52 in range and payload. With the KD-20 missiles, H-6K can serve the role of missile carriers/bomb truck, but is not capable of longer ranged missions. Back in 2005, there were speculations that China was interested in Tu-22M3 backfire bombers, but that never happened. I think China was interested in bombers of that quality, but not used frames incapable of launching Chinese missiles. There were speculations a while back that China would develop a domestic version of backfire called H-18. However, that turned out to be a hoax. At this point, I think China would be interested in Tu-160 bomber, but Russia is probably not willing to sell such a strategic platform. For the past 5 years, we have seen induction of 3 H-6K regiments and many new types of missiles and bombers. H-6Ks have been installed with numerous types of electronics. I think the H-6K program serves as a good test bed for missiles and avionics that PLAAF would like to install on the next generation bomber. Once H-20 does join service, H-6K could still serve a role of bomb truck and EW aircraft.

So what would a H-20 bomber look like? The PLA’s definition of a long-range strategic bomber is a minimum range of 8,000 km (5,000 miles) without refueling and the capacity to carry a payload of more than 10 tons of air-to-ground ammunition. Considering that PLAAF it looking for such a bomber and has chosen to not develop its version of backfire, they are clearly looking for something more advanced than Tu-22M3. It would be a tremendous leap to go from H-6K to Tu-160 or B-1 bomber. Huitong’s blog indicated that China is looking for an even more advanced flying wing design akin to the B-2 bomber. If XAC is looking to develop something close to the capability of B-2, the leap from H-6K would be larger than any project in the history of Chinese military aviation (with only J-10 project as comparable). Fortunately, China already has tested out many elements needed for a modern bomber. First of all, it finally has a modern turbofan engine needed for such a bomber. B-1 bomber uses F-101, which was developed into F-110 used on F-15/16s. B-2 bomber uses F-118, which is a non-afterburning turbofan engine developed from F-110. So depending on whether XAC is looking for a supersonic bomber, they could either go with a variant of WS-10 with or without afterburner. In the future, they could also try a version of WS-15. In terms of sensors, they have already tested out various ground scanning radar, AESA radar, EW suites, FLIR/EO turret and laser designator on J-20 and H-6K. I certainly think they can develop some very capable for H-20. In terms of weaponry, stand off missiles, anti-radiation missiles and precision guided missiles have already been developed and in service with various attack aircraft. The big question is whether or not they have the stealth technology, advanced light materials, battlefield surveillance technology and FBW software needed to have a modern long-range LO signature bomber. The 601 Institute and Hongdu have been testing some of the technology since 2013 with the Sharp Sword UCAV, so it can share the data from testing with XAC. However, in order to scale that data up to something the size of a strategic bomber with 4 large turbofan engines, XAC has a lot of work ahead.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

J-31 Updates

Most recently, the first LRIP batch of J-20 appears to be handed over to FTTC to start the processing of getting inducted into PLAAF later this year or early next. While J-20 has progressed very smoothly up to this point, J-31 appears to have run into a major roadblock.

As readers may know, the first J-31 demonstrator came out a couple of years ago to great fanfare. At the time, it was thought to be a SAC funded private project that was also getting some PLAAF funding. Many people, including me, thought that was the first step to getting picked up by PLAAF and/or PLANAF. As it happened, we never saw a second version or a real prototype of J-31 despite many rumours and interesting models in air shows. There were even some rumours earlier this year that a second version of J-31 was about to come out that would be a lot further along toward a production model.

