China Expands ‘Flanker’ Family
While much of the world’s media attention is focused on China’s indigenous fighter programs, such as the J-10, J-20 and J-21/31, Shenyang continues to develop the “Flanker” series that has been in PLAAF (People’s Liberation Army Air Force) service since 1992. The latest versions to go into production are the J-15 carrier-borne fighter, and the J-16 multirole attack aircraft.
China began its association with the Sukhoi Flanker in 1992, when the country became the first outside the former Soviet states to acquire the heavy fighter. Three batches of Su-27SK single-seaters and Su-27UBK two-seaters were acquired directly from Russia, and they initiated a major transformation of China’s air defense capability.
Based on this experience, China negotiated a license to manufacture the Su-27SK at Shenyang. Finalized in 1996, the contract covered 200 aircraft, beginning with the assembly of kits supplied from Russia and moving to increased Chinese production. Known as the J-11, the Shenyang-assembled Flanker suffered from quality control issues, and production ended after only 105 had been produced. They included a number of J-11As with some cockpit and weapon upgrades.
As Shenyang and the collocated 601 Institute gained more experience in building the aircraft, the facilities began to develop an “indigenized” version, the J-11B. Eager to free itself of dependence on Moscow, Chinese industry developed a number of key components that would allow the construction of aircraft without Russian supplies, and also allow them to use weaponry of Chinese origin.
By far the most important new component was the Shenyang Liming WS-10A Taihang engine to replace the Saturn AL-31F. A single flight-test article flew in a J-11WS testbed in 2002, and in 2004 the first true J-11B prototype flew for the first time, with two WS-10As. Production of the J-11B got under way with Chinese engines, but ongoing reliability problems forced subsequent aircraft to return to the AL-31F. Now it seems those issues with the WS-10A have been overcome and production J-11Bs are entering service with the Chinese powerplant. Late last year photos appeared of J-11Bs with a different style of nozzle, suggesting further improvements to the WS-10A.
As well as new engines, the J-11B sports a Chinese multi-function radar, infrared search-and-track turret and a databus that allows the carriage and delivery of range of Chinese weapons, including the PL-12 active-radar air-to-air missile. The cockpit also uses Chinese components, providing modern workplace with five multi-function displays.
J-11Bs entered PLAAF service toward the end of 2007 and their numbers have grown considerably since then. In early 2010 the Chinese naval air arm (PLANAF) began to receive J-11Bs for shore-based fighter operations. To partner the single-seat J-11B, Shenyang has also developed a “homegrown” two-seater designated J-11BS. This aircraft first flew in 2007, and entered service with both the PLAAF and PLANAF in 2010.
Just as the Soviet Union turned to a navalized version of the Flanker (Su-33) to meet its initial carrier-borne fighter needs, so China turned to the Sukhoi design when developing an aircraft to equip its new carrier, Liaoning. In fact, China acquired an Su-33 prototype from Ukraine to assist in the development of its own carrier fighter.
Designated J-15 and named the Flying Shark, China’s carrier-borne Flanker is very similar to the Su-33 in terms of airframe and aircraft systems but with greater use of composite material to keep weight down. In terms of mission equipment, it draws heavily on the indigenous systems developed for the J-11B. It has a similar radar, although it is thought to have expanded modes for its maritime mission. It has the J-11B’s indigenous missile approach warning system and a modern, five-screen cockpit.
In terms of weaponry, the J-15 is armed with a wide range of precision armament for both air-to-air and air-to-surface tasks, including anti-ship missiles. An unusual feature is the ability to carry a buddy-buddy refueling pod on the centerline, allowing a J-15 to top up other aircraft during long-range missions with heavy weapon loads. The pod appears to be identical to the Russian UPAZ-1A pod, and may have been imported or copied.
As with the J-11B, the J-15 has suffered from the inability of Chinese industry to come up with a reliable powerplant. The intended engine is the WS-10H, a navalized version of the WS-10A with increased thrust to improve takeoff performance from the Liaoning’s ski-jump deck. However, only two of the prototypes have been seen with WS-10H engines, while at least five are powered by Russian AL-31Fs.
A prototype with AL-31F engines made the J-15’s first flight in August 2009, and by May the following year the first takeoffs were being made from a land-based dummy ski-jump. Carrier trials began late last year, the first official takeoffs and landings being conducted by two prototypes on November 23. From photos seen in December it is apparent that the first production machines are emerging from the Shenyang facility, powered by Russian engines.
Meanwhile, Shenyang is also working on a two-seater, possibly designated J-15S. A prototype with WS-10A engines made a first flight in November 2012. Although most likely intended for initial use as a trainer, the J-15S could also find a combat role as an attack and electronic warfare platform.
Impressed with its initial batches of Su-27s in the air defense role, China also looked to the big Sukhoi to fulfill a requirement for a heavy attack platform. In late 2000 the first batch of Su-30MKK two-seat fighter-bombers arrived from Russia, and with it the PLAAF’s ability to deliver precision-guided weapons was transformed. Two batches of Su-30MKKs, each of 38 aircraft, were procured for the PLAAF, while the PLANAF received 25 Su-30MK2s with a modified radar providing multi-target anti-ship missile capability.
Based on their experience with developing the “indigenized” J-11B from the Su-27SK, Shenyang and the 601 Institute have embarked on a similar program applied to the Su-30MKK. The result is designated J-16, and it is likely to become the main attack aircraft for the PLAAF, and possibly for the PLANAF as a land-based anti-ship platform.
As with the J-11B, the J-16 incorporates a high degree of Chinese equipment, including WS-10A engines. The most important improvement is an AESA radar of Chinese origin, although little is known about this sensor. Like the J-15 and Su-30MKK, it has a retractable refueling probe.
Details of the J-16 program are sketchy but it appears that the Flanker derivative made its first flight in late 2011. Last year at least two prototype J-16s were undergoing PLAAF trials, and it is possible that the type is now beginning to enter a wider operational evaluation phase.
Chinese “Super Flanker”?
For two decades the subject of China acquiring the Su-35 has been raised periodically in the media. The second generation of the Flanker design incorporates many changes to the airframe, avionics and powerplant. In recent years it is the engines (Saturn 117S/AL-41F) that are believed to have been the subject of the greatest interest from China, which has experienced considerable problems in developing its own reliable fighter powerplants.
A potential Su-35 sale to China began to be discussed in early 2012, initially covering 48 aircraft but later reduced to 24. Reports regarding the sale continue to be issued and late last year a senior Russian official said he expected a deal to be signed in 2014. However, there have been conflicting reports from China that the acquisition will not proceed.