The Dragon’s Fighters
Long regarded as a beneficiary from the cancelled Israeli Lavi fighter aircraft programme, the Chengdu J-10 is perhaps the most successfully designed frontline combat aircraft in service with PLAAF, matching capabilities with its western opponents like the F-15/ F-16/ Mirage 2000. Its development started as a requirement to create a fourth-generation fighter aircraft in 1983 at CAC. Meant to be a J- 7 replacement, the first prototype flew in 1998, largely helped by the Israelis and Russians. A single Russian AL- 31FN ( series 1) turbofan powered the J-10 prototype and the first J-10A regiment was formed in 2004. The J-10 currently equips nine PLAAF frontline units, as well as the PLAAF’s Aerial Demonstration team Ba Yi (August First), which was formed in 2009.
The final J- 10A rolled off the production line in Chengdu in 2014. Its armament consists of the PL- 12 AAM, LS500J PGMs and the K/ JDC- 01 FLIR targeting pod. In 2009, the J- 10B was unveiled with a new fixed diverter less inlet ( DSI), a flatter radome, an Infra- Red Search & Tracking Unit (IRST) and a holographic HUD. Although powered by the Russian AL-31FN (series 3) turbofan, it is believed that the domestic WP-10B engine has been mated to this version by 2013. The radar sensor is a X-band passive electronically scanned array (PESA) developed by No. 607 Technical Institute. The first frontline J-10B unit was formed
in 2015 and at the same time the first J-10C, equipped with an AESA radar developed by the 14th Institute, and manufactured with greater use of composite material and the WS-10B made an appearance at Chengdu in late 2014. The Block 02 J-10C will replace the Block 01 J- 10B on the production lines and probably all J-10 variants will be brought to the J-10C standard by 2022. By mid 2016, a total of 350 J-10s had entered active service with the PLAAF. Though not part of the WTC forces, J-10As have been consistently seen operating out of Gonggar and Shigatse in Tibet over the past few years. In all probability, some of the WTC regiments will be re equipped by this type by 2018. In June 2017, a J-10C flew with a PL-15 BVRAAM for the first time.
The Chinese leaned towards Russia in the 1990s for supply of a fourth-generation fighter aircraft. After due diligence in 1991, a contract was signed between Russia and China to equip the PLAAF with the Su27SK air superiority fighter, which consisted of direct supply of the Sukhois from Russia, as well as assembly of KnAAPO’s knocked down Su-27SK kits in China. 200 of these were to be license produced at Shenyang by China under the designation J-11. In 1999, an upgraded version of the J-11, equipped with new N001V/ VE radar flew for the first time and was designated the J-11A. Seven PLAAF units are equipped with this variant.
When faced by issues concerning supply of avionics and other parts from Russia, the Chinese then cancelled the contract in 2000, with about 100 kits supplied as part of the original deal. The Chinese, in their usual manner shrewdly reverse engineered the original Su-27SK into a version called the J-11B, which used Chinese-made parts instead of the original Russian components. Though accused by the Russians of flying an unlicensed copy of the original Su-27SK, the Chinese went
ahead with the production of the J-11B in 2007, equipping these with the Type 1474 or 1478/KLJ-4 pulse Doppler radar, a glass cockpit and after the initial run with Russian AL-31Fs, the WP-10A ‘Taihang’ turbofan. By 2014, J-10Bs equipped three PLAAF regiments, with the likelihood of the J-11As being upgraded soon to this standard in terms of avionics.
The J-11D prototype (D1101) made its first flight on 29 April, 2015. The J-11D features an upwardly canted radar dome, carrying an AESA radar, as well as further use of composites and stealth coatings in the fuselage to reduce weight. The fighter’s Infrared Search and Tracking (IRST) pod has been relocated starboard of the cockpit, to accommodate a retractable inflight refueling (IFR) probe. The J-11D is also believed to have improved weapons hard points to carry the latest Chinese weapons, such as PL-10 AAMs, the long range PL15 missile and YJ-12 anti-ship missile. As a cross development of this platform, the J-15 is a carrier-based variant of the J-11BS, with canards, a strengthened under carriage, and folding wings, and is deployed on the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning. Another version, the J- 16, is a twin seat strike oriented platform, which is a copy of the Russian Su-30MKK design.