Most recently, one of the insiders on Chinese forums said that J-31 has not been picked up by PLAAF or PLANAF. At the same time, a more official source said that J-31 is for export. And we know that J-31 will again be brought to display in the 2016 Zhuhai air show. From all of this, it seems that SAC is working hard to attract foreign funding to continue this project. At least as of now, neither the air force nor the navy has interest in this project. Now, I was always under the impression that PLAAF only had interest in one 5th generation fighter jet prior to J-31 demonstrator came out. After that, I thought J-31 might serve as the low end of PLAAF’s future combat force instead of an upgraded J-10 variant. If PLAAF rejected J-31, that could either mean it has no interest in funding a 2nd type of 5th generation aircraft or that J-31 is simple not up to par. If the reason is latter, that could either mean J-31 design is technologically up to PLAAF expectations (in terms of stealth, radar or flight performance) or cost to performance below expectations or certain components simply not ready (like the next generation engine). While PLAAF questions are harder to answer, we do know for sure that PLANAF will need a next generation naval aircraft to replace J-15s. However, they rejected J-31 even though SAC has some real naval aircraft experience in developing and building J-15. So what do I make all of this?

I think PLAAF will not be ordering that many J-20 over its lifetime, because it is envisions as a high-end aircraft (ala F-22). They definitely need a cheaper and less capable fighter jet that can at least be competitive against F-35s. I don’t think the extremely unstealthy J-11 series or the light and less powerful J-10 series can be the answer to that. Sometimes in the next decade, PLAAF will have the desire for a true lower end 5th generation aircraft. In the past, PLAAF eventually did pick aircraft types that it had originally rejected like JH-7 and K-8 (possibly even L-15). In the case of latter, Hongdu managed to persuade foreign investment into the project. It was only after suitable engines became available that PLAAF decided to pick up K-8 as JL-8. I think that is the road J-31 could go. If it can attract enough foreign funding to continue, then domestic engine options should become available sometimes next decade. At that time, PLAAF could certainly choose to order it. The other question is whether or not PLAAF is willing to have Chengdu produce 2 different 5th generation types. Up until now, PLAAF has preferred to split its projects between Chengdu and Shenyang. Shenyang got the heavy fighter and Chengdu the light fighter. Chengdu won the 5th generation contest with its heavy design to the surprise of many. With J-20’s rapid progress, it hardened my view that Chengdu is far more capable of developing new fighter jet series than Shenyang. With the failure of J-31, I do question whether or not Shenyang is even capable of developing a new fighter jet that appeals to PLAAF. We know it can create new variants of flankers, but that’s far from developing a new aircraft. On the other hand, Chengdu has a lot of work with J-20 series, J-10 series and numerous UAVs. While J-20 was in serious development, the progress of J-10B/C was quite slow due to the shift in engineering resources. When J-20 does go in production in a couple of years, could Chengdu have enough resource again for a new fighter series as well as continued support and upgrades for J-20 and J-10? I certainly have doubts about that. I do think that it is still more likely Shenyang will be producing a 5th generation aircraft type for PLAAF in the future.

As for PLANAF, the fight is now between a navalized version of J-20 from CAC or something new from SAC. Shenyang won the first round, because PLAN liked the range and payload of flankers. For the next generation, SAC has to start from scratch, while CAC already has a functioning aircraft. Since J-31 has already been rejected, SAC has to come up with something better than that to win over PLAN. J-15 is likely to be in production for at least the next aircraft carrier CV-17. After that, the next generation aircraft carriers of PLAN will likely to be larger than CV-16/17. They would be CATOBAR carriers that can launch fixed wing AEW asset, fully loaded fighter jet and long-range fighter-bombers. Even though J-15 has only joined service recently, PLANAF will soon be deciding between SAC and CAC on the next generation fighter jet. At this point, it seems more likely that a naval version of J-20 or a naval fighter-bomber based on J-20 would get picked.

So all of this would indicate SAC needs to do something to impress on the decision makers. Most of their projects right now are some flanker variations. We saw the sharp sword demonstrator a while back, but CAC has shown more UAV designs. It will be interesting to see how SAC can move on from the J-11 series.

