China continues to invest in military capabilities as evidenced at Zhuhai in Guangdong Province for the 9th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in November 2012

14th Mar 2013



Byline: Gordon Arthur

China continues to invest in military capabilities as evidenced at Zhuhai in Guangdong Province for the 9th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in November 2012. The biennial event, commonly called Airshow China, is a rare chance to see People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) aircraft, as well as conceptual products from a Chinese defence industry that remains generally opaque.

In many respects the air show was disappointing, with few new PLAAF platforms appearing. A pair of J-15s performed the first full arrested carrier landings and take-offs on the Liaoning carrier on 25 November, yet China has never even shown an old-school J-11 at Zhuhai so far. However, this year it is perhaps understandable since an indigenous J-11 parked next to a Russian Sukhoi Su-27 might raise questions amongst the public as to why the two aircraft look identical!

Most aircraft on display were similar to those seen on previous occasions. Two primary exceptions were the Changhe Z-10 attack helicopter. It is reported a second Z-10 PLA aviation battalion was recently set up after long delays caused by engine troubles. The Z-10 was accompanied by a Harbin Z-19 light attack helicopter, a tandem-seat design derived from the Z-9 (a licensed Eurocopter Dauphin). Typical of the Chinese penchant for intrigue, the Z-19 appeared only a couple of times during the show. Furthermore, these occurrences were extremely brief, thus making it a difficult subject to capture on film. The Z-19 has a redesigned forward fuselage to allow tandem pilot seating plus the inclusion of new sensors and weapons. Both the Z-10 and Z-19 performed flight displays but they did not land at the venue, which suggests they are strictly domestic programmes and are not available for export.

The PLAAF displayed one KJ-200 airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) platform at the show, with the type also having appeared two years ago. Because of a shortage of Il-76MD airframes on which to base its KJ-2000 AEW&C system, China hedged its bets by developing the smaller KJ-200 too. Based on a Shaanxi Y-8F-600, the KJ-200 has a linear-shaped active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar suite mounted on a dorsal structure. A problem that still remains is older aircraft in the PLAAF inventory not being able to take advantage of AEW&C assets since they do not possess data-links. However, this is beginning to change as more J-10 and J-11 aircraft enter service.

Eight Chengdu J-10 multirole fighters from the PLAAF’s ‘August 1st’ aerobatic team performed daily flight demonstrations. Meanwhile, a static Xian JH-7A fighter-bomber, a regular at the show, sat near a Shenyang J-8DF fighter. Much larger in size was a Xian H-6H bomber, a variant capable of carrying two missiles on under-wing pylons.

As in 2010, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) brought along three JF-17 Thunder fighters. Some 40+ JF-17s are already operational in two PAF squadrons. The China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) CM-400AKG air-to-surface standoff missile is known to be in service on Pakistani JF-17s. This missile is capable of Mach 4 and can carry either a penetrator or fragmentation warhead. The CM-400AKG’s range is potentially up to 250km.

The only other air force at Airshow China 2012 was the Russian Air Force represented by the Russian Knights aerobatic team, which brought six Su-27 aircraft. The presence of the Russians was important, for this former communist country is foundational to China’s military growth. China is still very much dependent on Russian and Ukrainian aero engines, for instance. On the opening day, the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) revealed its twin-spool afterburning turbofan engine that has been christened Minshan. The Minshan is destined to power the Hongdu L-15 advanced jet trainer (AJT). It has 4,700kg of thrust, greater than the 4,200kg of the existing Ukrainian Ivchenko AI-222K-25F turbofan engine. However, the Minshan’s fuel efficiency is apparently 20% lower than the incumbent type, and Ukrainian experts expressed doubts over the engine’s level of sophistication. If the programme is eventually successful, it would allow China to produce a completely indigenous L-15 not dependent on the vagaries of foreign suppliers. China is aggressively marketing the L-15, although strangely it did not appear at Zhuhai. The China National Aero-Technology Import & Export Corporation (CATIC) announced the maiden export of twelve L-15s to an unnamed customer via a contract signed on 13 November 2012.

