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March 16, 2012

China's Air Force Modernizes On Dual Tracks

Aviation Week - As China starts to put together a modern, integrated air force, which could reach 1,000 fighters by 2020, it is developing the components of a future force of stealthier combat aircraft, new bombers and unmanned, hypersonic and possibly space-based combat platforms. These could emerge as soon as the early 2020s.

This dual track was illustrated in late 2010 by two events. One was the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (Plaaf) first foreign demonstration of its modern capabilities: a combined-force mission of Xian Aircraft Co. H-6 bombers supported by Chengdu Aircraft Co. J-10 multi-role fighters, KJ-2000 airborne early warning and control aircraft. and H-6U tankers for an exercise in Kazakhstan. The other was the unveiling four months later of the Chengdu stealth fighter prototype, widely known as the J-20, followed in early 2011 by its first official flight.




Just before the service’s 60th anniversary in October 2009, a Chinese air force general stated that their next-generation fighter would enter service between 2017 and 2019, though a late- 2010 report of PLA interest in purchasing the Russian AL-41 turbofan for this fighter might accelerate that timeline. Since its emergence on the Internet in late 2010, Chengdu’s stealthy twin-engine canard J-20 has been photographed and videoed extensively undergoing testing at Chengdu. Expected to be fitted with 15-ton-class thrust-vectored turbofans in its production form, this aircraft is expected to be capable of supercruise and extreme post-stall maneuvering, and will be equipped with an AESA radar and distributed infrared warning sensors.

In 2005 a Chinese official said that an “F-35”-class program was being considered by Chengdu. China also has long been interested in short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing (Stovl) fighters, and long-standing Russian and Chinese reports point to a possible Chengdu program based on technology from the Yakovlev Yak-141, a supersonic Stovl prototype tested in the late 1980s.

A potential development of medium-weight stealth fighters by 2020 would cap an expected decade of more intensive export offerings. While the export effort is led by Chengdu’s FC-1/JF‑17 cooperative program with Pakistan (which could acquire up to 300 fighters) and the fighter could yet be purchased by the air force, greater international appeal may follow its being equipped with a Chinese engine—a likely near-term prospect.

A potential development of medium-weight stealth fighters by 2020 would cap an expected decade of more intensive export offerings. While the export effort is led by Chengdu’s FC-1/JF‑17 cooperative program with Pakistan (which could acquire up to 300 fighters) and the fighter could yet be purchased by the air force, greater international appeal may follow its being equipped with a Chinese engine—a likely near-term prospect.

Prototypes of the J-10B use China’s first fighter-sized AESA radar by the Nanjing Research Institute of Engineering Technology (NRIET) and future versions of the J-11 and J-15 fighters are expected to have AESA. NRIET’s mechanically scanned array radar on the J-10A and FC-1 can manage two simultaneous air-to-air missile (AAM) engagements at over 100 km (62 mi.). The Luoyang PL-12 actively guided AAM may have a range of 100 km, while the helmet-sighted PL-8 and PL-9 short-range AAMs may be replaced with a helmet-display sighted PL-10. Two companies produce families of satellite and laser-guided munitions, down to 50-kg (110-lb.) weapons for unmanned combat air vehicles.

China has developed a plethora of AEW platforms. The Plaaf itself uses the “high end” KJ-2000, based on the Beriev A-50, and the smaller KJ-2000 based on the Xian Y-8 turboprop transport, with a “balance beam” AESA antenna like that of the Saab Erieye. China has also exported the Y-8-based ZDK-03 with a “saucer” radar array to Pakistan. These will be joined soon by the Chengdu/Guizhou Soar Dragon box-wing strategic UAV.


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