Finally, I hear the rumour that the “20” series of aircraft will be the start in Zhuhai airshow this year. I can certainly see Y-20 and Z-20 make appearances in the air show and fly around. However, I do not think J-20 will participate this year. J-31 will appear and try to attract more funding. H-20 is the other project that has attracted a lot of attention from PLA watchers. At this point, we probably won’t see much about it until after it makes a maiden flight. With the size of J-20, I think it can be used to develop a next generation fighter-bomber.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Air force comparisons

In the past, I have often seen or tried to stop discussions over what I call vs battles. Military fans universally love to debate whether one aircraft is better than another one. There are many good reasons for that obviously. For PLAAF, if w can determine that J-10 is stronger in air combat than flankers and are up to part or close to up to part with the teens and eurocanards, then China can deal with all of the surrounding threats. More contemporarily, the argument of J-20 vs F-35 vs F-22 vs PAK-FA is popular in establishing China’s future options against US and its allies.

In general, I have not enjoyed to get involved with such discussions, because I don’t think they yield good discussions or give good indications of how real world combat scenarios will turn out. Recently, there were some discussions regarding the results of PLAAF’s exercises with Thailand. It was mentioned on Chinese forums that PLAAF sent flankers. The flankers apparently won dogfights but lost on BVR engagements. This led to numerous people asking about which type of flankers were sent. If earlier versions of flankers like Su-27 or J-11 were sent, then it would be okay if they did not win the BVR exchanges. I immediately thought about the exercise they had several years ago with Turkey. In that exercise, China sent some earlier flankers and Turkey used F-4s (or at least that’s what we presume since F-16s were not involved). I presume China sends earlier flankers because flight characteristics and avionics of these fighter jets are well known, whereas J-10 and even J-11B numbers are very well guarded state secrets. At the time of exercise, it was rumoured on Chinese forums that the flankers were crushed in the exercise and that the DACT were designed in a way that put Chinese jets in very disadvantageous positions. While none of the rumoured results can be confirmed, I think there are a lot of good reasons why PLAAF would take this approach. Back in 2005, there were a lot of excitements amongst Indian defense followers because IAF fighter jets had done well against F-15Cs in DACT with USAF. Even though it was reported that USAF fighter jets were operating under very challenging conditions on what they could or could not do, many IAF fans were excited to report that Su-30K and Mig-21 Bisons had beaten the F-15Cs.

With that in mind, I think we should consider why PLAAF participates in these exercises and what it has to gain by setting certain DACT scenarios. For the former, I think that PLAAF recognizes it does not do enough training with other air forces, so these exercises are valuable in learning about flying styles and tactics of other air forces. In the exercises with Turkey, I think PLAAF purposefully set challenging conditions so it can see how NATO air forces operate with numerical advantages, EW advantages and BVR advantages. So even if Turkey does not showcase F-16s, PLAAF had a lot to gain by participating in them. I’m not saying that Su-27s are significantly better than later F-4s or that PLAAF pilots are at the same level of NATO pilots. Those are things I simply don’t have enough data on. Compared to NATO, PLAAF is still at a very early stage in DACT exercises. PLAAF Su-27s and early J-11As have probably participated in most number of DACT engagements in China’s own version of Red/Blue flag exercises. Early on, they were consistently defeated by J-7s even though they are much superior aircraft. Flankers won later when PLAAF developed better tactics for them. So when PLAAF encounters a more experienced air force like Turkey, it would have a lot of learning to do. PLAAF recognizes that in many realistic war scenarios, its fighters could be facing massive disadvantages in the operational environment. From that, it would be logical to do various DACT under disadvantageous conditions even if PLAAF pilots have to suffer some humble pie. I can’t speak for the results of Pakistan or Thailand, but I think without knowing PLAAF’s intentions and the DACT scenarios, results of these exercises are not too meaningful even if we know the aircraft types. I do read from the big shrimps on Chinese bbs that PAF pilots are better than PLAAF pilots. If that is still the case, then it makes even more sense for PLAAF to train more regularly with PAF.

