The Zhuhai Air Show in Guangdong China is the largest aviation and military trade expo in all of China. The event ran from November 7-13 and provided an unusually large glimpse into the developmental gains in military technology in a wide array of categories. Everything from small arms to commercial shipping technology had a presence at the show, but the real gains were shown in missile, radar, unmanned systems, and fighter technology. The weapons showcased at this year’s show, undeniably highlight what the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and ultimately the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), hold in high regard when it comes to flexing its military might in the future.
Parked at the air show was an H-6K bomber carrying the YJ-21E anti-ship ballistic missile. The YJ-21E has been considered in some circles as China’s deadliest weapon, in a conventional sense, and until now it has largely been kept out of the public eye. This missile has previously been known to be employed in a ground or ship-launched interface with a range assessed to upwards of 1,500 kilometers and has a terminal velocity of over Mach 10. The configuration with China’s strategic bombing force would seem to indicate the importance of anti-naval counter intervention when it comes to their strategic focus on Taiwan and the first island chain. It is unknown if this weapon will be developed on a larger scale, but the impact this missile could have in an anti-access, area-denial (A2AD) campaign could be astounding.
In addition to the YJ-21E, the PLA Air Force had their newly acquisitioned PL-17 long range air-to-air missile on display, with an advertised range of 400 kilometers, which would be over double the current range of their most capable active-radar air-to-air missile. This missile would likely be used against larger framed aircraft and not against other fighter or smaller framed aircraft. For example, air refueling or reconnaissance aircraft that operate at higher altitudes with relatively predictable flight patterns would be the intended victim. Though these weapon systems are enough to worry about on their own, the two used in concert on a unified front to deny access and assert their will in a Taiwan-Strait scenario could prove to be very effective.
Radar technology research and development for the PLA and sister branches has seen a significant increase in the past decade. No longer is the Chinese military relying on dismantling Russian Federation radars to recreate their own. Instead, China has surpassed the Russian technology, especially in terms of counter-low observable radar technology and target acquisition systems to be used on their indigenously produced surface-to-air missile systems.
The latest air show proved that Chinese expertise is continuing to grow in the field of radar technology. On opening day of the Zhuhai Air Show, the China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC) Showcased the SLC-18 P-Band radar. It is an AESA (active electronically scanned array) radar, which means that each receiver also acts as a singular transmitter. This greatly improves the efficiency of the radar and likely means it can serve multiple functions simultaneously. The SLC-18 operates in a low frequency band, which allows it to have better fidelity at tracking low-observable aircraft and drones, and satellites.
At the closing of the air show, it was announced that China will be gifting the SLC-18 to Pakistan, which will likely use it to track India’s reconnaissance constellation. It is likely that this radar will aid in counter-reconnaissance by allowing the Pakistanis to track and calculate when certain electro-optical or infrared satellites are overhead.
This year has also shown a marked improvement in unmanned systems research and development for all branches of the Chinese military. It is unsurprising that the Zhuhai Air Show had myriad unmanned aerial, ground, and maritime assets to show off. Notably, the melding of stealth technology is becoming prevalent in the way forward for Chinese drones.
The FH-97, an unmanned combat aerial vehicle with a stark resemblance to the U.S.-built Kratos XQ-58 Valkyrie, was on full display at the Zhuhai Air Show. In true Chinese military fashion, the display was coupled with a video playing of the FH-97 working in tandem with a J-20 to take down a U.S. F-22 fighter jet. This low observable, medium-range unmanned aerial vehicle is being marketed as a “loyal wingman” to the Chinese fighter trio, comprising of the J-20A, J-16, and J-10C. This system will be covering other tasks that would complicate the ergonomics of an aerial battle, so the pilots of the fighter aircraft can focus on their mission.
It is likely that the FH-97 will be equipped with air interdiction radar jamming and sensing equipment to fill an electronic warfare role and to pass targets to the fighters via datalink. Additionally, it was advertised that the FH-97 will be employing the FH-901 drone, a loitering munition that is capable of precision guided attacks and overwhelming adversarial command and control systems.
Though there have been some phenomenal takeaways in military technology as a whole at the air show, it comes to no surprise that Chinese aviation was center stage. Notably, the “20 family of aircraft” were center stage: the Chengdu J-20 fifth-generation fighter aircraft, the Xian Y-20 strategic lift aircraft, and the Z-20 utility helicopter. In the future of Chinese warfare, these three will undeniably be the backbone of military air power.
At this year’s air show, the J-20 stole the show and was showcased to have upgraded engine performance, rapid ground refueling capability. Previously the J-20 program has been plagued by under-performing engine problems that have really held the program back in the public eye. This year, the WS-10 turbofan engine with its binary vector nozzle and the AEF1300 turbofan engines were on full display, harking notable improvements in power and thrust vectoring.
Communist Youth Leagues across multiple Chinese provinces were posting images of the jet in flight with captions such as “The J-20 turned into a cloud-piercing arrow and pierced a hole in the clouds, I can’t help watching it a million times.” In the years ahead, the J-20 will continue to be the crowned jewel not only at the air shows in China, but on the battlefield in the future for the PLA Air Force.
For anyone interested in the focus of Chinese military development and how it might shape the future of warfare in the Pacific, the Zhuhai Air Show deserves a closer look. It will take months to analyze all of the data that was on display. However, the focus on redundant deterrence in the form of anti-ship missiles, unmanned systems integrating with manned systems to foster a more efficient battle routine, and stealth technology is the path forward for China, and was in full display at the 2022 Zhuhai Air Show.