Whilst on the topic of Russian engines, NPO Saturn elected to show its newest 117S engine in Zhuhai. It is a derivative of the AL-41F used on the Su-35 and PAK-FA/T-50. This raises the interesting spectre of whether Russia is contemplating selling the advanced engine to China for use on the J-20 or as part of a prospective sale of Su-35s. Previously, China has expressed interest in buying 48 Su-35s and spare engines, although Russia is cognisant of the Chinese habit of reverse engineering. It will be interesting to see where this engine thread leads in the future.

If Russia sold the Su-35 to Beijing, it would also be concerned about intellectual property rights over the NIIP Phazotron Irbis-E radar too. The Russian company displayed its Zhuk-AE AESA radar as well, a move that could well be designed to suggest to China the possibility of cooperating on AESA radar for the J-20 or J-31. Russian technicians are convinced China has not yet developed a working AESA design to date, and that it will not be able to do so until the end of this decade.

Unsurprisingly there was no mention of the stealth Chengdu J-20 fighter at Zhuhai, but there was a pleasant surprise in the shape of a ‘conceptual model’ of the Shenyang Project 310 fighter - commonly called the J-31. A smaller version of the J-20, it is an F-35-sized stealthy design likely intended for export. This is the first indication China intends to offer a fifth-generation fighter internationally, plus there is the tantalising possibility of it being destined for use on Chinese aircraft carriers. The 17,500kg, twin-engine J-31 made its maiden flight on 31 October and its specifications are listed as a length of 16.9m, height of 4.8m and wingspan of 11.5m. AVIC claims a combat radius of 1,250km on internal fuel and a maximum speed of Mach 1.8. With the J-20’s W-15 engine facing ongoing challenges, it is conceivable the J-31 could even enter service first as its engine may be further along the development cycle.

Unmanned aerial vehicles
Airshow China 2010 featured approximately 25 different unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) designs. This time around there was not the same volume of craft, but what was evident was a maturing of designs, especially in long-endurance UAVs and unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV). As China’s first operational UCAV, the Wing Loong I (Flying Dragon) from AVIC is a case in point. Two years ago it was just a scale model called the Pterodactyl. Now it has matured into an actual armed craft measuring 9.054m long and possessing a 14m wingspan. Able to fly at 280km/h, it has a 3,000km range and 20-hour endurance, sufficient to give China the ability to rove widely over the East China and South China Seas. As both these areas are epicentres for territorial disputes, this is significant. Its manufacturer claimed the US $1 million craft achieved an international sale in 2011. It looks similar to the American MQ-9 Reaper and has four hardpoints, with the static display item armed with anti-armour missiles, laser-guided bombs and small-diameter bombs.

The Wing Loong I was joined by the CH-4 UCAV from China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), which had AR-1 short-range laser-guided bombs and air-to-ground missiles fitted beneath wing hardpoints. A development of the CH-3 shown two years ago, the medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) CH-4 weighs 1,260kg, has an 8,000m ceiling, and can cruise at speeds of 180km/h for 3,500km or 30 hours. The jet-powered WJ-600 from CASIC was back too.

One craft to watch is the Blue Fox powered by two miniature turbojets. According to the manufacturer, the “high-performance target for air combat weapon tests, air combat training in real arms, ground-to-air weapon tests and air defence training in real arms” is based on the L-15. It is possible this advanced-looking drone with 750km top speed may have ulterior functions, namely electronic or kinetic combat missions. A model only was shown.

Missiles and ordnance
With displays of new aircraft fairly subdued at Zhuhai, more significant news was occurring on the missile front. Unprecedented numbers – up to a dozen – of new weapon systems appeared. What follows is a brief roundup of some of the significant developments. The SD-10 (PL-12) medium-range air-to-air missile (AAM) has been around a while, but it has now been developed into the LD-10 anti-radiation missile (ARM) by AVIC. As China’s first ARM, the air-to-ground LD-10 has a 60km range, and it was being advertised as suitable for the JF-17 fighter. It is apparently already in production for an export customer, which could well be Pakistan.

Another variation of the SD-10 is the much bigger SD-10A from Luoyang. It is actually a surface-to-air missile (SAM) from the medium-range Sky Dragon series. It has an entirely new middle and aft section to make it 5.054m long, and it possesses a range of some 50km. Interestingly, it resembles a Raytheon SM-series missile.