J-10A and J-11 have made a good pairing for PLAAF for the past 10 years and would hold up against current front line fighter jet in surrounding countries like Su-27/30, F-15J, F-16C/D and Mig-29s. J-10B/C and J-16 will be comparable or a little inferior to the latest eurocanards, Su-35s, F-15K/SG and F-18E/F. On paper, they have the latest avionics (including AESA radar), a full range of multirole capability and improved range compare to their base models. Even with higher thrust engines, will they still be capable of having the same flight performance as earlier models when we considered the increased weight from all these changes? As for J-20, I think it has many advantages over PAK-FA, but less so against F-22/35, especially in the environment that they are likely to operate in. J-31 seems like a good second project, but we are still waiting to see what the second prototype looks like. It could turn out to be a genuine lower cost 5th generation fighter jet or one that’s significantly more stealthy than eurocanards and F-18E/F, but also lacking the full aspect stealth, flight performance and networking centric capability of a true 5th generation aircraft. Until J-20 gets mature and installed with WS15, it will have similar concerns. That’s how I would rate them.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Carrier Fleet and Strategic transport

This entry will focus on two of the largest strategic projects that China is currently working on: Carrier fleet and strategic transport (Y-20).

For the former, there has been increasing number of photos from Dalian shipyard showing the first domestic carrier taking form. This carrier, commonly referred as 001A, is expected to be very similar to Type 001 CV-16. Both carriers are conventionally powered STOBAR carrier with an air wing consistent of J-15s, Z-18s and Z-9s. There have been many photos of production J-15s (Number 100 to 114) operating off CV-16 since the start of the year. It seems like the standard weapon load for air defense version of J-15s is 2 MRAAMs + 2 SRAAMs. Ground attack variants could carry 2 YJ-83s + 2 SRAAMs. More importantly, the latest photos show several J-15s on flight deck at the same time with many crew members doing standard carrier operation duties. There are pictures show 5 or 6 J-15s parked with their wings folded, a tug dragging helicopter around, elevator carrying plane to flight deck and multiple J-15s about to take off. We have even seen photos from late afternoon or early evening showing flight deck operation with lights on. While the last part does not conclude they have started doing take off and landing in the evenings, it does indicate that part maybe coming sooner than many people would have guessed a year ago. One of my fellow SDF moderators even commented on how the CV-16 flight decks show more activity than any of the photos from Soviet Union ones. The next step would be more integrated exercises with other ships of a carrier fleet.

For the latter, recent report has come out that the development of Y-20 may complete this year leading to the start of mass production sometimes this year. So far, there have been 5 flying prototypes (No. 781, 783, 785, 788 and 789) along with unknown static prototypes. Even though Y-20 made its first flight in 2013, strategic transport do not need to conduct flight testing for as long as fighter jet projects. At the same time, WS-18 achieved design certification last year, so it should be ready for mass production this year. It’s possible that the earlier Y-20s may still use D-30KP2, but they have bought over 200 D-30s in the past. Even accounting for H-6 usage, the remaining D-30s should allow time for production WS-18s to mature. As I’ve discussed before, Y-20 will not only be used for transport purposes, but also on tankers, AWACs, special mission aircraft and ABL platform. While the requirements of these aircraft types can differ, they also all have common requirements of long range, long endurance, high payload, and good short field performance from conventional and unpaved runways. We know that Y-20 probably will be required to carry something the size of ZTZ-99. That would lead to payload requirement of over 60 tons. We don’t have any performance data outside of that other than the belief that it will similar to comparable transports. We know that the wings and fuselage of Y-20 will have to be optimized to balance performance in takeoff, cargo space, endurance and range based on what PLAAF thinks the future requirements of Y-20 are. That requirement maybe different from what the Soviet Union envisioned for IL-76 or US envisioned for C-17. For example, how would a transport like IL-76 originally developed to carry at most 40 ton in payload be able to carry larger payload efficiently now that its payload has been increased with the new PS-90A engines. That’s one of the major advantages to developing one’s own strategic transport. Compared to IL-76 (and the upgraded IL-476), Y-20 should eventually use more efficient engines (WS-20), more modern flight control system and avionics, more advanced material (vs what was available in 70s) and more efficient wing for China’s missions. With newer construction techniques available that China has learnt from working with Airbus and Boeing, Y-20 could end up with a really modern production line. Once production for Y-20 ramps up, we will be able to see how much fruit this project will reap from the RnD in COMAC projects like C919.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

052C radar + Aeroengine development

Since the Lunar New Year break started, not much significant news have happened, but there were a couple of story lines in the past month that caught my attention.

