Singapore Air Show

China Heads Out To Sea

 - February 15, 2012, 2:15 AM
China’s Y-8, pictured here equipped with an airborne warning and control system, is being offered as a maritime patrol platform. The reworked airframe features a long magnetic anomaly detector boom and a weapons bay for anti-ship missiles.

Since the late 1980s China has aggressively pursued a policy of modernizing its defense industries, with the aim of rivaling those of the West and Russia. Now the results of that policy are reaching the front line, allowing China’s forces to transition from a Cold War inventory that was dominated by huge quantities of unsophisticated equipment to a leaner force equipped with systems that are smarter and more competitive with those fielded by the West.

In recent times the air force has been revived by the fielding of the Chengdu J-10, a genuine fourth-generation multi-role type, as well as the purchase from Russia and unlicensed copying of advanced “Flanker” versions. A stealthy fifth-generation prototype, the Chengdu J-20, has appeared. Chinese weaponry has undergone a change, too, so that GPS- and laser-guided munitions are in the inventory, along with active radar air-to-air missiles and long-range anti-ship weapons. Unmanned aerial vehicles have not been ignored either, and a wealth of unmanned designs have appeared

For the West, however, perhaps the most worrying developments concern China’s maritime ambitions, and the impending delivery of the first aircraft carrier to the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).

Chinese Aircraft Carrier

In April 1988 the Hong Kong-based Chong Lot Travel Agency purchased the nearly complete “Kuznetsov”-class carrier Varyag ostensibly for employment as a floating casino and amusement park. Lacking a rudder or engine, the vessel was to be towed to China from the Black Sea. Its voyage–beset initially by Turkish refusal to allow it through the Bosphorus, and then by breaking loose in a gale–eventually took nearly two years before it arrived at Dalian shipyard on March 3, 2002.

In 2005 the vessel was moved into a drydock and refurbishment began. It became obvious that it was now destined for the military. Work continued apace, and by the end of 2009 the vessel had a new mast with advanced sensors. That year a dummy deck, complete with island, was built at the Wuhan Naval Research Institute at Huangjia Lake.

The first official acknowledgement of the vessel came on June 8 last year, with the notice that that the ship was to be used for training and to provide a model for future carrier construction. This was further confirmed in late July, shortly before the carrier slipped its moorings in Dalian for its first sea trials.

Reportedly named Shi Lang, the carrier set sail for a four-day trial on August 10. A second set of trials was undertaken from November 29, during which the ship was photographed by a commercial U.S. satellite while at sea. A third trial began on December 20. While it appears that the carrier has some way to go before trials with aircraft commence, the PLAN is expected to take delivery some time this year.

Carrier Fighter

In 2006 it was reported in Russia that China had ordered 50 Sukhoi Su-33 fighters to equip its forthcoming carrier fleet. By 2009, however, the deal was off. China had apparently acquired the T-10K-3 prototype for the Su-33 from the Ukraine in 2001, and was reverse-engineering the aircraft in the same way that it began building unlicensed copies of the Su-27 to produce the J-11B land-based fighter.

This work was entrusted to Shenyang, which incorporated Chinese avionics and armament into the J-11B. These were also fitted in the carrier-capable Su-33 copy, which was designated J-15 and named Flying Shark. This aircraft, initially flying on the power of Russian AL-31F engines, made its first flight on Aug. 31, 2009, and by the following May was undertaking trials on dummy deck installations.

Since then several J-15s have appeared, including those fitted with the intended powerplant, the Shenyang Liming WS-10H. This is a version of the indigenous powerplant treated for prolonged maritime operations.

The aircraft carrier is reportedly designed to carry an air group of 26 fixed-wing aircraft and 24 helicopters. It is likely that the latter will include the Kamov Ka-31 to provide airborne early warning capability, the first of which was reportedly delivered from Russia in late 2010.

Fighter Developments

Since its dramatic appearance at the end of 2010 the Chengdu J-20 stealthy fighter has continued flight-testing. It is thought that two have been built, with some reports suggesting that a third will fly this year with some operational systems and the intended WS-15 engines installed. Various analyses of the J-20 have highlighted China’s considerable advances in stealth technology, putting the aircraft nearly on a par with the F-22.

In the meantime, Chengdu is on the verge of putting the J-10B into production, if it has not done so already. This development features a stealthy serpentine intake and an active array radar with a reported 1,152 transmit/receive modules. Other reported fighter programs include a “JH-XX” development of the Xian JH-7 attacker with reduced radar cross section and, more tantalizingly, a JSF-like fifth-generation fighter that is smaller than the J-20. There are also rumors of a vertical landing fighter, possibly dubbed J-18, that may be the same aircraft.

Other Developments

China’s progress in unmanned air vehicles has been impressive. Among the types that have recently been unveiled is the Chengdu Pterodactyl I, a Predator-like MALE UAV with precision munitions capability, the Soaring Dragon box-wing HALE and several smaller types, including a scale model of a Neuron-like unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV), reportedly from Shenyang.

In the helicopter field Changhe has been developing the Z-10, a dedicated attack helicopter in the mold of the Eurocopter Tiger. The program has been delayed through powerplant issues, but it is thought that at least 12 have been delivered to a PLA test unit. Meanwhile, Harbin flew a prototype of its Z-19 light scout/attack helicopter in May 2010. Clearly based on the H-425 (itself a development of the Eurocopter Dauphin that Harbin builds under license), the Z-19 has a new tandem-seat forward fuselage grafted on, with weapon pylons added on the side.

The Avicopter AC313, a development of the Aérospatiale Super Frelon, was recently certified, having made its first flight on Mar. 18, 2010. The 1960s design has been thoroughly overhauled, with three Pratt & Whitney PT6B engines, modern systems, and composite/titanium rotors.

Late last year photos appeared showing what appeared to be a new maritime patrol version of the Y-8, possibly designated Y-8Q, or Y-8GX-6. The Y-8 has also been seen with a rotodome installation for the airborne early warning role. It is unclear as to whether the aircraft is a radar testbed, or an intended operational type for the PLAN air force. Other Y-8 derivatives include EW and Elint versions.

Possibly the next major Chinese program to emerge from the shadows will be the Y-20, a four-engine transport that falls somewhere in size between the Il-76 and C-17, and drawing inspiration from both. Developed by Xian and Shaanxi, the Y-20 program has been assisted by Antonov. Reports from China suggest that the prototype airframe is complete and should be rolled out some time this year.