In November 2016, a Chinese J-16 testfired a gigantic hypersonic missile, reportedly destroying the target drone at very long ranges. The missile is 19 feet long, with range exceeding 300 km. The VLRAAM flies 15 km upward of its launching fighter to a 30 km altitude, guided by a combination of long range radars and satellite navigation, before dive bombing at hypersonic speeds onto enemy aircraft, including stealth fighters, stealth bombers and AEW&C aircraft. This weapon will add a punch to the Chinese air dominance effort against the threat of US combat and AEW&C aircraft, and may be designated as the PL-21.
Chengdu J-20 Stealth Fighter
First revealed by the US Office of Naval Intelligence in 1997 as Project 718, the J-20 is envisaged as China’s next generation fighter aircraft with advanced stealth features. In early 2002, Shenyang (SAC), was chosen to develop the fighter, but owing to unknown reasons, the project was handed over to Chengdu at its Factory 132. While little is known of its development in the interim period, in November 2009, the PLAAF’s Deputy Chief had stated that China’s next generation fighter “would soon fly”, with projected initial operational capability by 2019. He revealed that the design would imbibe four ‘ S’
capabilities : stealth, super cruise, super maneuverability and short take off. By 2010 two prototypes (No 2001 and 2002) were under development, with the first flight performed in January 2011 from CAC’s home base at Chengdu Huangtuanba. By 2012 four airframes had been built (2001, 2002, 2011 and 2012). Around that time, it received several unofficial appellations such as Black Eagle, Black Silk or the Wei Long (Mighty Dragon).
The J-20 incorporates design aspects of the F-22 Raptor, with a sharp diamond shaped nose and single piece cockpit. Other fuselage aspects have been borrowed from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as well as the cancelled MiG 1.44 project. It is possible that the Chinese, in an industrial espionage coup, stole part of F-22 and F-35 designs from US contractors, reverse engineered the design and implemented domestic innovations. This was reinforced in 2016 when Su Bin, a Chinese national pleaded guilty with US authorities to conspiring with two unnamed military officers in China to acquire plans for F-22 and F-35 fighters and Boeing’s C- 17 military transport aircraft by illegal means (controlled by the PLA’s Technical Reconnaissance Bureau as part of ‘Operation Byzantine Hades’).
By 2013, Chengdu had began weapons integration of the J-20 with the PL-10 and PL-15 AAMs. A large internal weapons bay accommodates the various armament, in addition to external hard points. Major improvements were done from the third prototype onwards featuring stealth coating, re- designed intakes, retractable refuelling and vertical stabilisers and a new canopy. It had an electro-optical targeting system mounted under the nose which sensor could be Beijing A- Star Science and Technology’s EOTS- 89 electro- optical targeting system (EOTS). At the same time, the J-20 is equipped with six discrete, low profile window apertures around the aircraft, also suspected to house electro optic sensors. The apertures are arranged in the aircraft in such manner whence they appear to provide 360-degree spherical coverage around the aircraft and the placement and configuration of the apertures are like the placement of the six apertures for the F-35’s AN/AAQ-37 Distributed Apertures System. Therefore, some Chinese military watchers have described J- 20’ s Electro Optic Passive Detection System as a ‘DAS’. However, much like the EOTS name, the AN/AAQ37 DAS is a very specific product with specific capabilities for the F-35, and it is unknown if the J-20’s EO PDS will boast similar capabilities.
There are indications that this Chinese jet carries an AESA radar, possibly the Type 1475 (KLJ-5), which is supposedly being tested on a China Test Flight Establishment (CETE) owned Tupolev Tu-204C airliner. Reports suggest that either the NPO Saturn 117S series engine (used on the Russian Su35) or its predecessor, the AL-31FN series3 variant, will power the J-20. However, as seen on the present prototypes, the AL31FN (series 3) cannot generate sufficient
thrust for the J-20 to reach super cruise. Hence the Chinese were keen to get their hands on the Su-35 with its Saturn 117S (AL-41F1S) engines, until the indigenously developed WS- 15 ‘ Emei’ enters service (which is being flight tested on an Il-76 platform). There may also be issues with RCS reduction due to use of canards, which indicates that the Chinese may be facing stability issues on the J-20.
With at least 10 aircraft having been built by late 2016 and a variety of test profiles and certifications being undertaken (including high altitude operational testing in Tibet in September 2016), it appears that the J-20 is on its way for low rate initial production (LRIP), with all older prototypes being delivered to the Flight Test and Training Centre ( FTTC) for development of tactics, weapon testing (PL10 and PL-15 firings) and testing of the full flight envelope.
The J-20 was publically shown for the first time at the Zhuhai Airshow in early November 2016. Two J-20s flew a rather sedate flypast in front of disappointed onlookers at the show, clearly indicating that the development challenges on the J-20 were far from over and beyond the regulation chest thumping, the programme was still work in progress, awaiting a ‘worthy’ engine for the platform.
