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.