The first one is this story on weibo from someone who said to have participated in the initial part of Type 346 radar development (for 052C) before immigrating to Canada in the late 90s. There has been a lot of criticism on this article regarding author's decision to leave China and also on whether or not he actually worked on the project (or just made this all up). Looking through some of the online discussions on this like this thread on hsh, I'm still not convinced on whether or not this is authentic or something this author wrote from other sources he read online. Even so, I think it's an article that's well worth reading. The human part of the story rings true to people who are far more involved with the inner working of Chinese navy than I am. Certainly during the earlier days, many talented people left China because they were simply not appreciated or adequately compensated for the work they were doing.

Aside from that, I think it's quite interesting to consider how PLA awarded R&D funding to various institutions. Outside of the process, very few people know how competitive some of these PLA contracts are. This article allows us to see the geopolitical, political and relational angles that affect each contract award. It makes sense for each of the competing firm to try their utmost to win R&D grants and funding regardless of whether or not their proposal is the best. Certainly, having the right person to lobby for your proposal can go a long way toward covering up deficiencies versus opposing proposals. In the end of the process, I think it almost seems like Chinese navy picked 14th Institute proposal out of luck due to an expected geopolitical event. That decision certainly seems to have yielded good results since the 14th Institute has since produced many quality AESA radar for both the air force and the navy. I think the numerous "big shrimps" on Chinese forums have also corroborated the political influence and connections that sometimes lead to picking the less optimal option. On the plus side, it also illustrated how fiercely competitive these firms have to go to pick up funding for their projects. This higher level of competition inside China (that we don't really read about) helps push projects forward in ways that don't seem to happen in India.

At the same time, a lot of aeroengine related news came out. It was reported that WS-10B achieving design certification, WS-10 achieved production certification and WS-15 was going into the process of achieving design certification. Broadly speaking, there are 4 major stages in China with respect to developing and certifying a new engine.
  • The first phase is the test/experimental stage prior to the initial flight. This involves all of the ground based testing on the parts of engine and as a whole. It goes through a series of test on the test vehicle and its parts to make sure that it's ready to go through flight testing.
  • The second phase is the research test flight stage. Before going into the process of certification test flights, the test vehicle is flown under realistic flight scenarios and flight envelope. The main tasks include preliminary assessment of engine flight performance, features, reliability, maintainability, testability and supportability. Flight tests could be carried out in a flight engine test bed or on an intended aircraft. At the conclusion of test flights, the technological maturity level should reach level 7. In WS-15 testing, it had to complete 60 hours of endurance testing on flight testbed before completing this phase. So at this point, the engine is demonstrated to have at least 60 hours of service life prior to overhauling.
  • The third phase is the design certification stage. Before low rate initial production, it must go through a series of ground testing of the engine, its systems and the individual parts. It must also go through with high altitude testing and flight certification. Most importantly, it has to go through the initial overhaul long endurance testing on testbed. For WS-10 and WS-10B, they had to complete a 300 hour endurance testing to complete this stage. Under testing of full flight envelope, these tests will determine the reliability, maintainability, testability, safety and service life. At its conclusion, the technological maturity level should reach level 8.
  • The fourth phase is the production certification stage. Before mass production of an engine, it must be deployed in smaller number of aircraft (with active service aircraft) for test usage in order to become mature. It must go through with full service life endurance testing on test bed. It must complete comprehensive verification of engine performance and reliability under mass production quality. Mass produced version of WS-10 must complete 1000 hour of endurance before completing this stage, the initial overhaul time is at least 1000 hours. At its conclusion, the technological maturity level should reach level 9.

