The Dragon’s Claws
With recent state-enforced organisational reforms, institutional restructuring and the induction or flight testing of a variety of fourth and fifth- generation combat platforms over the last decade, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force ( PLAAF) is on co
With recent state-enforced organisational reforms, institutional restructuring and the induction of a variety of fourth and fifth-generation combat platforms over the last decade, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force ( PLAAF) is on course towards becoming a most assertive instrument for regional dominance and international influence for China. Sameer Joshi reviews status of the PLAAF restructuring and reforms, mission strategy and combat capabilities, along with focus on its indigenous Air Superiority Fighter (ASF) force, concluding with an assessment of the PLAAF vs IAF scenario over Tibet in the coming years.
The long- term, wide- ranging modernisation of the armed forces of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) entered a new phase in end-2015, as President Xi Jinping unveiled sweeping organisational reforms to overhaul the entire military structure. These included creation of Theatre Commands in place of Military Regions and formation of the Strategic Support Force (SSF), an exclusive arm to conduct Information Warfare along with the PLA, PLAAF, PLAN and the re- designated People’s Liberation Army Rocket Forces (PLARF), formerly the Second Artillery Force. These reforms aim not only to strengthen the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) control over the military, but enhance China’s ability to fight short-duration, high-intensity regional conflicts at greater distances from the Chinese mainland. China’s growing military, diplomatic, and economic clout to advance its ambitions to establish regional dominance and international influence, will not be possible without it portraying a strong and modern military capability, a major burden of which arguably falls on the wings of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF).
A Resurgent PLAAF
The PLAAF is the third largest Air Force in the world, with some 2,700 aircraft (excluding UAVs) including 2,000 combat aircraft ( fighters, bombers, and attack aircraft), which have been subject of considerable modernisation since the first Gulf War. After the United States’ military adopted a paradigm shift towards information adaptive and deep- strike style of warfare against Saddam Hussein’s similarly- equipped forces, the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) became acutely aware of just how wide the capability gap had grown. The overwhelming use of air power in that conflict signalled a dramatic step up in capabilities of the PLAAF due to its critical role in any Taiwan related conflict. The Taiwan Straits crisis in 1996 reinforced the PLAAF’s capability concerns even further. Pivoting around this need, it has since then rapidly closed the gap with western air forces across a broad spectrum of capabilities including aircraft production, technologies, tactics and training. The rise of China as a modern world power has given the military a plethora of new missions to carry out and capabilities to achieve by end of the next decade. Looking at these capabilities through a mission analysis of a Taiwan centric campaign, the list includes an effective A2/AD capability, the ability to dominate/ suppress/ saturate modern air defences, LR strike, tactical/ strategic medium and heavy airlift, special missions through unmanned and manned assets and flexible air-to-air refueling capabilities. As of mid-2017, the PLAAF continues to field additional fourth-generation aircraft (now over 600), as well as flight test two fifth generation air superiority platforms, with one type being declared to have achieved initial operating capability (IOC). While it still operates many older second and third- generation platforms it will probably become a majority ‘fourth and fifth generation’ force by 2025.
While principal focus of the PLAAF remains preparation for a potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait, there is little doubt that interests of the Chinese air arm, like those of the PLA, have expanded well beyond this region. It aims for greater influence in conducting offensive operations over potential hotspots in the East and South China Seas, where China has operationalised Woody Island airfield in the Paracel Islands,
along with construction of three new airfields in the Spratly Islands, as well as in the Tibet Autonomous region (TAR), where after Gonggar (Lhasa), Shigatse and probably Ngari Gunsa airfields are being converted into all-weather airbases, capable of accommodating regular rotation of fourth generation fighters like the J-11 and J-10. In this theatre, the PLAAF recognises the quick reaction ability of the Indian Air Force (IAF) well and expects the IAF to deploy rapidly to conflict zones during hostilities.