The CASIC C-705 anti-ship missile has evolved into the air-launched C-705KD. This turbojet-powered multipurpose weapon has a 140km range and TV/imaging infrared seeker and data-link. Similarly, the C-602 anti-ship missile has transformed into the C-602G land-attack missile fired from either a truck or ship. It has a 290km range.

A major area of development was mobile ground-based air defence (GBAD), with a number of new systems in evidence in Zhuhai. New was CASIC’s short- to medium-range KS-1000 missile, which looks very similar to the Russian KBP 9M311. It forms part of the FK-1000 air defence system with combined 25mm cannon/missile armament and radar. The FK-1000 can perform independent acquisition, tracking and engagement of air targets. The newest configuration of CASIC’s FL-2000 short-range mobile SAM system is the truck-mounted FL-2000C. This boasts “new-generation” 90mm-diameter infrared-guided SAMs. Another SAM on display was the long-in-the-tooth KS-1A, which has now progressed to containerised launch canisters.

One justified criticism of China’s military has been the lack of capable medium- and long-range air defence missile systems, but CASIC had two solutions on display. These were the FD-2000 (HQ-9) and LY-80 (HQ-16), and their respective launcher trucks and radar trucks were exhibited. The latter is a new-generation medium-range system already in PLA service and it has a range of some 40km up to an altitude of 15,000m. The LY-80 can intercept aircraft and cruise missiles. Meanwhile, the FD-2000 is a long-range system suitable for tackling aircraft, helicopters, cruise missiles and even tactical ballistic missiles. Its maker claims a maximum aircraft interception range of 125km and ceiling of 27km.

As well as missile systems, precision-guided munitions (PGM) also showed considerable signs of maturation, with four Chinese companies now offering such weapons. New entrants are Norinco and China South Industries Group Corporation (CSGC), both proffering gliding modular munitions dispensers similar to the Raytheon AGM-154 Joint Standoff Weapon (JSOW). Norinco is offering the 680kg Tianlei (Sky Thunder) with an 80km gliding range. CSGC refers to its 500kg standoff weapon offering as the CS/BBC5.

Norinco/Harbin Jiancheng showed its Tiange (Sky Spear) laser-guided bomb family encompassing TG100, TG250, TG250-ER, TG500 and TG1000 models that mostly use GPS/Inertial Navigation System (INS) guidance and semi-active laser homing in the terminal phase. Looking similar to the American GBU-28 Paveway III, the Tiange-1000 is a laser-guided deep-penetration bomb. Norinco claims it can penetrate 2.4m of reinforced concrete and is accurate to 3m. Since it has not done airborne tests yet, such impressive data remains to be proven. It will be interesting to see whether the introduction of such a weapon in the Chinese arsenal will prompt American and Asian neighbours to harden their bases.

CASC has enhanced its Fei Teng family of GPS/INS-guided bombs by adding terminal seekers to its small, medium and heavyweight bombs. The FT-6A extended-range glide bomb is a 250kg-class weapon. A wing kit provides a 60km range and it has an anti-radiation seeker able to target enemy air defence systems. The FT-3A has a TV/imaging infrared seeker that reduces the circular error probable (CEP) from 20m to less than 3m.

CASIC displayed the CM-506KG, a copycat of the American GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb. This 150kg-class bomb has folding wings and a reported range of 130km. A fuel-air explosive (FAE) bomb called the CS/BBF1 from CSGC was also new.

China’s defence industry is giving off strong signals of growing maturity. It is clearly moving away from straight copies of Russian equipment, a staple of Chinese weapons in recent decades, and it is actually inducting original equipment. This was typified at Zhuhai by craft like the Z-10 helicopter and Wing Loong I UAV, as well as a host of new munitions and missiles.

What is also obvious is that different state-run entities are developing overlapping systems. The resultant faster development cycles and internal competition is good for Chinese industry, which for too long has been a state-owned behemoth beset by inertia. Another benefit is that more products are becoming available for export, and Airshow China is the perfect forum for Chinese companies to peddle their wares to gain export exposure and sales. Chinese goods have the advantage of being cheap to buy, although that does not necessarily translate into good economics in the long run if they cannot be reliably maintained. One of China’s main markets is Africa, where price and ease of operation are important considerations. Going by the plethora of new equipment and weapon systems appearing at Zhuhai, China is going to make more of a splash on the international arms scene sooner rather than later.


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