Chinese military aerospace enterprises are starting to make real advances—to the degree that the U.S. and its allies are now beginning to worry what the balance of power in Asia might look like within two decades.
The past few years have been notable for several developments. Combined, they demonstrate that the People’s Liberation Army Navy and Air Force (PLAN and PLAAF, respectively) are now operating with a set of weapons platforms that are a significant step above what Beijing’s military has been able to field in the past.
In January 2011, a large, stealthy-looking platform, the J-20, made its first public flight from the aerodrome at Plant No. 132 in Chengdu, Sichuan province. The aircraft is the largest platform of its kind and appears to take some of its design inspiration from another over-size fighter concept from the previous century, the Mikoyan MFI Project 1.42.
This jet has caused no small amount of concern as to the damage the PLAAF could cause in the Pacific if it proves to be a long-range, low-observable platform capable of striking at targets far from PRC airspace. The aircraft has since flown in 2016 and 2018 at the PRC’s national aerospace expo—Air Show China in Zhuhai, Guangdong province.
Two years before, at Air Show China 2014, the PRC’s other stealth-like fighter, the Shenyang FC-31, flew during the flight display but gave a disappointing and underpowered performance. According to numerous reports since then, the aircraft has been redesigned to include a new wing planform. There have also been multiple references to the aircraft being developed in a carrier-capable variant that would replace the Shenyang J-15, the aircraft being flown from the CV16 Liaoning carrier that the PRC acquired from Ukraine.
Chinese design teams have also continued to improve on the reverse-engineered designs of the Russian-made Sukhoi Su-27 and Su-30MKK/MK2 models that they acquired some 20 years or more ago. One design seen recently in a video released (and then quickly taken down by censors) by the China Flight Test Establishment (CFTE) is the Shenyang J-11D.
Photographed while still in factory primer, the aircraft appeared to have a new radome configuration indicative of an active electronically scanning array (AESA) radar, a new complement of wing root antennas for electronic warfare and radar warning functions, and increased use of composite materials.
Alongside these aircraft developments, the PLAN has made progress with the design and construction of new aircraft carriers. A second carrier in sea trials is a slightly larger copy of the Liaoning and uses the same ski-ramp forward-bow design for takeoff and, like the CV-16, it also has no catapult. A third carrier is supposed to be a traditional, catapult-equipped flattop design and has even been nicknamed the “Chinese answer to the USS Kittyhawk.”
This ship is supposed to have not just any catapult, but a modern electromagnetic (EMALS) catapult, according to Chinese news reports, though experts in the U.S. are skeptical. “The technology that the U.S. Navy developed for the EMALS is not as simple as one might think,” said a U.S. naval contractor who specializes in carrier design.
“Remember that the U.S. Navy design comes after decades of experience with steam catapults—how they have to be designed, what the pitfalls are, how the aircraft that is launched from them has to be designed,” he continued. “The Chinese have none of this body of past history and expertise to draw on—so how will they design an EMALS?”
Not having a catapult-equipped carrier has its own problems where the PLAN are concerned. The drawbacks with the J-15, the PRC’s illegal—and even heavier—copy of the Russian Sukhoi Su-33, are becoming a real headache. The airframe is too heavy for the PLAN ski-ramp carriers. No catapult means a much slower takeoff speed, which translates into the aircraft sometimes limited to as few as four missiles if it is carrying a full fuel load.
Not only is the PLAN in need of a new carrier aircraft, but the whole of the PRC’s industry is lacking for reliable jet engine designs, which is why they still purchase numerous models of aero engines from Russia and Ukraine. In fact, the J-20 has been flying with both Russian and older Chinese-design engines since 2011. The Xi’an WS-15 that was supposed to be the primary powerplant for this aircraft has suffered setbacks in development, including one test engine exploding on a stand during a high-power run-up.
In recent months, there has also been an uptick in Chinese enterprise looking to source defense technology from Ukraine and other former Soviet republics. Ukraine’s government has even been trying to block the nation’s massive aero-engine enterprise, Motor Sich, from selling all of its know-how to the PRC.
As has been publicized in past months, the PRC has also been found complicit in the theft of U.S. defense technology. In a 28 May interview on Fox Business Network, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated, “I can’t say a whole lot, other than it’s the case that we worry about it every day. The threat of theft not only of commercial intellectual property but of military technology is real, and we’re doing our best to prevent that from happening…You can look at some of these [PRC weapon] systems and you see similarities that suggest that they may well have not created these from scratch.”