From the above, one can get a sense of where each of the engine is at. WS-10 has completed production certification, so it is now quite reliable (1000 hours MTBO) and deployed on most of the J-11Bs. As reported in numerous places, this version of WS-10 achieves a maximum thrust of 12.5 ton with afterburners. WS-10B has now completed design certification (at least 300 hours MTBO) and is deployed on some flankers and a couple of J-10Bs. According to numerous reports, it achieves maximum thrust of 14 ton (12% more than WS-10) with afterburners and features a digital control system (FADEC). Since both flanker and J-10B already has more reliable but less powerful engine in service, WS-10B will probably be deployed in smaller numbers until it becomes more reliable. WS-10B should have greater thrust than even AL-31FN series 3 (14 ton to 13.5 ton), so it would be the better choice once flight testing on J-10B is completed. Once we see a full batch of J-10B installed with WS-10B as opposed to AL-31FN, then WS-10B is probably in mass production and not far from production certification. The next improvement to WS-10 includes adding a new thrust vectoring control and achieving higher maximum thrust. That variant of WS-10 is probably under design certification tests right now. There is also a variant of WS-10 being developed for naval fighter jet J-15, which should become certified soon.

We also got the news that WS-13E may have achieved design certification and will begin production this year. It is said to be an improved version of WS-13 and achieves close to 9 ton in thrust (8.7 ton on original WS-13). That's compared to 8.3 ton on RD-93 and 9.3 ton on RD-93MA. This engine could be used on JF-17 or FC-31 or Lijian UCAV. Since this is still very early in its production cycle, it would be interesting to see where it will first be deployed on.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

J-20 and geopolitical implications.

The J-20 project has made some significant progress in the past 2 years with the roll out of prototypes 2011 to 2017 to accelerate the flights testing and development of the J-20 aircraft. With the roll out of 2101, what appears to J-20’s first LRIP aircraft, it’s possible that the first batch of J-20s will get delivered to FTTC this year to start the process of expanding flight envelope, testing/evaluating new weapon systems, developing new training procedures and combat tactics for a new aircraft. If FTTC evaluation proceeds well, J-20 may be certified and start entering into service next year. It looks like the project is proceeding a couple of years faster than the original expectations. For this entry, I want to look at how the progress of J-20 vs progress of other fighter jet projects affects regional balance of air power.

To start off, the most obvious threat to PLAAF comes from the vast number of F-35s that will be deployed in the APAC region by America and its allies. Due to defense cutbacks by many Western countries, key American allies in APAC region should not have to wait too long to get their F-35s. If J-20 enters service in the next 2 years, it will enter service extremely underpowered since WS-15 is not yet ready. As a result, I think the initial J-20s will have to carry limited fuel and payload in order to achieve desired flight performance. Until WS-15 does become certified with J-20 sometimes next decade, there are certain missions involving longer range and greater payload that J-20 just cannot perform. USAF and USN’s will have overwhelming qualitative and quantitative advantage in the region against PLAAF in the short term. Even after J-20 enters service in larger numbers later with WS-15, I think USAF and USN’s F-35s will still have both qualitative and quantitative advantage in the region. J-20 probably will have certain advantages over F-35 in flight performance, power and payload, but will definitely be at large disadvantage in stealth, sensors, weapon system and the ability to operate in a network centric environment. Reading Chinese sources, I have often gotten the impression that PLAAF regards F-35 as its biggest threat (even more than F-22) due to F-35’s technical and numerical advantage over what China might field. I don’t think anything from the past couple of years have really changed that.

