“When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”
– Leonardo DaVinci
“The opportunity to secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself”.
– Sun Tzu
China conducted its biggest ever military parade on 01 Oct 2019 as part of its celebrations for 70 years of Communist Party rule. 580 pieces of military equipment and 160 aircraft participated1. It included the fifth-generation fighter, the J-20; the latest strategic bomber H6-N cum FRA; and the Z-20 medium lift helicopter, similar to a U.S. UH-60 Black Hawk. A new advanced radar system that could ‘detect jets and missiles’, and the latest HQ-9B surface-to-air missiles capable of intercepting multiple air strike weapons in a complex electro-magnetic environment, were showcased among many others.
China’s massive military modernisation is being matched by equally phenomenal growth of its military industrial base. The clear focus is to counter primacy of U.S. military in the region. For long, China was accused of acquiring technology by reverse engineering Russian systems2 in clear violation of intellectual property rights, or acquiring top-end technology through cyber attacks, and espionage operations against of Western firms. However, ever since it became an economic powerhouse, it was in a position to invest in research and development. They have clearly focused on platforms that will help them dominate the western Pacific, the military aviation and the naval ship building. China’s usurping of the SCS, by reclaiming islands and turned into military bases was a part of the grand-strategy to extend zone of economic and military influence. Air is the preferred means of extending reach with lethality, and even among the ships, the crown-jewel are the aircraft carriers. As per London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, “Since 2014, China has launched more submarines, warships, principal amphibious vessels and auxiliaries than the total number of ships currently serving in the navies of Germany, India, Spain, Taiwan and the United Kingdom”3.
China’s aviation industry has also been leaping ahead. Though the PLAAF is still dominated by the Chengdu J-10 and the Shenyang J-11/15/16 derivatives of the Russian Sukhoi Flanker family, albeit they have significant local avionics and weapons. The Y-9 turboprop and Y-20 jet airlifter are in serial production. Despite virtual disappearance from news, China’s FC-31 second stealth fighter jet, is claimed to be proceeding smoothly and on schedule. Chinese armed drones have great potential to dig into Western markets. The Chinese military claims to have tested an unmanned single-engine biplane transport aircraft that successfully delivered cargo at a designated area4.
Despite great efforts and investments, Chinese aircraft industry continues to struggle with critical technologies. China is still struggling to build reliable aircraft engines. China has been researching to develop thrust-vectoring aircraft engines for nearly two decades. At the 12th Zhuhai Airshow in November 2018, a J-10B equipped reportedly with indigenous thrust vector control nozzle flew and performed aerobatic manouvres5. China is scouting to acquire or support cash-strapped engine companies around the world. Ukrainian aircraft engine factory, Motor Sich, is a contender. This huge Soviet-era company is one of the advanced military aircraft engine manufacturers in the world. 35 per cent of the company’s $450 million in sales in 2018 went to China, making China the company’s biggest destination for its aircraft engines. China is interested in Ukrainian technology beyond Motor Sich. They are hiring Ukrainian engineers also in missile and aircraft-building sectors and taking them to China. There are still question marks on the airborne radar and stealth technologies. However, significant research is going on in state-owned universities and research institutes. Also China has been pushing hard for arms exports, albeit mostly to relatively poor developing countries by offering price concessions, and attaching some political strings.
Aviation Industry Corporation of China
Aviation Industry Corporation of China Ltd (AVIC) is a state owned aerospace and defence conglomerate ranked 151st in the Fortune Global 500 list6. It has over 100 subsidiaries, 27 listed companies and 446,613 employees across the globe. Established on 1 April 1951 during the Korean War as the Aviation Industry Administration Commission, after many systemic reforms, it got its current designation. AVIC was founded in November 2008 through the restructuring and consolidation of the China Aviation Industry Corporations I and II. Centered on aviation, their business units cover defence, transport aircraft, helicopters, avionics and systems, general aviation, research and development, flight testing, trade and logistics, assets management, finance services, engineering and construction, automobiles and more. AVIC purchased American aircraft engine manufacturer Continental Motors in 2010, American aircraft manufacturer Cirrus in 2011, and American specialized parts supplier Align Aerospace in 2015. The major focus of AVIC is to efficiently develop indigenous military technologies, and to eventually compete with Airbus and Boeing in the civilian airline industry.
Chengdu Aerospace Corporation
The Chengdu Aerospace Corporation7 (CAC) is a subsidiary of AVIC. It was founded in 1958 in Chengdu, Sichuan province. They designed and now produce the J-10 light-weight multi-role fighter and the J-20 5th generation jet fighter, both of which are considered the most advanced platforms in China’s inventory. They also produce the CAC/PAC JF-17 Thunder light-weight multi-role fighter in cooperation with Pakistan. Chengdu Aerospace is credited for being the second country in the world, and first in Asia to possess fifth-generation and stealth technology. It employs 20,000 workers. CAC earlier produced the FT-5 trainer, J-7, and the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 parts. CAC later began producing Airbus A320 and Boeing 757 components, such as vertical and horizontal tails. The first flight of the Chengdu J-10 fighter in 1998 gave the company ability to produce 3rd generation aircraft. The plant also produced fuel tanks for Dassault Falcon 2000EX. Engine division of CAC produced WP6 turbojet LM WP13 turbojet (a Chinese version of Tumansky R-13 engine), and components for Pratt & Whitney JT8D turbofan engines. CAC also manufactures the top end Pterodactyl 1 and Xianglong UAVs8.
