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China's Air Force on the Rise: Zhuhai Airshow 2018
Image Credit: Chinese Internet

China's Air Force on the Rise: Zhuhai Airshow 2018

 
 

The biennial Zhuhai Airshow held in southern China always presents an opportunity for Chinese military watchers to observe some of the latest aerospace and military technology intended for export to gauge domestic People’s Liberation Army (PLA) systems. Zhuhai also allows observers to closely observe PLA aircraft and systems placed on static display and sometimes new flight routines as well.

The recently concluded Zhuhai Airshow of 2018, however, ranks as the most impressive event in recent memory by a significant margin, featuring an impressive performance by J-20 stealth fighters, the first ever demonstration of a Chinese thrust vector control (TVC) equipped fighter, as well as a large number of new flying wing drones, new radar systems, and more. This piece will examine some of the most interesting and consequential displays and products.

J-10B Flexes With TVC

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In late 2017, J-10B prototype serial 1034 made its first flight with a TVC nozzle equipped variant of the domestic WS-10 engine. Slightly less than one year later, on day one of Zhuhai 2018, serial 1034 was among the first aircraft performances of the morning. The aircraft demonstrated a spectacular selection of high alpha and post stall maneuvers that were previously only the domain of certain U.S. and Russian aircraft, such as Pugachev’s cobra, the J-turn, and falling leaf.

While the J-10B is hardly the first aircraft to perform such displays at a public airshow, it is arguably the first ever TVC equipped, non-Russian and non-U.S. aircraft (either in service or demonstrator) to perform publicly in that manner. The PLA’s willingness to display TVC technology in such a confident and public manner, aboard an indigenous engine, is likely indicative not only of greater openness on behalf of the PLA itself, but also a reflection of the stage domestic TVC development has reached and the PLA’s faith in the maturity of the technology. Indeed, a number of placards and videos showcasing relevant past and ongoing TVC research and development were also identified elsewhere at the airshow’s grounds.

Chinese fourth generation fighters may or may not be equipped with TVC engines in the future; however, Chinese fifth generation fighters such as the J-20 will likely benefit from TVC technology. During a question and answer question with Yang Wei, the J-20’s designer, a reporter asked if the TVC technology demonstrated on the J-10B may have applications on the J-20. The designer smiled and teasingly asked how the reporter could know that the J-20 had not already used a TVC engine. To PLA watchers, this was direct confirmation that the credible rumors from earlier in 2018 that a J-20 prototype had been equipped with TVC equipped WS-10 engines were indeed true.

In the longer term, a solid foundation of TVC development and expertise in applied TVC technology will likely benefit future fighter aircraft that delete additional control surfaces to become fully tailless as some sixth generation concepts have proposed, where future TVC may prove more important in flight control and maneuvering.

 J-20 Receives a Proper Showcase

A pair of J-20s overflew Zhuhai Airshow 2016 in a brief 60 second debut; however, they did not demonstrate anything close to what the platform was capable of achieving, even when compared to amateur footage of J-20 test flights taken in Chengdu. But during Zhuhai 2018, multiple active service J-20s conducted more comprehensive displays lasting multiple minutes, on multiple days. The J-20 demonstrations started with a three or four ship formation overflight, leading into a series of tight turns and impressive climbs, showcasing arguably the most brisk maneuvers that have ever been observed from the J-20. Videos and photos taken at the scene show some of the best J-20 photos ever taken to date, with impressive vortex and condensation generation effects atop the aircraft in a manner never captured before.

Some observers and enthusiasts felt the J-10B’s TVC demonstration overshadowed the J-20. However, considering the J-10B was equipped with TVC as well as a powerplant suited to its weight category (whereas J-20s remain relatively underpowered with AL-31s), not to mention likely constraints placed by the PLA on the public performance of its newest air superiority fighter, the J-20’s display was quite impressive. Indeed, after the J-20’s demonstration at Zhuhai this year, one would be rather obtuse to insist the aircraft is a dedicated interceptor or dedicated strike aircraft.

This nicely segues into revelation of new J-20 information away from the flight display. Some AVIC press conferences and pamphlets provided new details of the J-20 as a project, as well as confirming what has long been speculated about the J-20’s role and performance. An official AVIC pamphlet describes the J-20’s role as one of “seizing and maintaining air superiority” with additional missions including interception and strike, confirming what has been widely speculated about the J-20’s role since the mid-2000s, when it was only known as J-XX among the PLA watching community.

Another fascinating press conference with J-20 chief designer Yang Wei and the first J-20 test pilot Li Gang provided additional details surrounding the aircraft. Although we have yet to receive pictures of a J-20’s cockpit, Li Gang stated the J-20 uses a side control stick, in a first for a Chinese fighter jet. Extensive collaboration between pilots and designers were involved in the process of developing the aircraft’s cockpit. As expected, statements praising the aircraft’s stealth were also made. But most revealing however, was Li Gang’s statement that the J-20 boasted excellent agility and handling, as good as the J-10. Confirming that the large, stealthy air superiority J-20 fighter can achieve kinematic performance similar to one of the PLA’s most agile fourth generation aircraft using only underpowered interim engines further confirms past speculation that the J-20 was designed to achieve competitive aerodynamic performance even when using interim engines, while awaiting WS-15s.