I think a more interesting case is to compare J-20 to the PAK-FA project. I have often compared the 2 projects in the recent years, because they have started about the same time and went with similar platforms that seem to be natural evolution from flankers. In J-20, China seemed to put more emphasis on overall stealth and range. The Russians seemed to put greater emphasis on maneuverability. From the beginning, I had always thought the PAK-FA development would finish first due to Russia’s previous R&D into 5th generation fighter jet, the earlier first flight of PAK-FA and original pronouncement of 2016 IOC. As mentioned several times before, this has been turned upside down in the last 2 years as PAK-FA have been plagued with problems whereas J-20 is proceeding without any obvious setbacks. Without comparing the capabilities of the 2 aircraft, it seems more likely now for j-20 to join service before PAK-FA does. Another part to look at is the new engine options for the two aircraft, since both will first enter service with underpowered AL-31 or WS-10 variants. PAK-FA will later use izdeliye 30, whereas J-20 will use WS-15. The former is expected to start flight trials in 2017 and join service around 2020 and the latter has similar timelines. With China’s previous problems in mass production of a new turbofan engine, WS-15 entry may drag on a couple of years longer, but entry into service for both engines are pretty close. That means it will probably take early 2020s before the appropriately powered version of both J-20 and PAK-FA go into service. Looking at the progress of the 2 programs at the current time, it seems like J-20 is far more likely to join service on time since most of its subsystems (other than engine) are ready, whereas PAK-FA has been delayed in both its flight testing (by fire on the 5th prototype) and subsystems (like radar). So, China will get operational J-20s before Russia does with PAK-FA. Although the 2 countries are currently friendly, China considered Russia to be its greatest enemy as recently as late 80s. I think it’s quite important for China to not rely on Russia weaponry for security reasons. It’s important to note China has been Russia’s student since the 50s. It would be a tremendous boost for Chinese pride to be ahead of Russia in military aviation. The other part of J-20 vs PAK-FA comparison is India’s involvement. India will receive production PAK-FA several years after Russia. India was part of PAK-FA development since the beginning when it proudly pronounced that Russia was only willing to partner with India (rather than China) in its 5th generation fighter jet project. Since then, India has regularly complained about its involvement in the project as PAK-FA falls behind schedule. India also complains about the cost and technical capabilities of PAK-FA. As a whole, it seems like India is not getting the aircraft it wants or the development experience it wants or the timeline it was hoping for. All of this has added up to a nightmare scenario where China will receive a possibly more advanced 5th generation aircraft several years before India does. The best aircraft India can field at that time will be Rafael. It’s also possible that China’s second 5th generation project, J-31, will be in service very soon after PAK-FA goes into service with India. If China exports J-31 to Pakistan after a couple of years, then India will have very few years of advantage over Pakistan in 5th generation fighter jet. So while India originally had hoped for getting PAK-FA several years before China gets J-20, it may now be trapped in a situation of 2 hostile neighbours with 5th generation aircraft. There have not been much mentions of MCA in the past year. Looking at how long LCA has been in development, I can only assume that means MCA is much further away from completion.

The only other next generation development projects are Korea’s KFX project and Japan’s ATD-X/F-3 project. Since both countries only have one recent fighter jet project experience (Korea with T-50 and Japan with F-2), it’s unclear how long the development will take or how capable the aircraft will be. In both cases, I would imagine they would seek for as much American help as they can. These two countries are looking to establish long-term viable domestic military aircraft makers through these projects. However, I don’t think it’s America’s interest to create possible competitors that may take away future exports. In both cases, I think they will probably create semi-stealthy designs that are comparable in performance to the eurocanards. As shown in PAK-FA and J-20 project, creating 5th generation aircraft will all aspect stealth is extremely difficult. America was able to do so, because it had decades of experience in stealth. Looking at Japan’s previous venture, F-2 was over-budget and under delivered in performance. Japan has not worked on any fighter jet programs since. Korea has only developed an advanced trainer in T-50. It seems to be a huge challenge to go from that to 5th generation fighter jet. Both countries are expected to field F-35 when very few APAC countries have 5th generation aircraft. Unless they try to throw away that advantage for the sake of national pride, they seem both well positioned for the future. J-20’s success may push both countries to be more invested in F-35 project, since they cannot afford to wait on their domestic programs.

Overall, I think the progress of J-20 does change the geopolitical calculations in the region. Countries that field PAK-FA like Russia and India are now at a disadvantage. If the J-31 project can move forward quickly in the next 5 years, it could have some real export potentials in countries that had been importing Russian fighter jet. F-35 program is in full production mode, so I don’t think much has changed in countries that will be fielding F-35.