Chinese Air Force H-6M Bomber
2012-03-17 (China Military News cited from aviationweek.com and by Richard D. Fisher, Jr.)
As China starts to put together a modern, integrated air force, which could reach 1,000 fighters by 2020, it is developing the components of a future force of stealthier combat aircraft, new bombers and unmanned, hypersonic and possibly space-based combat platforms. These could emerge as soon as the early 2020s.
This dual track was illustrated in late 2010 by two events. One was the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (Plaaf) first foreign demonstration of its modern capabilities: a combined-force mission of Xian Aircraft Co. H-6 bombers supported by Chengdu Aircraft Co. J-10 multi-role fighters, KJ-2000 airborne early warning and control aircraft. and H-6U tankers for an exercise in Kazakhstan. The other was the unveiling four months later of the Chengdu stealth fighter prototype, widely known as the J-20, followed in early 2011 by its first official flight.
The modernization drive relies on a comprehensive aerospace technology development program that started in the early 1990s. The first underlying doctrine was guided by “access denial” strategies that gelled in the late 1990s and focused on conflict over Taiwan. They were followed after 2005 by “New Historic Mission” strategies, propelling the PLA to dominate at greater distances and to build new, farther-reaching expeditionary capabilities.
To speed development of new weapons, the PLA has encouraged defense- sector competition since major logistics reforms in 1998, at the price of subsidizing greater redundancy. Though less prevalent in aerospace than in other defense fields, there is significant redundancy in combat aircraft, unmanned aircraft, electronics and weapons development and production.
Chengdu and the Shenyang Aircraft Co., China’s main fighter concerns, manage both stealthy and conventional fighter programs. China purchased 176 Sukhoi Su-27SK/UBK/Su-30MKK/MK2 twin-engine fighters, and co-produced over 100 more as the J-11 under license from Russia. In 2008, Shenyang started delivering the unlicensed J-11B with indigenous engines, radar and weapons, and today it is China’s most capable domestic production fighter. More than 120 J-11B and twin-seat J-11BSs serve in the air force, and are expected to be upgraded with better engines and an active, electronically scanned array (AESA) radar as they become available. A dedicated attack version of the J-11BS dubbed the “J-16” may also include these upgrades. Though it lost to Chengdu for the heavy stealth-fighter program, there is a persistent buzz that Shenyang is self-funding a medium-weight stealth warplane, perhaps called “J-60.”
Shenyang’s J-15, a near-facsimile of the Sukhoi Su-33 carrier-based fighter, is leading a new era of growth for the PLA navy’s air force. Having undergone land-based testing over the last year with the short-takeoff but arrested-recovery (Stobar) system to be used by China’s first aircraft carrier, the refurbished Russian Varyag, the J-15 could begin carrier-based testing later this year and when fully developed could prove as potent as the Boeing F/A-18E/F. An initial carrier air wing will include Changhe Z-8 airborne early warning and control helicopters with airborne early warning radar, and perhaps Russian Kamov Ka-32 anti-submarine and Ka-31 AEW helicopters.
A twin-turboprop E-2 class airborne early warning/antisubmarine warfare (AEW/ASW) aircraft is under development, perhaps for conventional-takeoff-and-landing (CTOL) on two nuclear carriers that may follow two more non-nuclear Stobar carriers. In November 2011, images emerged of a long-awaited ASW version of the Shaanxi Y-8 “New High” medium transport, which will finally give the navy an oceanic ASW and maritime surveillance platform.
Since 2003, more than 200 of Chengdu’s “low end” canard-configuration single-engine J-10A and twin-seat J-10S fighters have entered service—forming the low end of a high-low mix with the larger J-11B. Production may soon switch to the upgraded J-10B equipped with an AESA radar, infrared search and track sensor, radar cross-section reduction measures and improved electronic warfare system. One J-10B prototype has been tested with a version of the Shenyang-Liming WS-10A turbofan. This fighter may be the basis for the “FC-20” version expected to be purchased by Pakistan
Just before the service’s 60th anniversary in October 2009, a Chinese air force general stated that their next-generation fighter would enter service between 2017 and 2019, though a late- 2010 report of PLA interest in purchasing the Russian AL-41 turbofan for this fighter might accelerate that timeline. Since its emergence on the Internet in late 2010, Chengdu’s stealthy twin-engine canard J-20 has been photographed and videoed extensively undergoing testing at Chengdu. Expected to be fitted with 15-ton-class thrust-vectored turbofans in its production form, this aircraft is expected to be capable of supercruise and extreme post-stall maneuvering, and will be equipped with an AESA radar and distributed infrared warning sensors.
In 2005 a Chinese official said that an “F-35”-class program was being considered by Chengdu. China also has long been interested in short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing (Stovl) fighters, and long-standing Russian and Chinese reports point to a possible Chengdu program based on technology from the Yakovlev Yak-141, a supersonic Stovl prototype tested in the late 1980s.
