Chinese Air Force Spreads New Wings

The H-6K variant of China's main strategic bomber.
The H-6K variant of China's main strategic bomber.

China’s military aviation industry has moved on from reverse engineering to indigenous design and development.

Chinese airpower took centre stage in the Asia Pacific in the latter part of 2020, as the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) repeatedly entered the Republic of China’s (ROC, commonly Taiwan’s) air defence identification zone (ADIZ). This clearly amounted to a show of force intended to attrit not just Taiwanese resolve in resisting Beijing but also the smaller and less well-resourced Republic of China Air Force’s (RoCAF’s) ability to generate airpower.

The PLAAF show of force reached its peak on 18 September midway through a three-day official visit by US Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment, Keith Krach. As many as 18 aircraft – including Xian H-6 strategic bombers, single-engine Chengdu J-10 and twin-engine Shenyang J-11 and J-16 multirole combat aircraft – split into five groups carried out sorties to the northwest of Taiwan and in the southwest portion of the ADIZ, with some crossing over the median line in the Taiwan Strait.

The next day, another 19 PLAAF aircraft – comprising bombers, combat and patrol aircraft – flew six sorties to an area off Taiwan’s northwest and the southwest section of its ADIZ, with several aircraft again flying over the median line.

According to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), China has perpetrated more than 4,400 intrusions into the ADIZs of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan since 2013, with Chinese military aircraft often flying routes that consecutively transgress the ADIZs of those countries and pressure their respective air forces.

The PLAAF’s aggressive modernisation since the 1990s, initially fuelled by Russian combat aircraft and weapon imports but now underpinned by new and increasingly capable indigenous systems, have significantly shifted the aerial balance of power in East Asia and places it in a favourable position to challenge Japanese, South Korean, Taiwanese, and even US regional airpower.

Air superiority

State-owned Chinese military aerospace companies have made some remarkable advancements over the past 20 years, moving up the value-chain from adapting or reverse engineering Soviet and Russian aircraft technology to developing indigenous platforms.

China’s military aerospace ambition can be seen in a growing number of local designs, starting from the single-engine Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) J-10 ‘Menglong’ (Vigorous Dragon) multirole combat aircraft which was developed from the 1980s by its Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC) and entered PLAAF service in 2003. The initial model, the J-10A, was superseded by the improved J-10B with a redesigned airframe and more powerful Russian-made Salyut AL-31FN Series 3 engine offering around 134.4kN of thrust around 2013.

In terms of radar and avionics, the J-10B has also benefited from a passive electronically scanned array (PESA) version of the original mechanically scanned KLJ-3 radar developed by the Nanjing Research Institute of Electronics Technology (NRIET), an electro-optical targeting suite comprising an infrared search and track (IRST) and laser rangefinder, as well as a rear-aspect missile approach warning system (MAWS).

The latest variant of the J-10 is the J-10C, which made its maiden flight in December 2013 and entered service in April 2018. The J-10C features a new active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar of unknown designation, improved avionics including a new datalink for the PL-15 beyond visual range anti-air missile (BVRAAM).

Chengdu J-10C
The Chengdu J-10C features an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar.

Ultimately, more than 600 J-10s are expected to enter service with the PLAAF to eventually replace the ageing CAC J-7 fighter-bombers, which entered service in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

CAC has also developed the twin-engine J-20 Weilong (Mighty Dragon), a single-seat multirole fighter with low-observability features such as twin, outward-canted, serrated edge landing gear doors, and an internal weapons bay. The J-20 is also equipped with a chin-mounted electro-optical targeting system (EOTS) that appears to be comparable to the one found on the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The CAC J-20
The CAC J-20 is a single-seat multi-role fighter with low-observability features.

Low-rate initial production (LRIP) aircraft are believed to have been fitted with the domestic WS-10B engine, although conflicting reports have also suggested that these LRIP aircraft feature a heavily modified version of the Russian 99M2 (AL-31FM2). However, it is known that serial production J-20s will eventually be equipped with the domestic WS-15 engine that is believed to offer thrust-vector control (TVC) and super-cruise performance. However, such a high-performance domestic powerplant has yet to emerge despite years of investment and development.