It was a pair of J-11As of the 17th Air Regiment on detachment at Gonggar which on 12 October 2012 scrambled towards a flight of IAF Su-30MKIs, observed flying over Tawang by a JL-3D-90 long range surveillance radar at Lhasa. The J-11s would have had intermittent contact with the IAF jets with their N001VE Pulse Doppler radars, finally breaking off near Kuono, 20 km north of Tawang, perhaps realising that the IAF jets had no intention of crossing into Tibet.
Two Chinese J-11B fighters intercepted a US Navy Lockheed Martin EP-3E Aries II SIGINT aircraft in international airspace over the South China Sea (SCS) on 17 May 2016, and ‘buzzed’ the aircraft to within 50 feet, before carrying out a barrel roll around the dazed USN aircrew. And recently on 19 May 2017, a Su-30MKK flew at 100 feet above (and inverted) over an American WC- 135 special mission aircraft in the East China Sea, the pilot perhaps wanting to recreate a scene out of the Hollywood flick ‘Top Gun’. Antics apart, the PLAAF is clearly seen as upping the ante, favouring aggressive patrolling over zones of potential conflicts. However, can it ‘walk the talk’ on a sustained air campaign, with multi theatre operations?
Decree for the PLAAF
The CCP’s expectations from the PLAAF are definitively laid out in its Military Strategic Guidelines (MSGs), the “core and collected embodiment of military strategy”. The scope of these guidelines includes both general principles about the whole process of military operations, and specific principles for certain types of operation. The May 2015 Chinese national security strategy White Paper further explains what is expected of the PLA in the coming time. The mission list comprises of many traditional, as well as ‘new historic’, missions which the Chinese Communist Party expects the PLA forces to be able to carry out efficiently in the coming 15 to 20 years. These are:
To resolutely safeguard the unification of the motherland
To safeguard China’s security and interests in new domains
To safeguard the security of China’s overseas interests
To maintain strategic deterrence and carry out nuclear counterattack
To participate in regional and international security cooperation and maintain regional and world peace
To strengthen efforts in operations against infiltration, separatism and terrorism to maintain China’s political security and social stability
To perform such tasks as emergency rescue and disaster relief, rights and interest protection, guard duties, and support for national economic and social development
The above mission set is broad and intentionally vague in many aspects to leave room for future refinement and redirection if needed. However, the missions clearly reflect the diversified and global range of interests of China as a ‘rising power’ rather than one content with the status quo.
The PLAAF’s Doctrine
Since 2010, the Chinese doctrine has hinged around its initiative to take the battle away from the Chinese shores and add forward defensive depth to the mainland. The nine- dashed line is an attempt to formalise this defensive loop, which adds 500–1000 km of penetration gravity for the opposition, providing decent early warning for the Chinese. Based on this, the PLAAF’s doctrine has principally pivoted towards ‘ Large Area defence’, instead of ‘ Vital Area/ Vital Point’ (VA/VP) defence. This ensures early warning, with engagements occurring as far forward as possible.
The doctrine envisages development of China’s air force capabilities in four clear areas, which are
Offensive capability to protect national security and national interests from the air and space.
Integrated air defensive and anti-missile capability for monitoring both air and space flying objects and attacking them.
Superior capability over its main opponents (Taiwan, Japan, India) and certain counter-information capability against its strategic opponents ( the United States and to some extent Russia).
Strategic airlift capability to conduct both airlift and airdrop operations.
To accomplish the above capabilities, the PLAAF identifies Air Offensive Campaigns; Air Defence Campaigns; Air Blockade Campaigns; Airborne Campaigns.
These can be either air force only campaigns or air force-led joint campaigns with other services. In most air operations, a
great deal of emphasis is placed on surprise, camouflage, use of tactics, meticulous planning and strikes against critical targets. With intended operations against Taiwan and the defence of forward stationed assets in the East and South Sea, offensive air defence missions, with a greater role for counterattack is the key control strategy in place. These missions factor mobile ambushes, coverage, as well as seek & destroy sorties to boost China’s ability to fight short-duration, high-intensity regional conflicts at greater distances. However, execution of this doctrine is still ‘work in progress’, requiring moderns AD and multimission platforms, amplified C4ISR assets, evolved air/ ground crew training levels and a synchronised A2/AD network. The PLAAF certainly grasps these inadequacies, while closing the gaps at a prodigious rate.