A potential development of medium-weight stealth fighters by 2020 would cap an expected decade of more intensive export offerings. While the export effort is led by Chengdu’s FC-1/JF-17 cooperative program with Pakistan (which could acquire up to 300 fighters) and the fighter could yet be purchased by the air force, greater international appeal may follow its being equipped with a Chinese engine—a likely near-term prospect.
But China is already laying the foundation for sales of the FC-1, and perhaps the J-10B and J-11B, by aggressively marketing low-cost trainers like the Hongdu K-8 and the supersonic L-15, with generous financing credits and production technology transfers. This “food chain” strategy has worked in Pakistan, and could be repeated in Egypt and as far away as Latin America. Venezuela and Bolivia are customers for light attack versions of the K-8 and Venezuelan officials reportedly visited the Chengdu factory in late 2011.
The Chinese air force and navy have taken delivery of about 170 of the twin-engine Xian JH-7/JH-7A strike fighters, with indications that Xian may be developing a reduced-signature variant. Approaching the longevity and mission evolution of the Boeing B-52, Xian’s latest version H-6K bomber entered low-rate production in 2010, equipped with more powerful and efficient Progress D-30KP turbofans and a redesigned nose with modern radar and optics. The bomber is armed with more than six land-attack cruise missiles. Little is known about Xian’s follow-on bomber program, except that it could emerge this decade. In late 2009 an “official” model of a large, stealthy delta-wing bomber was revealed, though its provenance is unknown. In early 2010 Chinese academics from the prestigious Institute of Mechanics, a leading hypersonics research center, produced a paper on an apparent large aircraft with a Mach 3 cruise speed, with illustrations and wind tunnel models indicating it could be an optionally manned platform.
This year or next, Xian is expected to unveil a new 50-60-ton payload Y-20 four-engine strategic transport. While the Comac C919 twin-turbofan regional airliner is an established, well-known program, Chinese officials are far more reticent about a Boeing 767-sized widebody four-turbofan airliner program at Xian. Though its business case may be unclear, this platform could serve multiple military missions.
To power its aerospace transformation, China has purchased about 1,000 Russian Saturn AL-31 turbofans for its Su-27/J-11 and J-10A fleets, which are receiving Chinese-developed service-life extensions. But after 25 years of intensive investments, new Chinese fighter and large high-bypass turbofan engines are emerging. In 2008 the Shenyang-Liming WS-10A was good enough to enter service with the J-11B, perhaps slightly below thrust goals at 12.7 tons, but it now powers the J-11BS and prototypes of the J-15 and J-10B. Shenyang-Liming may also be working toward a 15-ton variant of this engine. The Gas Turbine Research Institute has put a new 8-9.5-ton-thrust turbofan on one FC-1 and has advanced the development of a 15-ton engine for J-20. Shenyang-Liming, Xian and the Avic Commercial Aircraft Engine Co. have 13+-ton-thrust high-bypass turbofan engine programs to power military and commercial transports, and perhaps a new bomber.
Prototypes of the J-10B use China’s first fighter-sized AESA radar by the Nanjing Research Institute of Engineering Technology (NRIET) and future versions of the J-11 and J-15 fighters are expected to have AESA. NRIET’s mechanically scanned array radar on the J-10A and FC-1 can manage two simultaneous air-to-air missile (AAM) engagements at over 100 km (62 mi.). The Luoyang PL-12 actively guided AAM may have a range of 100 km, while the helmet-sighted PL-8 and PL-9 short-range AAMs may be replaced with a helmet-display sighted PL-10. Two companies produce families of satellite and laser-guided munitions, down to 50-kg (110-lb.) weapons for unmanned combat air vehicles.
China has developed a plethora of AEW platforms. The Plaaf itself uses the “high end” KJ-2000, based on the Beriev A-50, and the smaller KJ-2000 based on the Xian Y-8 turboprop transport, with a “balance beam” AESA antenna like that of the Saab Erieye. China has also exported the Y-8-based ZDK-03 with a “saucer” radar array to Pakistan. These will be joined soon by the Chengdu/Guizhou Soar Dragon box-wing strategic UAV.
Leadership for space warfare is being sought by the air force, and its leaders clearly enunciated new strategies calling for space warfare capabilities in late 2009. But today China’s manned and unmanned space program is controlled by the General Armaments Department of the Central Military Commission. The air force’s case, however, could be advanced by Chengdu’s small Shenlong spaceplane—which may have undertaken initial sub-orbital tests by late 2010—and could be developed into an X-37B-like craft. In 2006, engineers from the China Academy of Space Launch Technology outlined plans to build a 100-ton+ space shuttle-like spaceplane, perhaps by 2020, or a more efficient sub-orbital hypersonic vehicle that would launch attached payloads. “Flying” platforms could fall under air force control, while “dual use” missions of PLA-controlled satellites and manned space platforms could remain under GAD control.
But a clash could also occur over the future ballistic missile defense mission, which Asian military sources suggest could be realized by the mid-2020s. The successful warhead interception of January 2010 was likely a GAD program, but the air force’s expected development of very-long-range anti-aircraft missiles with anti-ballistic missile capabilities might also justify its potential claim on mission leadership.