A note has to be made of some articles over the last few days suggesting that the J-20 was to attend Zhuhai installed with WS-15 engines, and that mass production of the WS-15 was imminent, in a story dating back a few months. However, in the PLA watching community such claims were considered to be highly erroneous at best, as there have been no credible rumors or pictures of WS-15s even starting tests aboard a J-20, let alone powering in service J-20s for a sufficient period to be displayed at a high profile event like Zhuhai.

Finally, on the last day of Zhuhai, the J-20 display included a pair of J-20s opening weapons bays to reveal a full loadout of air-to-air training missiles, including two PL-10 short range missiles and four PL-15 beyond visual range missiles. Such openness is unprecedented for the PLA, and even rare for other air forces flying their own stealth fighters.

CH-7 and Other Flying Wing UAVs

The Chinese aerospace industry is not new to stealthy flying wing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or combat drones (UCAVs), with the first proper sized stealthy UCAV demonstrator Lijian (or Sharp Sword) being flown in late 2013. As a flying wing UCAV demonstrator, Lijian was similar in overall configuration to many other equivalent projects around the world such as the French-European Neuron, the British Taranis, Russia’s Skat and Okhotnik B, and the X-47B and X-45 and Phantom Ray demonstrators from the United States.

Chinese UAVs have found a receptive customer base around the world, and a number of aerospace groups and companies in China in the last few years have begun to produce their own self-funded drones, many of which are propeller or jet powered medium or high altitude aircraft with relatively conventional configurations. Many designs, such as the Wing Loong or the Caihong family, are quite capable and offer weapons loadouts compared to international peers, with only equivalent drones from the United States and Israel offering drones of similar or higher technology and capability. However, no company in the world currently offers flying wing UAVs or UCAVs for export — until Zhuhai 2018, when a number of Chinese aerospace groups showcased various flying wing UAV and UCAV designs.

The most high profile of these would be the stealthy flying wing CH-7 UCAV from China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), makers of the successful CH-3, CH-4, and CH-5 family of drones. CH-7 adopts a cranked kite flying wing configuration, which may draw comparisons to the X-47B or recent European proposals for the UCAV component of FCAS; however, it appears most similar to speculative artistic drawings of the elusive U.S. RQ-180 drone. CH-7 is specified to have a maximum takeoff weight of 13 tons, making it lighter than the X-47B (20 tons), but larger than other UCAV demonstrators such as Taranis or Neuron (8 and 7 tons, respectively), and well in the category of a true high end UCAV. It is not yet certain whether the CH-7 is designed with the PLA as a confirmed customer or merely an intended customer, but in either case it is quite surprising that such a high end aircraft is being revealed at an arms expo rather than first being quietly tested or evaluated by the PLA or PLA affiliated institutes. CASC stated an intended maiden flight for 2019, with production to begin in 2022, but it is unknown if this is an internal timetable or related to PLA UCAV goals.

A number of other institutes revealed their own flying wing UAVs as well, but none were quite as large as the CH-7. China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) revealed a smaller, 3 ton flying wing called Tianying, which was described as a UAV intended for reconnaissance in a high threat environment. Chengdu Aircraft Group also revealed its own small flying wing demonstrator featuring a cranked kite configuration; however, no descriptions of its role have yet to emerge. Both flying wings from CASIC and Chengdu have also been thought to possibly serve as demonstrators intended as a stepping stone to larger and more capable designs. Nevertheless, the appearance of three credible flying wing UAVs from three major Chinese aerospace institutes, on top of past flying wing UAV development in the form of Lijian, suggests mastery of this technology is gradually proliferating throughout the Chinese aerospace industry.

 Sensors

Chinese advances in sensor technology and missiles technology was also on show this year. China Electronics Technology Corporation (CETC) displayed two new variants of the KLJ-7A active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar competing for the JF-17 Block III’s radar contract. One variant features a single array mounted atop a mechanically scanned repositioner, similar to some European designs such as Vixen 1000E and Captor E. Another KLJ-7A variant showed a fixed main nose array but was equipped with two additional side facing AESAs on each side of the nose. Both new variants provide a larger effective field of view for the aircraft’s radar system, enhancing situational awareness.

Leihua Electronic Technology Research Institute (LETRI) also showcased an air cooled AESA radar designated LKF601E. LETRI states the LKF601E is lighter than most AESAs, which are liquid cooled, allowing it to easily upgrade existing fighter aircraft with older radars. It is unknown if this radar is competing with CETC’s KLJ-7A for the JF-17 Block III radar contract, or if it is intended to be an upgrade package for existing fighter aircraft such as Block I and II JF-17s or even PLA J-10As.

CETC also revealed a 1.3 ton medium altitude long endurance UAV designated JY-300, equipped with conformal AESAs on its fuselage and its leading edges. The JY-300 was promoted as an AEW UAV, and is the first AEW UAV that the Chinese aerospace industry has revealed at an arms expo. The other design of course, is the much larger and much more capable Divine Eagle UAV, thought to feature very large side looking AESAs in twin hull design. The JY-300 may signify an increasing maturity and confidence of Chinese AEW UAV technology, and in the longer term the PLA may look to supplement or replace traditional manned AEW&C aircraft with a more distributed and flexible AEW UAV capability.

Finally, a range of other credible new drones, anti-ship missiles, anti-tank missiles, armored vehicles, artillery, and small arms were also revealed at this year’s airshow, further deepening the Zhuhai Airshow’s reputation as more of a multi domain arms expo than a traditional airshow. However those other products are better left for other articles and analyses.

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