In November 2016, the appearance of four J-20s with serial numbers from 78271 to 78274 was disclosed on the Internet, such serial numbers being PLA air force numbers. All these J-20s have low visibility coating. In addition, a satellite photo showed two J-20s at Dingxin Air Force Base in Jiuquan City, Gansu Province. The J-20s were obviously taking part in the annual large-scale ‘Red Sword’ combined drill in November. Dingxin may well be the first J-20 base of the PLAAF.
On 9 March 2017, Chinese state television reported that the J-20 ‘Mighty Dragon’, China’s first purportedly stealth combat aircraft, was operational, without giving further details. Still, what China defines as “operational” is a matter of conjecture, however Pentagon officials say the announcement means the J-20 has entered formal operational test and will be flown in conjunction with a variety of other Chinese military aircraft to familiarise the service with the jet’s capabilities and experiment with concepts of operation. Operationally, the J-20 in its present profile, will have limited stealth characteristics, with abilities tweaked towards a BVR combat scenario. Given the production rate of 12- 15 aircraft annually, the PLAAF may not receive its first operational J- 20A regiment before 2019. Still, and whenever this happens, without doubt, the J-20 will have significant impact in the balance of power in Asia and the Pacific region.
Shenyang J-31/ FC-31
During Zhuhai 2014, the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) and Shenyang Corporation showcased the J-31 (export version designated FC-31), at a very early stage of its development programme, especially when one considers that the project was started in 2012. Project 310, as it is known in China, is reportedly also inspired from ‘stolen’ F-35 designs.
The J-31 is being designed as a multi role tactical fighter, to serve alongside the more focused J- 20 as a private AVIC venture through the SAC. It was officially named ‘Falcon Eagle’ at Zhuhai with a strong inclination to market this fighter as a stealth platform for export to “friendly allies”, notably Pakistan. The Pakistan Air Force is reportedly “very interested” in this fifth generation fighter but Observers point out that the aircraft is still under development and “immature”, although the production version will be considerably improved from the present prototype (No. 31001), with better performance and enhanced operational capabilities. The changes will include better RCS reduction with clipped tailfin and wing trailing edge corners for ‘edge alignment’, completely redesigned vertical fins and a single piece cockpit canopy. Presently flying with the Russian RD-93 engine, it is to be fitted with the under development WS-13A turbofan, which will help the J-31 achieve super cruise capability. As with the J-20 the biggest question concerns availability of a modern medium sized high thrust
turbofan, which factor will probably decide whether the project succeeds or fails. With such woes plaguing various aircraft programmes, China has recently established a new company, the Aero Engine Corp of China ( AECC), tasked to research, develop, and manufacture aircraft engines for Chinese aviation programmes. The J-31 sensors include the EOTS/IRST and an AESA radar. Western reports indicate that the J-31 will be a fourth generation + fighter. Hence in theory, it will be a strong contender to replace PLAAF’s J-7/8 fighters and complement the J-10 and J-11s in the coming years. A less reported single engine VTOL version of the J-31, possibly the J-18 is believed to be in existence, the future of which may be severely impacted because of the lack of a suitable engine.
The Rumoured ‘Sixth Generation’ J-28
In line with sixth generation air combat fighter developments in the US, Russia and Japan, there have been rumours of a Chinese sixth-generation fighter aircraft for some years now and this was officially confirmed in an award ceremony for winners of ‘Feng Ru Aviation Tech Elite Award’ held on 16 September 2015. According to Shenyang Aircraft Institute’s general designer Wang Yongqing, who has been working on ‘special mission aircraft, the next would be sixth- generation, following the J-20 and J-31 fifth generation types. China’s Aviation Research Institute No. 611 is working on the J-28, reportedly a sixth-generation multi-function stealth fighter jet. This is to be a hypersonic platform, capable of sub space operations, nuclear capable, have stealth technology, heightened awareness and autonomous characteristics with artificial intelligence, prepared for advanced electronic/ cyber warfare of the futures and coated in ‘smart skin.’ It is assumed that the J-28 would be armed with high yield laser weapons, to engage targets from surface to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) level. Helped by testing of experimentation hypersonic vehicles like the DF-ZF (WU-14), the first prototype is likely to appear around 2030 – ready to take part in the next generation ‘Star Wars’ air combat !
Locations of the J-20’s six Electro Optic Passive Detection System apertures