Chinese Airpower Poses Serious Threat

 - May 17, 2016, 2:42 PM
J-10 fighters from China’s aerobatic display team. A new version will enter service soon. (Photo: Chris Pocock)

China’s stealth fighter programs recieved high marks in the Pentagon’s latest annual report to the U.S. Congress on the country’s military and security progress, released last week. The J-20 has advanced, with a fifth and sixth prototype now in flight test. Meanwhile, the country’s other stealth warplane is being marketed for export, as the FC-31.

The unclassified report fails to confirm that the J-20 has entered production, although this has been reported by various open sources. However, the report says that both the J-20 and the FC-31 are fifth-generation aircraft with high maneuverability, low-observability and internal weapons bays, capable of operating in a network-centric environment. They could enter service as early as 2018, although the report is undecided on whether the FC-31 is for export only. Both of them have radars with advanced tracking and targeting capabilities, and protection against electronic countermeasures.

The PLAAF “is rapidly closing the gap with western air forces across a broad spectrum of capabilities,” the report assesses. These include command-and-control, electronic warfare and datalinks. The J-10B, the latest version of the indigenous fighter that was unveiled in 2007, is expected to enter service shortly. Four J-11Bs (the Chinese-produced Su-27) have been deployed to one of the islands in the South China Sea that China has been expanding by land reclamation. An indigenous version of the Russian Kh-31P anti-radiation missile is being fielded on Chinese fighter-bombers.

The PLAAF has acquired three Ilyushin Il-78 aerial refueling aircraft from Ukraine to augment the domestically produced H-6U tanker. Flight tests of the Y-20 large airlifter continue, and it could also be produced as a tanker, as well as an AEW aircraft.

In 2015, Chinese media reported the development of a high-altitude long-endurance UAV named Shendiao (Sacred Eagle). Also last year, the PLAAF reported the first domestic operations of the presumably smaller Yilong or Wing Loong UAV that has been displayed at trade shows and exported.

Chinese publications have indicated that the country intends to build a long-range stealth bomber. Meanwhile, the new and fully redesigned H-6K version of the long-serving twin-engine bomber can carry six long-range land-attack cruise missiles. They are not nuclear-capable, but China’s development of ground-launched ballistic missiles (including nuclear missiles) “has been extraordinarily rapid” according to the report. They include the CSS-5 anti-ship ballistic missile, which is specifically designed to hold adversary aircraft carriers at risk 1,500 km off China’s coast.

The report predicts that China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, will embark its air wing for the first time this year. A group of J-15 (navalized J-11B) pilots were operationally qualified on the carrier last year. The Liaoning was acquired from Ukraine in 1998 and completely rebuilt, before commissioning in 2012. Its primary role is fleet defense, the report suggests. But China has started building its own aircraft carriers; these will be larger and more capable of power projection.

China is buying S-400 Triumf air defense missile systems from Russia which may have anti-ballistic missile capability, depending on which interceptor variant is received, according to the report. The S-400 will augment the S-300 systems already in service, and the domestic HQ-9 long-range SAM system also known as the CSA-9.