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.