Xi’an Aircraft Industrial Corporation
Xi’an Aircraft Industrial Corporation9 was established at Xi’an in 1958. It employs 20,000. Its main products are the MA-60, MA 600 and under development M700 turbo-prop airliners. It also built the JH-7 Flying Leopard twin-engine fighter-bomber, and the H-6 twin engine bomber (a Chinese upgraded variant of the Tu-16 Badger). Currently H-20 strategic bomber is under development. It also manufactures the Y-7H trainer and wings and fuselage of the ARJ21. Twin engine turboprop transports Y-7 and Y-14, and four engine Y-20 are also manufactured here. It specialised in transport aircraft and built many variants of Y-8. Y-9 was a stretched variant of the Y-8 with greater payload and was China’s attempt to build a C 130 J class transport aircraft.
Changhe Aircraft Industries Corporation
Changhe Aircraft Industries Corporation10 (CAIC) is the helicopter manufacturer based in the city of Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province. Changhe employs 4300 employees in two production facilities. It has a joint venture with Agusta Helicopters and working relationship with Sikorsky aircraft corporation. A subsidiary factory is a major automobile company in China. Established in 1969, it manufactures WZ-10 attack helicopter, Z-8 heavy transport helicopter, and a few light utility helicopters. It also makes tail rotor pylon for the Sikorsky S-92 and fuselage for the Sikorsky S-76.
Hongdu Aviation Industry Group
Hongdu Aviation Industry Group11 Ltd. is based at Nanchang, and was established in 1951 and employs 20,000. It built Q-5 ‘Fantan’ (exported under the designation A-5) – single-seat dual-engine supersonic attack aircraft based on the MiG-19. Q-6 was a variable sweep-winged attacker, similar to MiG-23BN but was cancelled later. Also they built the prototype of J-12 a 1970 Chinese lightweight supersonic fighter that was abandoned. The group builds most of the Chinese trainers including JL-8 and L-15. It also built the multi-use agriculture & forest aircraft N-5 and many multi-purpose helicopters of MD series.
Guizhou Aircraft Industry Corporation
Guizhou Aircraft Industry Corporation12 products include trainers, turbojets, UAVs, missiles and launchers. JL-9 is a trainer based on MiG-21U. JJ-7 is the upgraded variant of the same. They also build the WZ-2000, Soar Dragon, and Harrier Hawk UAVs. Guizhou is also the plant to manufacture WS-13 jet engine, used in JF-17 and J-31 fighters.
Harbin Aircraft Industry Group
Harbin Aircraft Industry Group13, was founded in 1952 at Harbin. It has 6700 employees, and was set up to manufacture domestic civil planes. initially the plant made the Russian helicopters Mi-4, and light bomber H-5, a copy of IL-28. Later it started making indigenously designed Y-11 light twin-engine utility aircraft and Y-12 utility STOL transport variant of Y-11. Harbin has also been producing Legacy 650 and ERJ 145 regional jets in a joint venture with Embraer. Also manufactured is The BZK-005 high-altitude, long-range UAV designed by Beijing University of Aeronautics & Astronautics for use by Chinese Navy.
Shanghai Aircraft Manufacturing Company
Shanghai Aircraft Manufacturing Company14, is into manufacturing aircraft, parts and components, repair and overhaul, and many non-aerospace products. It now part of the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) which was established in 2008. It produced ARJ21, Shanghai Y-10, MD-82, MD-83, MD-90 jet liners. It also manufactures Airbus single aisle family cargo door frame, Boeing 737 tail section assembly and Boeing 777 vertical stabilizers. It also makes the C919, a locally developed narrow-body twinjet airliner. C919 rolled out on 2 November 2015 and the aircraft’s maiden flight was on 5 May 20178. The fourth prototype made its maiden flight in August 2019. Its first commercial deliveries are expected in 2021. Aircraft is to be powered by either CFM International LEAP or ACAE CJ-1000 turbofan engines, and be able to carry 156 to 168 passengers. It is intended to compete primarily with the Boeing 737 MAX and Airbus A320neo. As of 31 August 2018, COMAC reportedly had 1008 commitments including 305 firm orders, mostly from Chinese leasing companies or airlines. The Shanghai Vinage Airship Manufacturing Company has been making non-rigid airships. The Shenyang Sailplane factory sailplanes and training gliders including motorized ones. China has also been making light electric aircraft and motor gliders.
Chinese aircraft are prefixed with alphabets donating the type of aircraft in Chinese language (Figure 1).
Chinese Military Aircraft Designation – Type Prefix
|Prefix Alphabet||Chinese Designation||Aircraft Type|
|JH||Jianjiji Hongzhaji||Fighter Bomber|
|JJ||Jianjiji Jiaolianji||Fighter Trainer|
|JZ||Jianjiji Zhenchaji||Reconnaissance Fighter|
|Q||Qiangjiji||Ground Attack Aircraft|
|CJ||Chuji Jiaolianji||Primary Trainer|
Among the bombers manufactured by China were the H-5, a license-built version of the Russian Ilyushin Il-28, and it has since retired. H-6, a license-built version of the Russian Tupolev Tu-16 produced at Xian. It had many variants and the aircraft is still flying with PLAAF. H-6K is the cruise missile carrying modernized bomber variant. The latest version is the H-6N, a heavily redesigned version capable as FRA and carrying ALCM. H-20 is the Chinese Stealth bomber under development. H-20 could have a low-probability-of-intercept AESA radar, and fuse that information to other firing platform. The H-20 could also be used for electronic warfare or to deploy specialized directed energy15. JH-7 Flying Leopard is a two-seat, twin-engine fighter bomber in service with the PLAAF and PLANAF. The latest variant JH-7E was shown at the 2018 Zhuhai Airshow.
