TIDE OF TECHNOLOGY SWEEPS ONWARDS

China Airshow

17th Dec 2010


China recently declared, “Defence expenditure has always been kept at a reasonable and appropriate level.” Yet, from 1997 to 2003, defence spending on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) doubled, a statistic that raises eyebrows. In 2010 the defence budget expanded 7.5% from the year before to USD78.6 billion. However, the USA estimates actual spending is more like USD150 billion. In reality, China’s defence spending pales in comparison with the USA’s USD663 billion in 2009, but what concerns observers is the exponential rise in China’s military capability. (KYM TO TASHA, BPS)

The 8th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition, held in Zhuhai in Guangdong Province from 16-21 November, was an opportunity to examine where research money is being spent. The biennial event held near the former Portuguese enclave of Macau is one of the few chances to see selected conceptual and new products from the opaque Chinese defence industry. The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) officially sponsored Airshow China 2010 for the first time.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles


As an aerospace show, it was unsurprising that most exhibits had an aeronautical flavour. One sector that aroused the greatest astonishment was unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Approximately 25 different designs were exhibited, and they showed considerable progress. The latest designs included long-endurance UAVs and unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV). Considering the fact that UAVs only appeared at this show four years ago, it is clear that great advances are being made.

The Pterodactyl I from Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) is representative of the advances being made in unmanned technologies. AVIC displayed a scale model of this armed Predator-like UAV that measures 9.054m long and has a 14m wingspan. Able to fly at 280km/h, it has an endurance of 20 hours or a 4,000km range. This is significant, for it would give China the ability to rove widely over the East China and South China Seas, both of which are epicentres for territorial disputes with neighbouring countries. For example, tempers between Japan and China flared over a fishing-trawler incident near the contested Diaoyu Islands in September. By claiming jurisdiction over the entire South China Sea, China also inflames sentiment in Southeast Asian neighbours.

The Pterodactyl UCAV was joined by the futuristic-looking CH-3 from China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), which had a pair of air-to-ground missiles fitted beneath its wings. The CH-3 weighs 640kg and can cruise at speeds of 220km/h. The UCAV that surprised the most foreign observers was the jet-powered WJ-600 from China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC). The fact that it was weaponised was not the most alarming aspect, but rather it was the accompanying video clip that showed a WJ-600 locating a US Navy (USN) aircraft carrier strike group at sea. (KYM TO TASHA, BPS) The animation then depicted the WJ-600 transmitting coordinates to land-based anti-ship missile batteries, which promptly fired a salvo of missiles that sank the carrier and decimated the accompanying strike group! The message being relayed to the USA was unmistakeable. Wary of the USN’s Seventh Fleet stationed in Japan, China was figuratively firing a warning shot off US bows. China was hoping to dissuade any American thought of intervening in a Taiwan Strait crisis, as occurred in 1996 when the USN dispatched a pair of aircraft carriers.

Another model UCAV was displayed by Xi’an ASN Technology Group, which is China’s largest manufacturer of UAVs, including the ASN-206 and ASN-207 in PLA service. The ASN-229A Reconnaissance and Precise Attack UAV was armed with two missiles. It can cruise at 220km/h with an endurance of 20 hours.

‘Informationalising’ the PLA


After observing the stunning success of American forces during the 1991 Gulf War and during Operation Iraqi Freedom, China has been making special efforts to improve the network-centricity of its somewhat cumbersome command-and-control (C2) systems. Surprisingly, China had not developed an Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft before this decade. (KYM TO TASHA, BPS) Because of a shortage of Il-76MD airframes on which to base its KJ-2000 AEW&C system, China hedged its bets by also developing a smaller AEW&C platform known as the KJ-200. The latter mounts a linear-shaped active electronically scanned array (AESA). The PLAAF displayed one KJ-200 based on the Shaanxi Y-8 at Airshow China 2010, although it was significant that it was parked well out of the spotlight, and thus not subject to close observation. This kind of force-multiplying asset is vital if China is to improve its networked capability, although older aircraft in the PLAAF inventory will not be able to take advantage of these developmental AEW&C assets since they do not possess complementary data-links.

