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Showcasing of PLAAF Technological Developments

Gp Capt Naval Jagota is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi.
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  • December 11, 2014

    China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition hosted its 10th air show in the southern port city of Zhuhai, Guangdong province between November 11 and 16, 2014. This is the only air show endorsed by the Chinese government. The air show has been held biennially since 1996 in Zhuhai for nine sessions and coincides with the founding day of the PLAAF (People’s Liberation Army Air Force). It features the display of real-size products, trade talks, technological exchange and flying display.

    This year’s exhibition showcased the “latest” weaponry and systems in the PLAAF and offered an insight into the future military products the Chinese military and industry are in the process of designing or likely to deliver in the coming years. Many other systems which are in service were also displayed with an emphasis on showcasing existing capability in surveillance, missiles and command and control systems. The exhibition also showcased 985 pieces of military equipment from China's air force including more than 130 aircraft. 300 deals worth a record $23.4 billion were signed according to the organizer of the exhibition.

    The achievements and the way forward for the PLAAF should be compared with the defence white papers published by the government over the years to assess the congruence or alignment of the establishment’s strategic thinkers, the military and defence industry. The 2010 white paper projected that “the modernization and transformation of the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) follows a carefully-structured plan” and “the PLAAF is working to ensure the development of a combat force structure that focuses on air strikes, air and missile defence, and strategic projection.” The 2012 white paper stated that “the PLAAF is strengthening the development of a combat force structure that focuses on reconnaissance and early warning, air strike, air and missile defense, and strategic projection.” Further, PLAAF “is developing such advanced weaponry and equipment as new-generation fighters and new-type ground-to-air missiles and radar systems, improving its early warning, command and communications networks, and raising its strategic early warning, strategic deterrence and long-distance air strike capabilities.” Seen in the light of these statements and those contained in previous white papers, progress can be mapped to some extent.

    The major highlights of this year’s air show were the display and flight of the J-31 stealth fighter. The J-31 was first seen in the 2012 air show as a model. Subsequently, news about its development has been provided by aviation enthusiasts on various blogs. The J-31 is described as a “low end” version of the fourth generation fighter aircraft. Comparisons with the F-35 (latest American fighter) are being made but do not seem realistic especially with respect to payload and stealth capabilities. The J-31 is not an entirely indigenous product as the engines on the display model were most likely the Russian RD-93. Information put out by the official media indicates that China may tap markets that are looking for the capabilities possessed by the J-31. Another idea being discussed is to make the J-31 primarily a carrier based fighter. In the Chinese military domestic equipment plans, the J-31 is viewed as meeting the need for stealth in air strike. At the same time, China is also seeking to project its capabilities as being on par with the best in the world thereby conveying military strength as well as reputation as a high technology manufacturer of defence equipment.

    The next technology and indigenous ability was the Y-20 medium lift transport aircraft which actually flew during the air show. In fact, the first prototype flew in January 2013. It has been reported that the aircraft has the capability of carrying 65 tonnes of load. The Y-20 would fill the key strategic requirements of the military with regard to force projection over long distances.

    The Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) field is one of the primary focus areas of PLA policy makers keen on the adoption of an informationalised approach to modernising the armed forces. In this area, the air show displayed the Wing Long 1, a medium altitude long endurance (MALE) surveillance and strike UAV platform that is already in service with the PLAAF. Further, the presence of Yaoying II (Sparrow Hawk II), the likely replacement or developmental model for the export market, evoked keen interest. Certain capabilities of the existing Wing Long 1 and the projected capabilities of the Yaoying II were also revealed for the first time (see Table below).

      Take Off Weight Maximum Altitude Maximum Payload Sensor Payload No. of Hard Points Armament
    Wing Long 1 1,200 kg 19,685 ft 200 kg -Electro-optical infrared (EO/IR) turret.
    -Synthetic aperture radar (SAR)


    Two -Air-to-surface anti-armour missiles.
    -50 kg LS-6-50 small-diameter bomb
    Yaoying II 1,280 kg 24,606 ft 400 kg Similar Four  

    The other noticeable UAV on display was the CH-4, which is also a MALE platform. This particular UAV is most likely already in service with the PLAAF and was showcased during the multilateral 'Peace Mission 2014' exercise featuring Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) members in Inner Mongolia in late August 2014. Its features are similar to the Yaoying II UAV. Other UAVs on display were the Harrier III, the VD200 vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) designed for environments such as mountainous and urban terrain, and the short range marine version Nimble Loong.

    The new surface to air missile system on display was the Sky Dragon 12 (Tianlong 12, SD-12). Produced by NORINCO, it is a version of the FK-1000 SAM that debuted in model form at Air show China 2012. Consisting of 12 missile launchers and a phased-array radar located in the front centre of the turret, the system has a range of 12 km and a maximum altitude of 5 km. At the exhibition the FM-3000 was also demonstrated, PLAAF’s most advanced air defence system with a maximum range of 30 km.

    In the guided weapons category, NORINCO’s GB-6 500 kg class gliding dispenser weapon was displayed. It has GPS/inertial guidance and is designed to deliver either runway-destroying submunitions or fuel-air explosive bomblets. It was also displayed alongside a Pakistan Air Force JF-17 aircraft. 

    In the radar category new products on display were the road-mobile JY-26 “Skywatch-U” 3-D long-range air surveillance radar. According to a brochure of the East China Research Institute of Electronic Engineering (ECRIEE), this radar “boasts double stealth target detection virtues due to its operation in UHF (ultra high frequency) band and owning of large power-aperture product” for both air breathing targets and tactical missiles. Other details are that it has electronic counter-countermeasures capability and a complex digital active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar capable of tracking 500 targets. This particular radar, if successful and as claimed, would meet China’s requirements for stealth detection and hence early warning.

    The presence of the Russian Su-35 fighter aircraft was also of interest as the deal to acquire 24 such aircraft has been in the news for some time now. The news around the event was Sukhoi first deputy director general Boris Bregman’s comments about the impending closure of the deal and Russia’s readiness to supply 'standard' versions of the Su-35 combat aircraft to China. He also brought out that the time line for the signing of the deal thus: "I think that the contract will be signed at the end of 2014 or at the beginning of 2015." The other deal which has been inked at the air show with Russia was for the purchase of an additional batch of 100 Klimov RD-93 turbofan engines for the FC-1/JF-17 Thunder combat aircraft before the end of 2016. These engines are most likely to be sourced to the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) for its fleet of JF-17 given that the earlier engines for its fleet were also sourced by China from Russia.

    In the international arms market China has increased its presence and is pushing for an even greater share. According to SIPRI’s arms transfer database, China has become the third largest exporter of arms in 2013, overtaking both Germany and France and is only behind Russia and the United States. The largest markets for its armament are Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, which account for almost 83 per cent of Chinese arms exports.

    The 2014 edition of the air show thus tried to reinforce the Chinese theme of a rising, strong and technologically advanced industrial base to the domestic constituency, international arms market and adversaries. How far it has succeeded is open to debate. But it does indicate China’s growing confidence in its abilities as a weapons producer and as a transparent actor on the international stage. A discerning watcher needs to follow China’s progress in certain fields of military technology as well as the limitations and challenges it faces in engine development and stealth in order to capture the progress of the PLAAF.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India

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