Chinese started their fighter aircraft production with the license production of Russian Mikoyan MiG-9 and MiG-15 (J-2). Subsequently they built many Chinese variants of Russian aircraft, J-5 (MiG-17), J-6 (MiG-29), and J-7 (MiG-21). They developed FC-1(JF-17) multirole light fighter jointly with Pakistan. Q-5 was a ground attack aircraft based on the MiG-19. AVIC built Chinese indigenous fighters J-8 and J-10 reverse engineering or cut and paste designs from Russian aircraft. J-11 was a Su-27 variant. J-15 is a Chinese multirole 4th generation naval aircraft, and J-16 is a 4th generation strike aircraft. J-20 is a 5th generation fighter and J-31 a 5th generation stealth fighter under development.
China build many transport and passenger/communication duty aircraft. They initially license built Yak-12 aircraft and Y-6 (Il-14). Thereafter they made many on their own by reverse engineering. Y-5 was the copy of Russian An-2, Y-7 (An-24 copy), Y-8 (An-12 copy). Y-9 was a multi-purpose variant of Y-8. Y-10 and Y-11 were small utility aircraft. Y-20 is a large multi-purpose transport aircraft (66 tonne payload) which first flew on 26 January 2013 and was inducted into service in 201616. Y-30 is a midsized, four-engine, turboprop military transport aircraft under development, with a planned load of 30 tons17. China is also building many mid-sized turboprop and jet airliners, and business jets. They are working on developing larger airliners with up to 400 seat C-939.
Chinese helicopter production began with Z-5, based on a Soviet supplied blueprint a copy of Mil Mi-4. Z-6 was a turbo shaft engine variant of Z-5. Z-8 was a license built variant of Aérospatiale SA 321 Super Frelon, and Z-9 a license built variant of Eurocopter Dauphin. Z-9WA was a utility cum reconnaissance variant. WZ-10 is a Chinese attack helicopter designed primarily for anti-tank warfare missions but has secondary air-to-air capability as well. Initiated by chief designer Wu Ximing, the project was co-designed by Kamov Design Bureau of Russia and the 602nd Aircraft Design Institute under a contract with the Chinese government. The helicopter is being built by CAIC. Z-11 is a license built Eurocopter AS350, a single engine light utility helicopter. Z-11WB is the reconnaissance variant. EC-120 is a light utility helicopter through a joint venture with Eurocopter. Z-12/15 medium transport helicopter of 5/6-ton class for a range of military and civil requirements built with Eurocopter support. Z-18 is a single-rotor helicopter with tail rotor and a non-retractable landing gear, based on the Avicopter AC313. It can carry 27 troops or five tonnes (11,000 lb) of cargo. WZ-19, is Chinese 4,250 Kg, reconnaissance/attack helicopter variant of Z-9, in service since 2012. China also operates the Sikorsky S70 medium utility helicopter. The Z-20 is a medium lift, 10 ton class helicopter produced in China by Harbin Aircraft Industries Group. It first flew on 23 December 2013. The Z-20F18 is expected to perform anti-submarine warfare, search and rescue missions, and other shipboard operations on the Chinese Type 055 cruisers and the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning. It is thought to be comparable to the US Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, the civilian S-70 variant of which has been used by the PLA since 1984. Some sources suggest that the Z-20 is a copy of the Black Hawk and link the design to the Black Hawk that was abandoned by US special forces in Pakistan during the operation to kill Osama bin Laden on 1 May 2011. China also makes many civil helicopters.
China began making basic propeller trainers with the CJ-5 and CJ-6. They also made trainers for fighter aircraft like J-5, J-6, and J-7. JL-8 was the basic jet trainer cum attack aircraft developed with Pakistan. JL-9 was the upgraded version of the J-7 trainer. Xian made specialized version of the Chinese Y-7, HYJ-7 multi-purpose trainer designed to provide training to the PLAAF pilots before transferring them to the Bomber or transport units. Same aircraft is used to train the pilots and crew of the H-6 long range bombers. The Hongdu-Yakovlev CJ-7 (L-7) is a two-seat piston engine trainer aircraft jointly developed with Russia from Yak-15219. The Hongdu L-15 Falcon20 is a supersonic advanced training and light combat aircraft build for PLAAF and PLANAF as a lead-in fighter trainer (LIFT). The aircraft resembles a shortened Super Hornet or F-16. It uses two Ukrainian AL -222 turbofan engines, and has a glass cockpit and hands-on-throttle-and-stick (HOTAS) controls which expose the trainees to typical 4th generation fighters.
Military Aviation – New Developments
China’s military aviation industry has advanced at an impressive rate over the past decade. The aircraft manufacturing has switched from poor middle quality reverse-engineered copies to conceptually good home-grown products. The Chinese military aircraft are not the best in their class, and Chinese are conscious of that. They have come a long way in flight performance, though they are still catching up, rather than leading with new designs. However, they are good enough considering PLA’s military doctrine and mission requirements. China is clear that they have no alternative but to research and develop their own. Chinese systems can be classified as high average in capability, but average in reliability.
Current Developments PL 15 Missile
The J-11B fighter jet became the latest user of China’s self-developed world-class PL-15 air-to-air missile21. The J-20 stealth fighter jet had carried the same type of missile and made public display at the Chinese Air Show 2018 in Zhuhai. Wei Dongxu, a Beijing-based military analyst, compared the PL-15 with the USA’s latest AIM-120 missile22. US media outlet the National Interest said the PL-15’s effective range could be much higher than the AIM-120’s 180 kilometers, but that could be an exaggeration, according to Wei. The PL-15 is also equipped with an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, which makes evasion very difficult. Wei said the technology of the PL-15 has matured, so it can now be put on a variety of platforms. By equipping the missile, the J-11B’s aerial combat capability can be greatly boosted, the report said. Dubbed by Chinese military observers as the “aerial trident,” the J-20, J-16 and J-10C fighter jets can all carry the PL-15 missiles.