Other in-service PLAAF twin-engine combat aircraft include the AVIC Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC) J-11B air superiority fighter, which is essentially derived from reverse-engineered technology from imported and locally assembled Russian Sukhoi Su-27 airframes. Initial deliveries of the type commenced in the late 1990s, followed by a tandem-seat version, the J-11BS, around 2010.

The latest J-11B variant, which reportedly entered serial production in late 2020, features substantial improvements including a strengthened airframe with reduced radar cross-section (RCS), an improved AESA fire-control radar, as well as modernised avionics and the domestically produced Liming WS-10B engine.

SAC has also developed a long-range strike variant of the J-11BS, the J-16, featuring locally developed avionics and weapons as opposed to the mainly Russian-supplied equipment used in the earlier model. The J-16 further improves on the J-11 with an increased stores carrying capacity using 12 hardpoints as opposed to the 10 available to the latter, as well as a wider range of precision guided munitions. With the fielding of the stealthy J-20 for air superiority missions, the type is now considered by many to be an ideal standoff engagement platform comparable to the F-22/F-35 and F-15 mix being explored by the US Air Force (USAF).

A new electronic warfare (EW) variant of J-16, known as the J-16D, was first sighted in December 2015. This model features a shorter nosecone believed to house an AESA radar and large wingtip pods with vertical antennas, as well as the removal of the IRST and cannon for additional EW mission equipment and ventral antennas.

A flurry of upgrades for the type was revealed by Chinese state broadcaster CCTV on several occasions. In March 2019 it reported that a low-observable coating – addressing both the visual and electromagnetic spectrum – has been developed for the J-16 to increase its combat effectiveness and survivability. Footage released in November 2020 highlighted a new helmet featuring a helmet-mounted display system (HMDS) for improved situational awareness. With these, the J-16 is expected to serve as the PLAAF’s primary strike platform for the foreseeable future.

Strategic aircraft

The PLAAF’s primary long-range bomber is the twin-engine H-6 manufactured by Xian Aircraft Industrial Corporation, which is essentially a modernised variant of the Russian Tu-16 bomber aircraft. Production of the localised H-6A commenced in the late-1960s following several years of assembling and licence-producing Tu-16 airframes, and multiple variants have been introduced since.

These include the H-6H, which entered service in the late 1990s and armed with two optically guided YJ-63/KD-63 land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs), as well as the H-6M, which entered service in 2007 and is equipped with four wing pylons plus new EW and MAWS capabilities.

In contrast, the more recent models such as the H-6K uses a glass cockpit with at least five multifunction displays (MFDs) and is the first H-6 to use ejection seats for its four-person crew. Revealed as a prototype in 2007, the H-6K is the most radically modified variant, replacing the traditional glass nose housing the navigator’s station with a solid nosecone protecting a large radar – presumably a PESA or even AESA type – and new EOTS. Its Russian-supplied D-30-KP2 turbofans and lighter-weight composites have reportedly extended its range by 30 percent over earlier models with a combat radius of 3,500km.

The latest variant, the H-6N, made its first public appearance in a fly-past for China’s National Day Parade on 1 October 2019 armed with two KD-20 and two KD-63 LACMs. This model can be easily distinguished from earlier H-6 variants with its inflight refuelling (IFR) probe above the nose radome, although its key feature is a special concavity in place of the bomb bay doors, enabling it to carry a large external weapon or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The PLA Navy Air Force (PLANAF) also operates this variant, designated the H-6J, with EW pods along with long-range missiles.

“In October 2019, China signalled the return of the airborne leg of its nuclear triad after the PLAAF publicly revealed the H-6N as its first nuclear-capable air-to-air refuellable bomber,” the US Department of Defense (DoD) noted in its annual report of the Chinese military.