To accomplish its desired military strategy, the PLAAF is undertaking a major programme of reforms, which address training and education, development and acquisition of modern weapon systems and equipment, the way these systems are operated, as well as structural reform of the overall command system. While the most publically visible amongst them – induction of new aircraft types in a big way, including displaying the fifth- generation aircraft under development at Zhuhai airshow overs the years – and perhaps the most significant towards preparing for future operations is a change in the training philosophy. The PLAAF has been taking elements of actual combat subjects, topics, exercises, and methods as the basis for transforming its military training system and improving its level of operational effectiveness. Although themes associated with ‘ actual combat’ have been featured in key strategic training guidance documents for years within the PLAAF and Chinese armed forces as a whole, it appears that senior PLAAF leaders have redoubled their efforts at instilling discipline and offering honest assessments of shortcomings across all levels of aviation unit training. Newer training modules on Lead-In Fighter Trainers (LIFT) such as the JL-10, as well as frontline units, include flying under challenging environmental conditions, such as at night and extreme weather patterns; flying at low altitudes through valleys and mountains and over water; cultivating ‘free air combat’ skills among aviators with decreased altitude restrictions; and holding sophisticated cross branch/ service exercises under complex electromagnetic environment and formidable air defence scenarios to replicate actual battle conditions, which a potential military adversary may present.
In a significant shift from prior practice, pilots in some units are now given the responsibility to create their own combat training profiles and have full autonomy over their sorties with little guidance from ground control as in the past.
At an operational level, the PLAAF is undergoing a very flexible process of restructuring, which has seen some Air Regiments disbanded, some units merged with others, as well re-assigning of roles. Probably the most important structural change has been the introduction of defined ‘Bases’ with subordinate Brigades. These have been formed where former Divisional Headquarters and Command Posts (CPs) were located and then merged. Combat units have also been re-located to more modern and upgraded air bases in line with the reequipment process, as well as for providing space towards the urban development drive in Chinese cities. In a significant move, China’s military established five regional commands for its operations on 1 February 2016, in line with the CCP’s effort towards consolidating seven military regions into five ‘battle zones’. Before the reforms, there were seven Military Regions (MRs), including the Beijing MR, Shenyang MR, Jinan MR, Lanzhou MR, Chengdu MR, Guangzhou MR and Nanjing MR. These regions have now been reclassified into five battle theatre commands or battle zones, being the East, West, South, North, and Middle theatre Commands.
For many years, the Chengdu MR had served as the major PLAAF group responsible for the defence of southern and southwestern China including a major part of Xizang ( Tibet) and the municipality of Chongqing. This comprised the entire border region from Vietnam to Nepal (excluding Vietnam, which was responsibility of the Guangzhou MR). The Chengdu MR was merged as part of this reform with the even larger Lanzhou MR, to create the Western Theatre Command ( WTC). The Lanzhou MR was made responsible for complete Air Defence of the Western and South Western sectors, including autonomous regions of Ningxia hui, Qinghai, Xinjiang Uyghur, as well as the Ngari prefecture. Consequently, the WTC, headquartered at Chengdu, has become the largest of the five commands in terms of area of responsibility and defence.
The Western Theatre Command’s main importance lies in its proximity to the boundary with India and Central Asia. It also houses some of China’s most secretive military oriented installation, including Base 21 (the ‘Lop Nor’ nuclear research site). The WTC is also the custodian of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a $54 billion initiative between China and Pakistan to upgrade the infrastructure and economy of Pakistan. This is part of the ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) policy of Xi- Jinping, wherein China is reactivating old trade routes “to revitalise the economy”, but actually increasing geopolitical dominance of China as a bona fide world power. Future economic exploitation of the CPEC, especially with India skipping the recently held One Belt One Road Summit in Beijing in May 2017, protesting sovereignty and territorial integrity violation with the CPEC passing through POK, will ramp up the WTC’s liability in the region significantly.