Advances in JF-17
Pakistan Air Force (PAF) has over a 120 JF-17 ‘Thunder’. The newest variant of the JF-17 fighter, Block III made its maiden test flight in December 2019. The Block III features a new and larger holographic wide-angle head-up display (HUD) and integrated cockpit display similar to the one used by the J-2023. The J-20 is China’s first stealth fighter. The JF-17 Block III also features a missile approach warning system used on the J-20. The nose cone of the new JF-17 variant is also longer, making it likely that the fighter has incorporate an AESA radar. The variant appeared to have radar-warning receivers aft of the aircraft intakes and on the tail. The upgrades would improve the JF-17’s capability to use both short- and long-range air-to-air missiles. Chinese analysts claimed the JF-17 Block III would be able to match an “improved F-16”. Nearly 58 per cent of the aircraft’s parts are manufactured in Pakistan. These include the “wings, horizontal tail, vertical tail, and forward fuselage”, with the remainder coming from China. Yang Wei, a Chinese legislator and chief designer of the China-Pakistan co-developed fighter jet, as he aims to enhance the jet’s informatized warfare capability and weapons24. JF-17 uses a Russian-supplied engine and is equipped primarily with Chinese weapons. In terms of numbers, it is the workhorse of the Pakistan Air Force. The chief of the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex said the “Production of subassemblies has already started for the first two 50 Block 3 aircraft, to be assembled next year, and will be followed by another 12 in 2021, 2022, 2023, and 2024.” It was contending with India’s Tejas and South Korea’s FA-50 in Malaysia’s new fighter jet purchase plan. Myanmar and Nigeria have reportedly purchased the Chinese-Pakistani warplane.
J 20 – Further Developments
China has plans to develop its most advanced stealth fighter jet J-20 into a bomber, electric warfare (EW) aircraft and a carrier-based variant. Reports suggested a two-seat version of the warplane is under development. All current stealth fighter jets feature single-seat, so the potential J-20 variant might become the first two-seat stealth fighter jet in the world25. On a highly digitalized future battlefield, large amounts of information can easily overflow the entire control panel of an aircraft. Having a second pilot and a second panel sharing part of the work will be advantageous, the Chinese feel. The J-20 is being serialized and its combat capability constantly upgraded as it is by design highly customizable. Song Zhongping, a military expert and TV commentator, says “Outfitting the warplane with a second seat allows it to play multiple roles in addition to winning air superiority26“. The two-seat version can be further developed into a tactical bomber or EW aircraft, he added. Although the FC-31, another Chinese stealth fighter jet, is widely expected to become China’s next generation carrier-borne fighter jet, Song said that J-20 can also be modified to fulfill the role. An upgraded J-20 will have improved avionics and fire control systems, more powerful engines and more weapons payload.
Advances in J-16
China’s multi-role fighter jet the J-16 is now covered by a coating that can provide near stealth capability and the jet is now confirmed to be able to carry all types of air-to-surface weapons in precision strikes27. Brigade commander Jiang Jiaji, a People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) pilot, told CCTV that the silver-gray paint covering the J-16 is a kind of cloaking coating that gives the warplane a certain stealth capability, making it nearly invisible to the naked eye and electromagnetic devices. The jet’s camouflaged color scheme makes the aircraft blend with the sky and sea. Jiang also revealed that all types of Chinese air-to-surface weapons currently in service can be installed on the J-16. The J-16 is reportedly capable of carrying at least eight tons of weapons. Although the J-20 is China’s more advanced fighter jet, the PLAAF still needs the J-16 as the two types of fighter jets can complement each other.
The J-10B are being equipped with an engine capable of thrust vectoring control, thus allowing extreme maneuverability. The manufacturer of the J-10B, AVIC, said in a statement at the Zhuhai 2018 Airshow that the thrust vectoring control technology used on the aircraft was an independently developed innovation, making China one of a few countries in the world to master this key technology28. The engine for aircraft was widely regarded as a weakness in China’s military development, but they seem to be catching up, and the State-owned Aero Engine Corporation of China is continuing to work for the engines to provide more thrust and prolong the life span. Despite impressive displays at the air show, China is still 20 to 30 years behind the US in the overall design of the engines, the experts said. The J-20’s chief designer Yang Wei said in a China Central Television program that the thrust vectoring control engine used on the J-10B can be installed on any fighter jets any time if needed, including the J-2029“. Much like the U.S. Air Force with its mix of stealthy and non-stealthy fighters, the PLAAF is developing a two-tier fighter fleet. Alongside a handful of radar-evading J-20s, Beijing is acquiring hundreds of more-conventional J-10s. The single-engine, single-seat J-10, first flew in 1998 and entered front-line service in 2003. Featuring a tailless delta wing and canards, the 51-feet-long J-10 externally is similar to the defunct Israeli Lavi fighter. The 2018 edition of the Pentagon’s annual report on Chinese military capabilities describes the latest J-10C variant as an “advanced fourth generation fighters armed with the latest weapons30“. As of late 2017 the Chinese air force possessed around 260 J-10s, according to Flight Global’s annual survey of world air arms31. J-10s account for 15 percent of Chinese combat aircraft and nearly half of the roughly 600 Chinese warplanes that, in 2018, the U.S. Defense Department considered modern. The new J-10C model, which reportedly entered front-line service in 2018, has a new engine inlet that apparently reduces the plane’s radar signature. It may also have an electronically-scanned-array radar. In 2018 the U.S. military possessed no fewer than 2,800 fighters including more than 900 F-16s and hundreds of F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters.