The PLAAF is expected to field a fully indigenous stealth bomber presently known as the H-20. No official details of its design has been disclosed to date, but it is understood that it is under development by Xian and adopts a flying wing airframe comparable to the USAF’s B-2 Spirit and future B-21 Raider strategic bombers.

The KJ-500 is the PLAAF’s latest AEW&C aircraft.

Logistical and special mission aircraft

The PLAAF’s current aerial refuelling aircraft fleet comprises the Xian HU-6 and Ilyushin Il-78M tanker-transporter, augmented by buddy refuelling pods carried by several of its tactical aircraft types. All these employ the probe-and-drogue technique for air-to-air refuelling (AAR) operations and provide the service with a relatively modest ability to sustain its tactical and strategic aircraft further afield.

While no new dedicated AAR platforms are known to be currently in development, a new air refuelling variant of the Xian Y-20 strategic airlifter will be fielded in the near future following indications by PLA officials in recent years.

The existence of a Y-20 based AAR capability was first revealed via commercial satellite imagery of Xian’s main production facility at Xian-Yanliang airfield in late 2018, where a Y-20 in PLAAF markings was seen fitted with under-wing inflight refuelling pods. More similarly configured prototypes were seen in the same location throughout 2019, suggesting that flight testing was well under way.

It is believed that this platform will offer a fuel carrying capacity of approximately 90 tons, which will be comparable to the Il-78M and more than three times the HU-6’s capacity.

In terms of airborne early warning and command (AEW&C) capabilities, the known types in PLAAF service include the Shaanxi Aircraft Industry Corporation’s ‘Kongjing’

(KJ) aircraft featuring the KJ-200 (Y-8 airframe with a two-planar ‘balance beam’ AESA radar array), KJ-500 and KJ-2000 (Y-9 and Il-76 with AESA and phased array radar, respectively).

The KJ-2000 Y-8 ‘Moth’ Balance Beam (foreground) and KJ-2000 (Mainring) airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft stand side by side.

Meanwhile, CCTV footage in December 2019 revealed that Shaanxi has commenced serial production of Y-9 surveillance/special mission aircraft at a newly created and dedicated assembly line at its Hanzhong facility, with each airframe progressing through five assembly stations before the completed aircraft emerges from the plant. CCTV noted that this approach has enabled Shaanxi to achieve a 30 percent increase in throughput.

The Y-8’s platform design is derived from the Antonov An-12 ‘Cub’ and locally manufactured from the early 1970s following several examples bought from the Soviet Union. Production of the Y-9 – a modernised version of the Y-8 – commenced from 2010, with the aircraft entering PLAAF service from around 2012.

The Y-8/Y-9 airframe has also been used for the development of several variants of the ‘Gao Xing’ series of special mission aircraft, which includes variants specialising in anti-submarine warfare (ASW), maritime patrol, communications intelligence (COMINT), electronic intelligence (ELINT), electronic countermeasures (ECM), and psychological operations (PSYOPS). Externally, these aircraft can be easily distinguished by its physical features, comprising a satellite communications antenna fairing above its rear fuselage; six or more blade aerials above its wing centre section and forward fuselage; a ventral radome beneath its forward fuselage, and a prominent nose radome.


Looking to the future, China has at least two new fighter programmes under way that emphasise low-observability and super-cruise capabilities, active phased-array radar technology, and manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T).

Already an experience operator of UAVs, the PLAAF appears to have shown interest in stealthy high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) air vehicles, with several major defence companies including AVIC, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), and China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation – vying for potential contracts with their own designs. Other novel designs, such as the supersonic ‘Wuzhen-8’ (WZ-8) reconnaissance UAV have also emerged in recent years.

Although PLAAF modernisation has certainly gained considerable momentum, much work remains to be done as the PLA attempts to boost co-operation between its three services and perform effective joint operations. For example, joint service training with other services – such as the PLANAF – is still in its infancy although this deficiency is gradually being addressed through a focused effort to develop the necessary operational expertise, equipment, and processes to mount attacks on major enemy surface combatants.

by JR Ng