An early December 2019 report from inside of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) reveals previously unreleased technical details of People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) Russian-built Su-27s losing a majority of engagements in a November 2015 joint exercise with the 701 Fighter Squadron of the Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF). This Thai unit operates eight Saab JAS-39C and four JAS-39D Gripens.
The engagements, known as Falcon Strike 2015, were the first of three such exercises and were detailed in a lecture given by one of the PLAAF’s most heavily decorated pilots, Senior Colonel Li Chunghua Hua (李中華), at the PRC’s Northwestern Polytechnical University (西北工业大学) in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province.
Li is described as one of the most experienced Sukhoi Su-27SK/J-11A pilots in the PLAAF with some 3,200 hours in fast jets, much of them in the Russian-made Sukhoi. His revelations are unprecedented and are assessed by US intelligence as demonstrating a growing concern within the officer corps over deficiencies with the training regime for the PLAAF’s pilot cadre.
These first exercises ran at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base and showed the advantages of the smaller and more technologically-advanced Gripen over the Russian Sukhoi. Several of Li’s summations from the exercise are:
- The JAS-39 performance was at its worst inside the within visual range (WVR) envelope. Over a two-day period, PLAAF pilots shot down 25 Gripens at a loss of only one Su-27. The Su-27 has an advantage over the performance of the JAS-39 due to its more powerful Salyut AL-31F engines, and the Swedish aircraft was handicapped in that it was equipped with the older-generation AIM-9L Sidewinder instead of the current-generation Diehl IRIS-T missile.
- Once the exercise transitioned to beyond visual range (BVR) combat, the superiority of the JAS-39 became readily apparent. The Swedish aircraft shot down 41 Su-27s over a period of four days with a loss of only nine JAS-39s.
- The Su-27s flown by the PLAAF were operating with a modified version of the NIIP N001 radar that could fire the Vympel RVV-AE active-homing air-to-air missile (AAM). But its effective detection range was only 120km in comparison with the JAS-39’s Ericsson PS-05/A at 160km. The Gripen’s Raytheon AIM-120 AAM also outranged the RVV-AE at 80km versus only 50 km for the Russian missile.
- Li stated that the JAS-39C/D’s much smaller radar cross-section (RCS) at 1.5-2.0 m2 was a major factor, as the much larger Su-27 is easier to detect at 12 sq miles. The JAS-39 can also ripple-fire up to four AIM-120s simultaneously but the Su-27 can fire only one RVV-AE at a time.
Gripen achieved 88 percent of its kills at 19 miles or greater, while the Su-27 had just 14 percent of its kills at this range. The RTAF also had 10 kills at a distance of more than 31 miles compared with zero long-distance kills by the Su-27.
In subsequent exercises the PLAAF fared better by sending the Chengdu J-10A - and then in 2019 the J-10C - in place of the Su-27. Li pointed out that the J-10C was more of a match for the JAS-39C/D in that “its active array radar significantly improves detection distance and multi-target attack capability, the DSI (divertless) air intake of the J-10C reduces the radar intercept area while the PL-15 missile increases the range, making it an over-the-horizon platform.”
Li also commented that the next-generation version of the Gripen, the JAS-39E, is likely to feature even more advanced combat performance. His interest in the aircraft parallels a larger body of analysis within the PLA intelligence community that has had a fixation on the design and development of the Gripen as a template for PRC industry to follow.