With the current Indo-China dispute on the Doklam plateau, the Chinese are rapidly mobilising PLA assets into this region, making WTC among the most volatile regions in the world.
The PLAAF in Tibet
The PLAAF has 14 Air Bases available within the Tibet Autonomous Region ( TAR) and Xinjiang, besides another 20 airfields in the region, which can be further upgraded for military activity. While most of these airfields are used by civilian aircraft, Gonggar at Lhasa is the primary operating base for undertaking combat operations in Tibet. However, in a tactical shift over the last few years, the PLAAF has begun developing infrastructure and operating from dualuse airfields at Ngari Gunsa, Nyingchi Mainling, Qamdo Bamda, Shigatse and Nagqu Dagring in the WTC. Of these, Shigatse is being converted for all weather operations like at Gonggar, followed in
the future probably by Ngari Gunsa. Although no frontline PLAAF fighter elements are based there, regular rotation deployments to Tibet are an important part of the training doctrine, with most formations usually coming from the former Chengdu MR. High altitude of these airfields considerably restricts performance of these jets and China is likely to develop additional all- weather strips in the future. With threats from the Indian Air Force in mind, a quick reaction element of J-11A/B or Su-27SKs is always available at the Gonggar AFB at Lhasa.
The PLAAF Air Defence component in the WTC comprises of two Air Regiments of J-11A/B/BS (98th AR and 111th Brigade) and one mixed Regiment of Su-27SK and J-11Bs (16th AR). By 2020, there will be a minimum of 3 ORP detachments (with at least 8 aircraft) available all through the year in Tibet, with probably a full-time squadron deployment at Shigatse by 2025.
Assessment of PLAAF Capabilities
Air Superiority The PLAAF has made meaningful progress in closing its fighter capability gap with the United States and its main Asian rivals. It considers long term strategic superiority difficult to achieve and is instead focusing on achieving tactical superiority capabilities, that would be concurrent with larger offensive operations aimed at local campaigns. Recent force assessments of the PLAAF have noted the continuous induction of more modern aircraft, while decommissioning second and third- generation aircraft from its fleet. By 2010, modern fourth-generation fighters accounted for almost 30 percent of the force. In 2015, the figure was 50 percent, and by end 2017, it will reach roughly 65 percent. Between 2010 and 2015, China’s inventory of fourth- generation fighters increased from 383 to more than 600.
The Type J-11 fighter is an example of an advanced 4th generation platform brought into service, which can effectively contest airspace against the F-15 and F/A-18 class. However, early third generation types like the J-7 (MiG-21 variants) persist throughout the PLAAF and are of limited effectiveness against modern air assets. The newly inducted Sukhoi Su-35, equipped with the Irbis-E AESA, is the most advanced aircraft in the Chinese inventory at present, with a total of 24 of this type to be delivered to China from Russia by end 2018. However, a clear distrust exists between Russia and China, with the latter earlier having reverse engineered a large amount of Russian aerospace intellectual property/ technology to yield home–grown aircraft types/components. Aero engines are one of these critical technologies, and virtually all indigenous Chinese aircraft lack quality engines capable of operating for longer than a few hundred hours, with dismal performance from the locally developed high performance turbofans of Russian origin such as the WS- 10. Maintenance requirements for these systems will potentially sideline large numbers of systems in the event of long term operations. Thus, the PLAAF’s ability to maintain strategic long term superiority remains suspect, at least for the next 15 to 20 years, reinforcing its focus on short term/ range campaigns.