The single-engine J-10 multirole fighter is one aircraft set to leverage China’s future AEW&C capability, and the PLAAF’s “August 1st” aerobatic team performed daily flight shows with eight J-10s in Zhuhai. With such modern aircraft, China can move from territorial air defence towards an offensive capability.

The BeiDou-2 navigation satellite system is a work in progress, and it has obvious military applications in terms of guidance systems, navigation and communications. A total of six satellites are already in orbit to give China regional coverage, with the complete global system of 35 satellites scheduled for completion in 2020.

New missiles


There were several new missile systems on show from state-run manufacturers. One was the QW-19 man-portable air defence system (MANPADS), which is a development of the incumbent QW-18. The new QW-19 has a slightly longer range of 4,000m, and the manufacturer claims it has improved target discrimination and is less susceptible to interference.

Perhaps the most significant weapon on show was the CM-802AKG air-to-ground missile. (KYM TO TASHA, BPS) This land attack cruise missile is derived from the similarly named C-802A anti-ship missile that is in PLA service, and which is also being deployed on Royal Thai Navy Chao Phraya-class frigates. The CM-802A has a 180km range, while the smaller C-705 anti-ship missile with 140km range was also present. The CM-802AKG claims an impressive range of 220km, which exceeds anything similar the US can field. The developer stated this new air-to-ground missile is already in Chinese service. US intelligence analysts have reported China is developing the world’s first anti-ship ballistic missile based on the DF-21C, but as expected there was no mention of this top-secret weapon.

Other missiles on display were the KS-1A surface-to-air missile (SAM) and vehicle-mounted HQ-7B SAM. Several rocket launcher systems were also shown. These included the A-100 mounted on a Taian TA5450C 8x8 heavy-duty chassis. This multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS) has been successfully exported to Pakistan. A100-311 rockets have a range of 120km, while A100-111 rockets can travel 80km.

Exports

Several European and American companies displayed wares at Airshow China 2010, but in light of existing arms embargoes instituted against China in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, these corporations were obviously focusing on the civil aviation sector. Eurocopter was a prominent foreign exhibitor, although even a model of the EC175 helicopter (known as Z-15 in China) being co-developed with AVIC was strangely absent.

Pakistan was heavily involved in this year’s show. The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) brought along three JF-17 Thunder fighters. This new fighter, designed in China but with 58% of components assembled and manufactured in Pakistan, was described by Squadron Leader Syed Babar Ali Shams as “the pride of China.” A total of 16 JF-17s have been delivered thus far from the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC), and production will exceed 200 units. Sqn Ldr Shams also said Pakistan was “very pleased” with the performance of the new aircraft. Without disclosing which countries, Zeng Wen, Vice-President of China National Aero-Technology Import and Export Corporation (CATIC) stated, “We’re talking with six to eight countries about the JF-17. It’s a low-cost solution for developing countries.”

The PAF also brought its Sherdils (“Lion Hearts”) aerobatic team with their K-8 Karakorum intermediate jet trainers. The K-8 is the Pakistani version of the Chinese-built Hongdu JL-8. Pakistan is an avid consumer of Chinese arms and China has cultivated this important relationship, especially as it helps counteract the dominance of nemesis India on the Subcontinent.

The L-15, in advanced jet trainer (AJT) and lead-in fighter trainer (LIFT) variants from Hongdu, is another product China is promoting hard for the export market . On 20 October the company flew a new L-15 supersonic version with afterburner and upgraded cockpit and phased-array radar. The L-15 employs Ukrainian AI-222K-25F turbofan engines, and AVIC claims its climb rate is comparable to the F-16. The L-15 will compete internationally against the Russian Yak-130 and South Korean T-50.

Surprisingly, China only ranked seventh in the 2009 list of top arms exporters, and the country obviously desires to boost its market share. (KYM TO TASHA, BPS) Not only are arms exports a means of increasing revenue, but they also cement political alliances with other countries. The 8th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition was thus a vital forum for the Chinese defence industry to impress potential customers with its tidal surge of new products.

 

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