This is the first in a series of articles looking at recent developments in China’s military.
The formal retirement ceremony this June for the last People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) Shenyang J-6 / MiG-19 Farmer fighter marks an important milestone for China’s air power, as it transitions from a Cold War era, Soviet-style force to a modern and technologically sophisticated air force with a fleet of high performance aircraft.
Sadly, far too many analysts and senior bureaucrats in the United States remain tethered to the idea that the PLA fighter force still comprises fleets of thousands of cloned 1955 Soviet technology MiG-19 fighters, and is thus incapable of protecting China’s areas of interest from regional or US military forces. Yet although this perception remains appealing in Washington, it ceased to be true almost a decade ago, and today reflects more than anything what Huxley described as ‘vincible ignorance’—not knowing because you don’t want to.
For those that are interested though, a more accurate picture can be gleaned from the fact that about 5 years ago, China planned to field well in excess of 500 Russian designed Sukhoi Flanker fighters, a size comparable to the now declining United States Air Force fleet of around 600 Boeing F-15 Eagle fighters. The Flanker was designed to be a direct equivalent (in some respects superior) to the F-15, which is also the backbone of the Japanese and Singaporean fighter fleets.
Indeed, with an ongoing modernisation plan that will see all legacy aircraft types replaced by modern and much longer ranging replacements, the PLAAF will in numerical terms become the strongest air force in Asia, with the largest fleet of ‘tier one’ fighter aircraft globally, should the United States pursue its current plan to downsize and reduce the capabilities of its tactical air forces. In terms of air power alone, this will result in the single largest swing in the strategic balance in Asia since the 1940s.
The PLAAF has existed since the late 1940s, initially equipped with a mix of foreign—at that time Japanese, American and Soviet—aircraft. Through the 1950s the PLAAF acquired a wide range of then state-of-the-art Soviet planes and the first (and to date only) air war in which the PLAAF participated was in Korea, where Chinese pilots performed well in Soviet supplied MiG-15 Fagot fighters.
But a key juncture in the development of the PLAAF fighter force was the Khrushchev era collapse of relations between the Chinese and Soviet leaderships. Denied the ongoing supply of advanced Soviet aircraft, China resorted to the only choice it had, which was reverse engineering Soviet designs. Numerous Soviet types were built, the most significant being the MiG-19S Farmer, or Shenyang J-6, and the MiG-21F Fishbed, or Chengdu J-7 fighters. These cloned Soviet designs formed the backbone of the PLAAF and PLAN fighter regiments, until the next major evolutionary transition point—the fall of the Soviet Union.
In 1992, China ordered its first batch of Russian built Sukhoi/KnAAPO Su-27SK Flanker B fighters, an export variant of the first mass-produced Soviet Flanker model. Further batches were purchased, including the dual seat Su-27UBK combat trainer and by the late 1990s, China had negotiated a deal to partly manufacture and assemble 200 examples of the Shenyang J-11A. Concurrently, multiple regiments of the dual seat Su-30MKK were procured, an aircraft best compared with early blocks of the US F-15E Strike Eagle, providing a robust all-weather strike capability with a wide range of guided weapons, including anti-radiation missiles to defeat opposing air defence radars, and a range of standoff missiles and smart bombs with TV command link, imaging optical and laser guidance.
PLANAF units have also received variants of the Su-30MK, specifically the Su-30MK2, which is equipped with the additional capability to carry Russian anti-ship cruise missiles. PLAN Flankers supplement a growing force of domestically built Xian JH-7 Flying Leopard/Flounder maritime strike fighters, now also being deployed with PLAAF units.
By the middle of the last decade, cracks had begun to appear in the relationship between Shenyang and KnAAPO. China wanted the second half of the domestic J-11A build to be produced in a more advanced configuration, something which the Russians refused to do. Shenyang had by then completed the reverse engineering of the Su-27SK airframe, and disclosed that prototypes of the fully Chinese built J-11B existed. While the Russians have alleged that the Chinese built J-11B is an unauthorised ‘clone’ of the Su-27SK, it’s actually quite different in key systems and avionics.
The PLAN also negotiated with KnAAPO for the supply of up to 50 navalised folding wing Su-27K/Su-33 Flanker D shipboard fighters, intended for operation off the Varyag. This order, which would have brought Chinese Flanker numbers planned and budgeted for well beyond the 500 aircraft mark, stalled due to Russian concerns over reverse engineering (a recent report by Kanwa claims that the PLAN procured a prototype Su-27K previously abandoned at a Ukrainian airfield, and used it to reverse engineer the J-15 Flying Shark shipboard fighter).
In strategic terms, China’s Flanker fleet is its regional ‘big stick.’ These aircraft have a combat radius without aerial refuelling of up to 900 nautical miles, robustly covering the ‘First Island Chain.’ With heavier weapon loads operating radius is reduced, with aerial refuelling it is further extended. Importantly, the Flanker is a credible modern air combat fighter which matches or exceeds key performance and capabilities of the US built Boeing F-15C/E, F-15CJ/DJ and F-15SG operated by the United States, Japan and Singapore, while the indigenous Chinese PL-12/SD-10A air to air missile is a credible equivalent to the US built AIM-120 AMRAAM. Meanwhile, the large fuel and missile load carried by the Flanker provides it with superior combat persistence, compared to most F-15 variants.
But while the Flanker has become the backbone of the PLA tactical fighter fleet, it is not the only important advance under way.
The legacy fleet of lightweight Cold War era J-6 Farmer and J-7 Fishbed fighters is being replaced by newly built indigenous Chengdu J-10 ‘Sino-canard’ fighters, modelled on the European canard fighters, and a direct competitor to US built F-16 Falcon fighters operated across Asia. While many US observers have described the J-10 as a clone of the US-funded and later cancelled Israeli Lavi fighter, this isn’t actually the case. The design of the J-10 is uniquely Chinese, and the ‘double delta’ wing design is clearly based on the earlier Chinese Chengdu J-7G design. The J-10B is designed to carry an advanced electronically steered radar antenna, and employs an engine inlet design modelled on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
And in terms of basing? PLAAF and PLANAF tactical fighters continue to operate from the extensive network of around 200 Cold War era fighter bases. Modelled on period Warsaw Pact semi-hardened base designs, these typically employ fully dispersed service areas protected by berms. Thirteen of these bases qualify as ‘superhardened’ with deep underground hangars tunnelled into hill sides, while a number of other bases have been equipped with Hardened Aircraft Shelters to resist smart bomb attacks. The PLA’s tactical fighter basing system is a strategic asset in its own right, providing the means for rapid redeployment, dispersal and offering inherent strategic depth unavailable to any other nation in Asia.
All this means that China’s evolving fighter force is potent, and will increase in potency over the next decade as remaining legacy fighters are replaced with new ones. With a force structure modelled on that of the US Air Force tactical fighter fleet, the PLA’s fighter force is becoming a strategic asset without peer in the Asia-Pacific.
Carlo Kopp is an Australia-based military analyst and editor of Air Power Australia