On the other hand, China is the only country outside the United States to have
two ongoing stealth fighter programmes, the J-20 and the J-31. The J-20’s airframe suggests a stealth interceptor designed to counter the opposition at long ranges. The J-31’s frame suggests a modern air-to-air fighter, with a multi–mission capability, that will be combat ready in the next 5 years. The true capabilities of the J- 20 and the J-31 are yet to be seen, but they do represent the PLAAF’s progression towards a fully modern air force, capable of delivering offensive deep strike missions against similar modern air defences. These Fourth and Fifth Generation PLAAF Air superiority fighters are covered in detail in the later part of this article.
Tactical/ Long Range Strike
For tactical strike, the PLAAF relies on its fleet of JH-7/JH-7A fighter bombers. Though underpowered, the JH-7 equipped with the excellent JL-10A terrain following radar has a good low level penetration performance. However, its role is being transitioned onto the multirole J-10/11/16s and the Su-30MKK/ Su-35 types which can be equipped with a wide variety of guided/ unguided air to ground ordinance.
The PLAAF’s long range strike capability has lagged behind many of its other capability enhancement initiatives. The PLAAF relies upon the 120-unit strong H-6 family of strategic bombers derived from the Soviet Tu-16 ‘Badger’ bomber. This design is over 50 years old, having undergone numerous modernisation packages that keeps it a viable, but is not a truly impressive standoff strike platform. First revealed in 2007, the D-30KP turbofan-powered H-6K was developed to primarily carry under its wings six nuclear/non-nuclear ( CJ- 10/ 20) land- attack cruise missiles, each of which has a maximum range of 1,500/ 2,200 km. It can also carry the electro- optically- guided KD- 63 landattack cruise missile, with a range of 200 km. The H- 6K could well saturate the Taiwanese and Indian A2/ AD setups during time of conflict operating out of hinterland Chinese bases, but will nowhere threaten mainland US targets. Recent PLAAF literature has emphasised the need for ‘super bombers’ able to carry out larger volume strike missions, with increased survivability and a more global spanning range. Such literature reflects a yearning of the PLAAF that remains unfulfilled and is unlikely to be fulfilled in the next 15 to 20 years, so tempering China’s LR strike capability for decades to come.
Development of a new long range stealth bomber is reportedly underway at China’s 603 Technical Institute. Designated the H-20, the aircraft design features a wing design similar to the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, with components already being manufactured. It will carry an internal payload of cruise missiles and bombs. Analysts note that the Xian-manufactured bomber may enter service by 2025 and will seek to replace China’s existing fleet of Xian H-6K bombers. Certain contributions to the H-20 project were made by one Noshir Gowadia, a design engineer who previously worked for Northrop Grumman. He had also contributed to the B-2 Spirit development but in 2011, was convicted and sentenced to 32 years for selling classified information to China.
The Chinese military’s lack of meaningful air transport capability was apparent in air evacuation operations from countries like Libya and Yemen in the past and the PLAAF has worked to correct the glaring deficiency since then. The Chinese military is estimated to require at least 100 heavy lift aircraft of the Il-76 class. With only 20 Il-76 in service, the PLA’s strategic lift requirement could be as massive as 500 such aircraft by 2030. Indigenous development of the Y-20 (the 50-ton capacity airlifter, ‘inspired’ from the C-17 and the An-70) heavy lift transport has been China’s long term response to this perceived short fall and has entered service in 2016, providing timely enhancement in this area.
However, plagued with limited supply of DK- 30 turbofans for the Y- 20, the Y- 20A is expected to be equipped with the under development WS- 20 turbofan, to enhance capability to 66 tons as originally planned. The Y- 20A has benefitted from MBD and ADT design and development techniques, signaling Chinese willingness to cut short development and manufacturing time to meet operational requirements. The Y- 20A is likely to become the common platform serving next generation multi mission needs including AEW&C, EW, Air-to-Air Refueling and able to operate out of airfields in Tibet with ease. However, like all Chinese indigenous aircraft,
the Y- 20 suffers from engine quality control issues, that make sustained use of the upcoming fleet difficult in the long term. On the other hand, introduction of the Y-9 (22-ton capacity) and a small (44 numbers) Y-8 medium transport fleet would fulfill the much in-demand C-130- class medium-lift capability. The Y-30 is another Medium-Lift transport under development in the 30- tonne payload class.