Pakistan has shown interest in China’s J-10 fighter jets and Pakistan Chief of Army Staff Qamar Javed Bajwa sat in a J-10C during the “Shaheen-VII” China-Pakistan joint air exercise at the end of 2018, However final decision still to be taken. Laos is a contender for J-10C. Bangladesh, in 2018, sent a delegation to conduct a field survey of the performance of the J-10C. If and when this happens, the orders are likely to be small. Europe’s Typhoon and Rafale fighters are considered expensive. In this context, Chinese feel that the J-10C fighter jets, could be attractive.
Next Generation Fighter
After the successful J-20 fighter, China does not want to fall behind in the global race toward sixth-generation fighter jets and is expected to build its own next-generation fighter jets by 2035 said Wang Haifeng, a chief architect at Chengdu Aircraft Research and Design Institute who also participated in the development of the J-20 and J-1032. Some of the new features of a sixth-generation fighter jet would include the ability to command drones, artificial intelligence and even higher stealth capability through aerodynamic design, the periodical reported. New technologies, such as laser, adaptive engines, hypersonic weapons and swarm warfare, might also be part on the new aircraft, Wang said, noting that China will choose some of these features and add others that best suit China’s needs. France and Germany announced that they will jointly build a next-generation combat jet system, which is expected to be operational by 2040. The UK unveiled its sixth-generation fighter jet development program named Tempest in July 2018, and will invite India to join its co-development aircraft program, as reported in the media. Other countries including the US, Russia and Japan are also reportedly developing their own sixth-generation fighter jets. Although they remain in the concept stage, the new fighters are likely to emerge in the 2030s or 2040s. China has yet to officially reveal a plan on its next-generation fighter jet, which hardly comes as a surprise as the country seldom announces any in-development weaponry, it may have already started related research and development. China’s believes in having one generation in service, a new one in development and a next-generation under study. Now that the J-20 is already in service, the development for a new aircraft is also underway. The generational standards for fighter jets have been defined mainly by Western countries but not future standards, said J-20’s chief designer Yang Wei, noting that China will design very different aircraft in the future through true innovation33. China has also constructed a 6,620-ton, 17,000-cubic-meter FL-62 continuous transonic wind tunnel that will be critical in “shaping China’s future fighter jet,” said a statement released by the Aviation Industry Corporation of China in September 2018.
Y-20 The New ‘Heavy’
“The Y-20 can serve as a general platform from which a variety of variants can be derived,” Tang Changhong, a Chinese political advisor and chief designer of the Y-20, said at a press conference on 12 March 201934. Tang’s remarks came amid reports and predictions made by military experts since 2018 that China was developing Y-20 variants, including an aerial tanker and a early warning aircraft. Feng Wei, a Chinese legislator and Y-20 pilot, said “it will be refreshing to see the Y-20 this year and people won’t be disappointed”. With a takeoff weight of 200 tons, the Y-20 can stay aloft for extended periods, making it a great basic platform for tanker and early warning aircraft. Possible variants may also include a mobile hospital and an electronic warfare aircraft. The Y-20 might also replace its current Russian engines with domestically made WS-20 engines in 2019, some predict. “The Y-20 has now entered the formal mass production stage, and intensive regular training with the military is going according to plan,” Tang said.
China is in urgent need of an aerial refueling tanker that has a larger fuel capacity than the HU-6, a tanker developed from the H-6 bomber, for its air force to become a strategic one. Although China also operates a few Russian II-78 tankers, which are much larger than the HU-6, Russia was reluctant to sell more at a reasonable price, leading China to decide to develop its own large tanker. The Y-20 is of similar size to the Russian Il-76 transport aircraft, on which the Il-78 is based. While the Il-76 carries 44 tons of cargo, Y-20 carries up to 66 tons. The max speed and range are somewhat comparable. The Y-20 began services in the PLAAF in 2016, and over 20 have been built by end 2019.
The 40-ton class heavy helicopter, jointly developed by China and Russia, is expected to be delivered by 203235. “Russia is more experienced in the transmission system when it comes to 40-ton class helicopters, as Russia’s Mi-26 is of the 56-ton class. Our goal in the cooperation is to learn from Russia’s strong points and close the gap,” said Wu Ximing, chief designer of helicopters for the AVIC. Wu accepted that China lacks experience in technologies related to the transmission system. After four years of negotiations, Russia’s state corporation Rostec has agreed to sign the contract. Under the contract, at least 200 heavy helicopters will be built in China. China would be responsible for the helicopter’s design and production and Russia would be acting as a technical partner. The helicopter, dubbed Advanced Heavy Lift, would carry payload of 15 tons, and have a range of 630 kilometers and a top speed of 300 kilometers an hour. China will have a complete helicopter family covering from 500-kilogram class to 40-ton class, Wu said.
Unmanned Aerial Systems
China’s domestically developed, made-for-export Wing Loong series of drones have fired more than 3,000 rounds of live munitions with an overall accuracy higher than 90 percent, Chinese media reported36. Wing Loong is an armed reconnaissance drone capable of delivering precision strikes using air-to-ground missiles, often likened to the US’ MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones. As of December 2018, 100 Wing Loong series drones were delivered for export37.
A video featuring China’s flying saucer-like stealth drone, the Sky Hawk, was shown for the first time on China Central Television (CCTV) in January 201938. It has been developed by China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation. Featuring a “flying wing” aerodynamic design similar to the US B-2 stealth bomber, the Sky Hawk is a high-altitude, long-range and high-speed unmanned aerial vehicle capable of conducting reconnaissance and patrol missions in hostile environments. Another Chinese stealth drone with a ‘flying wing’ design, the CH-7, developed by China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, was also on display at the last Zhuhai air show. Its 22-meter wingspan makes it significantly larger than the Sky Hawk, providing another choice for domestic and international users. The US has developed the X-47B stealth drone and run tests on aircraft carriers. The Sky Hawk will also operate on China’s future aircraft carriers that will use electromagnetic catapults. China’s new strategic bomber, the H-20, is expected to also use a ‘flying wing’ aerodynamic design to gain stealth capability and other benefits.
