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.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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