In 2016, the Aviation Industry Corporation of China ( AICC) and Antonov Corporation signed an agreement to restart production of the An- 225. This massive 640 ton, sixengine transport is the world’s largest aircraft. Measuring 84 metres in length with a wingspan of over 88 metres, it holds the world record for payload at 250 tons. The agreement between AICC and Antonov aims for first flight of the new An-225 in 2019. The second stage of the project will involve the complete transfer of technology, including the 23-ton thrust Progress D-18T turbofan engines, to China, for licenced production of a modernised version in Sichuan Province. The An-225 would open incredible new avenues in commercial and military air transportation, and there are plans to open 6 international logistics hubs in China for operations of medium & heavy lift transport. On the military front, the An- 225 would provide China with the kind of large and global a lift that not even the US has possessed. The Type would be certainly able to airlift strategic assets like ICBMs, space rockets/shuttles, S-400 SAMs and MBTs across all deployable locations, thus reducing strategic response time.
The Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC), has developed its C-919 airliner which can seat up to 168 passengers and is intended to compete with the single-aisle jets, such as the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737. The 80-minute first flight of the C-919 took place recently on 5 May 2017, at Shanghai’s Pudong airport. This is another platform which could well be modified for troop transport, special missions and for MR/LR ASUW/ASW employment.
As an assessment, the training regimen required to effectively carry out large scale air lift operations at extreme ranges from rapid deployment of assets has yet to be fully realised. Training is lacking for most capabilities in the PLA when compared to Western standards and such air lift operations are no exception. This training
deficiency will handicap any potential of the PLAAF’s airlift capability in high pressure situations. The other issue is the non-availability of homegrown aero engines, critically limiting the competency and number of types required for sustaining long range air transport operations. Still, China’s plans to enhance its global airlift capabilities mirrors the immense gains made in global sea transportation, investing deeply its reach across the globe in coming years.
Air-to-air refuelling is another logistical capability which the PLAAF has been steadily enhancing. It has been capable of carrying out mid-air refuelling for some time, however it has not operationally mastered this at a strategic level. The PLAAF’s mid- air refuelling capability is restrained by a lack of aerial tankers, which besides the converted H-6D/Us fleet, has only a limited number of modern Il-78 platforms (3 Il-76 tankers acquired from Ukraine). Compounding the numbers issue is a lack of refueling commonality between the two PLAAF tanker types. This mismatch likely means that the future Y-20 transport may only refuel Chinese types as a tanker type while the handful of Il-78s will support fighters such as the Su-27, Su-30 and Su-35s, which form the bulk of the PLAAF’s high end air superiority and offensive air support capability. Thus the small number of aerial tankers available will remain a handicap in improving long range superiority capabilities in such areas as the South China Sea and the Tibetan region.
Over the past decades, increasing focus has been placed on leapfrogging measures to close the PLAAF’s cyber and electronic warfare (EW) gap with the United States and Western Europe. The development of sophisticated command, control, and communications ( C3), or intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance ( ISR) capabilities has been the PLAAF’s most urgent priority.
Older recce and EW aircraft are being supplemented by newer types like the KJ- 2000 ( Il- 76 AWACs), KJ- 500 (Y-9AEW&C), ZDK-03 (Y-8 AEW&C), KJ-200 (Y-8 AEW&C) and the Tu-154 (ISR/ELINT/ /EW). The KJ-2000 was developed in China after the US forced the Israeli’s to cancel sale of its EL/W2090 Phalcon AESA radar for the Chinese
A- 501 programme. As of date, with engine availability plaguing the Il-76 fleet, the readiness of the KJ-2000 fleet too is limited. The KJ-500 employs 3-faced fixed AESA radars on the top of a modified Y-9 aircraft, which can track over 60 aircraft at ranges of up to 470 km. This arrangement offers continuous 360 º radar coverage. The KJ-200 system, employing a ‘balance beam’ phased array radar and based on the Y-8F-600 platform, can locate targets out to 400km. In February 2017 a Lockheed P-3 Orion of the US Navy and a KJ-200 inadvertently came close to each other over the South China Sea but avoided collision.