Capable of delivering precision bombardment, the weirdly shaped Chinese helicopter drone Blowfish A2 sparked interest from many countries’ militaries following its flight demonstration at the 15th Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition (LIMA) in Malaysia held in March 201939. The 1.87-meter long, 0.62-meter tall helicopter drone has a maximum take-off weight of 38 kilograms and is capable of carrying a 12-kilogram payload, says Guangdong-based Zhuhai Ziyan UAV company, the manufacturer of the drone. The Blowfish A2 can carry radar, jamming devices, guns or bombs under its spine, and has maximum speed of 130 kilometers an hour. A video shows the drone dropping four bombs, which detonated some meters above the target, as the guided explosions accurately scorched a wide area. The drone is available for export and multiple countries have reportedly shown interest. Combat-ready helicopter drones made by Ziyan now operate in four countries in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Africa, the representative said, without naming the clients. AVIC is also developing helicopter drones including the missile-carrying AV500.
AVIC expects to produce 100 high-end drones per year by 2025. AVIC also announced it has established a new subsidiary AVIC (Chengdu) Unmanned Aerial Vehicle System Company, focusing on the drone business, which Chinese military experts said will help AVIC become even more competitive on the international market. AVIC now offers products like the Wing Loong armed reconnaissance drone, the Cloud Shadow high-altitude drone, the AV500 unmanned helicopter and the Yaoying remote sensing drone. The establishment of the subsidiary shows that AVIC takes the drone business very seriously, and the move is also motivated by the strong demand from the international market. “The US’ General Atomics is the market leader in the international drone industry. I hope that our new company can surpass it,” Lai Zhiyong, an employee at AVIC (Chengdu) Unmanned Aerial Vehicle System Co Ltd, says40. Li said that the reason behind the success of the Chinese drone on the international market is its high quality and low pricing, and China continues to make rapid progress in related technologies. Countries like Egypt, Indonesia and Serbia are operating the Wing Loong I drone. Wing Loong I-D, the new Wing Loong series drone uses an all composite material structure, made its maiden flight in January 2019.
China has also reportedly developed a new type of electronic warfare aircraft with extra antenna installations. The aircraft appears to have been developed from the Y-9, says Wei Dongxu, a Beijing-based military analyst41. The Y-9, a medium-sized tactical transport plane has been modified, including as early warning aircraft, reconnaissance plane and anti-submarine aircraft. The new variant visibly has a hemispheric radar dome under its chin, two large antennas on each side of the plane, an antenna on each side of the tailfin and an electronic warfare pod on top of the tailfin. It could effectively monitor enemies’ radio communication and intercept their radar signals. It can also deliver electronic suppression, supporting China’s aerial strike formations by jamming and paralyzing hostile air defense systems. However, more aggressive missions would be supported by fighter class of EW aircraft. The aircraft is likely to be designated GX-11.
Type-002 aircraft carrier has reportedly completed several sea trials. Resembling the ‘Liaoning’, the new aircraft carrier has also fitted with a ski-jump assisted short take-off. The Type-002 aircraft carrier has reportedly been fitted with a new generation of phased array radar system, optimized air traffic command room and flight deck. Its carrier aircraft will also be a new generation of ship-borne J-15 fighter jet equipped with phased array radar. That translates into considerably enhanced combat capability.
Having already designed China’s current aircraft carrier-borne fighter jet J-15, Shenyang Aircraft Design Institute is developing a new carrier-based warplane based on the FC-31.The FC-31 is a fourth generation medium-sized stealth fighter jet originally intended for export. The FC-31 made its public debut flight at Airshow China 2014 in Zhuhai, but went relatively quiet after that. Multiple changes and upgrades are being made to the FC-31 allowing it to be used on an aircraft carrier. China’s third aircraft carrier, is widely expected to be equipped with an electromagnetic catapult, and likely to house the stealth fighter jet.
Su-30 MK2 – Anti Shipping Role
China unveiled a set of photos of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy’s Su-30MKK fighter jets’ on 06 January, 201942. These photos ‘inadvertently’ revealed a Su-30 MK2 fighter preparing to take off was mounted with a Chinese PL-12 air-to-air missile. This indicates that China has already been able to modify the Su-30MKK’s fire control system to give it the capability to use China’s indigenous weapons. The next would be the Su-30 MK2 fighter jet carrying YJ-12 and YJ-18 anti-ship cruise missiles. It has enhanced the structure its total payload to 12 tons. Su-30MKK also has increased its maximum take-off weight. Its maximum range is almost 4,000 kilometers, and therefore it can patrol the entire South China Sea with the support of tanker aircraft. The Su-30MKK fighter jet, H-6 Strategic Bomber and JH-7 Fighter-Bomber shoulder together the responsibility of China’s long-range anti-ship attack task. The Su-30MKK fighter jet has three 2-ton heavy hanging points and therefore can mount three YJ-12 missiles, supersonic anti-shipping cruise missiles.
PLAN’s New VTOL Drone
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) deployed a new vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) fixed-wing drone on a guided missile destroyer in an exercise in the South China Sea in late February 2019 for the first time43. The drone took off from the helicopter deck of the Lanzhou, a Type 052C destroyer. The drone has a triple-fuselage design. The left and right fuselages each have four propellers: two on top, two on the bottom. A larger propeller is installed at the rear of the aircraft. “The eight smaller propellers can provide the lift needed for VTOL, and the larger propeller provides thrust” it was reported. The new drone has combined the advantage of a rotorcraft and a fixed-wing aircraft. The drone appears to have a wing span of about four meters, allowing it to be stored in helicopter hangar. The drone is likely to carry out reconnaissance and search missions at longer ranges for destroyers and frigates. The drone could also guide artillery fire from warships and conduct damage assessment during an amphibious landing operation.
Multiple Terahertz Radiation Radar
Chinese arms companies recently made multiple terahertz radiation radar systems with a technology seen by experts as an efficient air-to-ground reconnaissance tool and a potential counter to stealth aircraft. The prototype radar was successfully developed by a China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC), and a second-generation prototype is already in development44. The CCTV report said that terahertz radiation has wavelengths between those of infrared rays and microwaves, a wide spectrum that would render current stealth technologies obsolete, making the radar able to detect stealth aircraft. Stealth aircraft usually use composite materials and radar wave-absorbing coatings, so normal radars cannot effectively detect them. Terahertz radiation, on the other hand, could penetrate those materials and expose metallic parts within the aircraft as per Wei Dongxu. Experts said the terahertz radiation decays very fast in the air, meaning, the effective range of the radar is likely low and not sufficient for detecting an advanced stealth fighter jet in time before it launches attacks from beyond visual range. China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) had earlier developed China’s first terahertz radiation video synthetic aperture radar, Beijing-based newspaper Science and Technology Daily reported in December 2018. The CASIC radar can see through complicated environments like smoke, smog and dim lights, and can efficiently detect ground infantry targets in camouflage and disguise, and deliver precision strikes.
Early Warning Radar Technology
China is a major arms exporter, but its image in the international weapons market has long been linked to old, second-tier products sold at relatively low prices. Domestic defence technology companies have been sparing no effort over the past several years to improve their reputation by promoting modern, advanced products featuring the latest technology. One recent effort is an airborne early-warning and control aircraft. Hu Mingchun, head of the Nanjing Research Institute of Electronics Technology in Jiangsu province, said there are only a handful of nations including China, the United States and Israel that can design, build and export such cutting-edge hardware as early-warning planes. The KLC-7 Silk Road Eye developed by his institute was a generation ahead of its rivals in the global market he claimed45. According to Hu, the KLC-7 integrates a mechanical scanning system with active electronically scanned arrays and features the latest digital technology and processing capacity. The system boasts better anti-jamming functions and a longer detection range. The electronics institute in Nanjing, which is part of State-owned defense giant China Electronics Technology Group Corp, is the country’s top developer of military surveillance radar. Its products have been sold to more than 20 nations in Africa and Asia, it said. It designed and manufactured the radars mounted on ZDK-03 early-warning aircraft that China exported to Pakistan. In a picture released by China Electronics Technology Group Corp, the Silk Road Eye appears similar to the ZDK-03, which means it is also mounted on the Y-9 turboprop transport plane built by AVIC.
Aviation Industry Comes of Age
China’s defense industry is exploding onto the scene as its top arms makers push past Western powerhouses46. The Chinese defense industry is growing rapidly, with a handful of Chinese firms displacing Western defense powerhouses, he wrote. A list of the world’s top 100 defense firms published by Defense News revealed that 6 of the top 15 companies are Chinese. Last year, there wasn’t a single Chinese company among the top 100. The appearance of eight Chinese defense firms among the top 25 comes as China invests heavily to upgrade its military and build a world-class fighting force. Till 2018, not a single Chinese company had even cracked the world’s top 100 defense firms, according to a list published annually by Defense News. In 2019, six Chinese defense firms were among the world’s top 15, with Chinese companies occupying eight of the top 25 spots. AVIC, with its annual defense revenue close to US $25 billion, ranks fifth, outpacing US and UK defense giants General Dynamics and BAE Systems. AVIC, the top Chinese company on the list, is trailing closely behind Raytheon and Northrop Grumman, two leading US defense firms. AVIC is responsible for the development of China’s fifth-generation J-20 fighter and the new H-20 stealth bomber, among other projects.
AVIC has been developing Wingman drones and an unnamed flying wing stealth drone was showcased at the 2018 Zhuhai Airshow reported Liu Xuanzun47. USA and Russia already have drones that will accompany manned fighters and China is conscious that they must not get left behind. USAF will induct XQ-58 Valkyrie drones to fly in formation with the F-15EX and F-35 by end 2019. Similarly Russia has just released footage of the first flight of the S-70 Okhotnik stealth assault drone to be paired with Su-57 for joint missions. the AVIC has already developed the Dark Sword stealth drone of the size of a fighter aircraft. The Sky Hawk and Sharp Sword are other stealth drones.