Such different variants being developed indicate that the Chinese are yet to consolidate on a preferred AEW&C type for their long term needs, with the KJ-500 emerging as a stable contender from the present stock, and likely to replace the KJ2000 platform by 2022. Availability of the Y-20A and the C919 will certainly address this issue in the coming decade even though the PLAAF will be severely limited in its capacity to deploy overwhelming number of AEW assets over multiple battle areas at the same time till 2030. Hence, induction of special mission aircraft will be a priority for the PLAAF in the coming decade, seeking consolidation of aircraft types.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
China has developed a variety of advanced military-use UAVs in recent years. The range of UAVs, from hand-launched to taxiing models with extended loiter times, being capable of multiple missions, including Unmanned Combat, C4ISTAR and EW, also serving as launch platforms for various weapons, and acting as decoys or A-A targets. The Chinese are only next to the American in the areas of ‘Autonomy’ and ‘Swarm’ based drone operations, which aim to attain local superiority over conflict zones.
Amongst the most advanced of these unmanned systems are the Caihong CH4/ 5 ( Rainbow), an unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) similar to the US MQ- 9 Reaper, the BZK- 005/ HY- 01 medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAV, the Wing Loong ( or Yilong), a MALE UAV similar to the Predator and the Xianglong (Soaring Eagle), a HALE UAV similar to the Global Hawk. The Soaring Eagle is a HALE UAV, featuring an unusual joined, tandem wing plane. While not a true stealth aircraft, the Soaring Eagle appears to sport some accepted stealth features such as its outward canted V-tail arrangement, chinned fuselage body, and S-duct work used to aspirate the WP-13 turbojet engine within.
There are at least three Chinese UAVs designed to carry precision strike weapons, being the Wing Loong/Yilong (Sky Sabre,) and the Lijian (Sharp Sword), which is the PLA’s first stealth drone. The Lijian is actually China’s first official foray into a jet-powered, stealth–minded UAV and is believed to serve the role of technology demonstrator for a possible future combat system. The design was photographed during a taxi run in May 2013, officially marking its appearance in the Chinese aircraft inventory. The third is a supersonic design under development called the Anjian (Dark Sword), which may have dogfighting capabilities.
China has recently started deploying the potent Shen Diao (Divine Eagle) HALE UAV, which was reportedly first tested in 2015. This is a twin-fuselage aircraft, with long-range air to air/ground surveillance and strike coordination capabilities, that could advance China’s A2/AD capabilities literally by leaps and bounds. Flying at
altitudes up to 25 km (79,000 feet), the twin bodied fuselage of the Divine Eagle has electromagnetic permeables, which are likely to house the Divine Eagle’s long range anti-stealth radars, indicating that its radar arrays are 10 metres long, suggesting transmission of lower frequency (L and S Band) radar waves for stealth aircraft detection. VHF wave length starts at one metre and in fact requires the length of the Divine Eagle. Since VHF wavelength is one metre and higher, very few VHF T/R modules can be placed in the radomes. Thus, owing to the constraints imposed by physics, the only place to locate a VHF AESA radar with reasonable resolution is along the length of the fuselage and to achieve interferometry, it would require two fuselages at a fixed distance from each other. The Chinese Divine Eagle antistealth UAV fulfills both requirements.
Formations of Divine Eagle UAVs could provide an early warning line to detect threats to China’s airspace, such as from cruise missiles and stealth bombers, also taking on such missions as hunting for aircraft carriers in the open waters of the Pacific. One presumes that the Divine Eagle would also be able to find targets for the notorious DF-21D ‘carrier killer’ anti-ship ballistic missile.
In the absence of adequate manned ISR and special mission assets, the PLA will rely heavily on unmanned platforms to engage in ISR roles and provide unique capabilities like precision strike and wide area persistent surveillance, which will give an undeniable edge to the PLAAF over future battlefields.
Anti-Access/ Area-Denial (A2/AD) Defence Capability
Chinese A2/ AD capabilities have considerably improved over the last 20 years and all signs point to it continuing to improve even further. The PLAAF has moved from static and short range surface to air missile (SAM) systems of the ‘Cold War’ to mobile systems with a substantial range to cover most of Taiwan when deployed on the Fujian Coast. Since the 1990s, China has relied upon a mix of imported Russian systems like the S- 300PMU- 1 to cover
swaths of A2/AD zones even as China has successfully reverse-engineered Russian and Western technologies and incorporated elements from both the S-300 and Patriot family of SAM systems to develop the indigenous HQ-9 system. The HQ-9, with a 200km range, represents China’s strongest attempt yet to create a modern LR-SAM component. China concurrently developed the 50-km-range HQ-12 SAM, which has been followed by the HQ-16 SAM.
Supplementing these is the recent acquisition of Russia’s S-400 ‘Triumph’ ( SA- 21) SAM, the most modern nonwestern system in the world with even longer ranges and enhanced tracking capabilities. China will reportedly be receiving the first six S-400 batteries by mid-2017 and may simultaneously develop its indigenous CSA-X-19 (HQ-19) to provide the basis for a ballistic missile defence capability.
China’s principal radar manufacturer, the China Electronics Technology Group Corporation ( CETC), exhibited air defence radars at Zhuhai 2016, which claims detection of low-observable aircraft such as the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and F- 35 Lightning II. One of these, the JY-27A 3-D is a VHF band AESA LR surveillance/guidance radar. The second is the JY-26 Skywatcher-U, which operates in the VHF/ UHF bands. Both have a claimed range of 500 km. Over the Horizon (OTH) detection HF based radars have also been deployed by China to monitor back scatter returns from the East and South China Seas. These are complex and large systems, which use multiple sites to detect flying objects and surface vessels, including stealthy aircraft. A Quantum radar is also reported to be under development by the CETC’s 14th Institute. Quantum radars can theoretically defeat stealth by using subatomic particles, instead of radio waves. Conventional signature reduction techniques and jamming cannot defeat ‘Quantum’ detection and although details are sketchy, detection range of 61 miles has been achieved as per Chinese media. As part of its anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defence network, China is developing phased array long- range early warning radar system, similar to the US PAVE PAWS, capable of detecting targets up to 5,500 kilometres distant. The experimental sets are positioned in Heilongjiang, Xinjiang and Fujian provinces which can monitor space vehicles, as well as reentry targets and appear to use derived technologies from the Soviet era ‘ Hen House’ ABM radar systems.
The PLAAF’s SAM systems and their degree of integration with defensive interceptor aircraft are not fully known of as of now, especially along some of the world’s most densely populated radar networks around the East and South China Seas. Without constant coordination and training, Chinese fighter interceptors and missiles will not be able to operate in the same environment without severe risk of friendly fire, giving a sense of mixed progress. Notwithstanding issues of integration and control, the S- 400/ 300/ HQ- 19/ 9 LR SAMs, along with a contemporary LR detection radars, will form a formidable A2/AD shield, capable of defending China against the next generation offensive platforms of the United States and other regional powers.
Chines Military Regions (MRs) with PLA deployment in 2017
The PLAAF is heavily investing in improving pilot training standards as part of the ongoing reforms
An artistic image of the H-20 bomber, being designed by China’s 603 Technical Institute, which resembles the Northrop B-2 bomber to a large extent
An-225 will be handed over to China in 2019
The JY-27A anti stealth radar has evolved from the JY-27, which appears to be copy of the Russian 1L13/ 119 Nebo SV VHF radar series
The HQ-9 is deployed extensively in the South China Sea on Chinese claimed islands and reefs. It, along