‘Made in China 2025’ goals
China wants its commercial aircraft to supply 10 per cent of the domestic market and its jetliners to account for up to 20 per cent of the global market by 202548. When the C919, China’s indigenous long-haul airliner, successfully completed its maiden flight in May 2017, officials were quick to announce that the country was edging closer to clinching the “crown jewels” of the modern aircraft manufacturing industry, and also carried the huge weight of a nation’s ambition to be a major player in the global aviation industry. China’s civil aviation market is expected to overtake the US as the world’s largest by 2022, and the country is estimated to need over 7,000 planes in the next 20 years. Being able to make its own would not only help disentangle Beijing from the political complications of having to deal with the global manufacturing duopoly of Boeing and Airbus, but would also be a statement that it had the technological prowess to match its economic might. “China is playing the long game, it’s not about the 2020s. China is looking at the next 20, 30 or 40 years.” says Kevin Michaels, managing director of AeroDynamic Advisory, an aerospace and aviation consultancy. China’s aviation industry, and has received over 800 orders and options to buy C919as of June 2019, despite the fact that it is not expected to enter operation until at least 2021 and that only 50 per cent of the components are currently domestically produced. Among the obstacles the country faces in becoming an aviation power are its lack of expertise in avionics, materials technology and aerodynamics, and most crucially, engines. Experts have estimated that China’s jet engine technology is about 20-to-30 years behind its competitors. The C919 currently runs on engines from CFM International, a joint venture between GE Aviation of the US and France’s Safran Aircraft Engines. Beijing has invested 100 billion Yuan (US$14.4 billion) in 2016 under the MIC2025 plan to establish Aero Engine Corporation of China (AECC), which will build the CJ-1000A turbofan jet engine to power the C919. USA has put brakes on transfer of critical technologies. In fact, China has spent less than US$1 billion on 12 aviation-related acquisitions in the US over the decade up to 2017, according to estimates by the US think-tank Rand Corporation. Meanwhile COMAC has 16 joint ventures with foreign firms, including GE Aviation, Honeywell, Parker Aerospace and Liebherr, and is also building a larger twin-aisle plane, the C929, with a Russian company, but it remains an uphill task, as a whole in the form of a new-found US hostility to it. COMAC is yet to apply for certification for the C919 from the US Federal Aviation Administration, without which it cannot access the US market.
Further Russia fighter Offers
Since the Soviet Union’s collapse, the China has been a leading client for high-end Russian military hardware. Such imports played a key role in revolutionizing China’s aerial warfare capabilities, in particular during the 1990s with acquisition of the most capable Russian air defense systems, air-to-air missiles and air superiority fighters available, but by the 2010s the reliance on high-end Russian equipment was reduced considerably. Russia’s inability to market more than two dozen of its latest Su-35 fighter jets in 2015, an offer which had to be accompanied by generous technology transfers to be accepted. Upon announcing plans for the export of Russia’s Su-57 fifth generation air superiority fighter at the 2019 LIMA exhibition in Malaysia, Kladov Viktor, of Rostec, the Russian state conglomerate for arms exports mentioned of aircraft’s potential export destinations49. In the next two years China will make a decision to either procure additional 4th Gen ++ Su-35s, or build the Su-35 within China, alternatively procure Su-57E, he said.
However China’s induction of its own fifth generation air superiority fighter the Chengdu J-20 in 2017, which preceded the entry of the Su-57 into service and marked the first aircraft of its generation to complete development outside the United States. China also preceded Russia in its deployment of aircraft with active electronically scanned array radars, which are currently mounted on its J-20 and J-10C fighters, as well as its deployment of next generation air-to-air munitions with the entry into service of the PL-15. While the Su-35 did field a number of technologies that China’s own defense sector had yet to develop, including three-dimensional thrust vectoring AL-41F-1S engines, these technologies are expected to have been mastered by Chinese military aviation by 2022 and deployed on the upcoming J-11D. Should the J-11D program succeed, China would have little reason to purchase further Su-35 aircraft or to seek to establish production of the platform domestically as director Kladov suggested. Su-57’s internal weapons payload is much larger than that of the J-20, deploying eight long range K-77 or R-37 long range air-to-air missiles. That also gives the Su-57 a considerably longer air-to-air engagement range compared to the J-20, with the K-77 missile retaining a range of over 193 kilometers. The Su-57’s internal missile bays can also deploy the R-37 with a 400 km range — designed specifically to target tankers, airborne warning and control systems (AWACS), and other vital support systems. Su-57 also allow it to fire modulated laser beams at incoming missiles’ seekers to blind them. These are all capabilities that existing Chinese fighters, including the J-20, lack entirely. Russians claim that the Su-57 outclasses the J-20 across the spectrum. With large scale production plan of indigenous J-20 the Su-57 maybe ruled out. At best a few Su-57 fighters could be bought for considerable technology transfers.
Critical Technologies China Still Needs
China cannot still make large airplane engines that can efficiently power large commercial aircraft. In order to make those engines, China needs first to make light-weight blades that can keep their strength and shape while holding up to extreme temperatures (nearly 2,000° Fahrenheit) and very high rotation50. The engines for commercial planes are required to have a longer life span and endure 3,500 to 5,000 hours of use a year. China cannot even reverse-engineer because the need for advanced machine tools for turbine blades. The US and other Western countries won’t sell China the advanced machine tools, and the ones they have purchased aren’t precise enough to mass-produce the intricate blades we need for the engines. “China continues to lag behind in avionics for advanced fighter jets and until Chinese companies develop capabilities on a par with leading competitors from the US and Russia, they will likely double down on industrial espionage to steal designs51,” said Bonnie Glaser, senior advisor for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.“China has developed techniques to target U.S. defense contractors and hack defense industry computers,” Glaser added. “Both methods are proving effective in acquiring the most advanced military assets.”According to publicly available data about the J-20, its avionics include electronic surveillance measures, infrared search-and-track and electro-optical targeting systems, and third-party sensor data fed to it via data-link to help locate its targets. Experts believe the J-20’s avionics is most likely comparable to that installed on the F-22 and F-35 fighters, but of lower quality.
Estimates show that China has derived a cost advantage of just 14 to 20 percent, which is hardly impressive given that China is the country that has relied most extensively on both industrial and cyber espionage, and that has benefited massively from the transfer of technology through FDI, mergers and acquisitions, and the purchase of foreign components52. Such a cost advantage is even less impressive given that the F-22 is now twelve years old, that the J-20 has significant deficiencies, and that its costs will inevitably increase further as China attempts to fix its problems and improve its performance. The latter point is critical, because “the final 10 percent striving towards maximum perfection costs 40% of the total expenditure on most projects.” The same is true with regard to time. The F-22 became operational in 2005—about twenty years after the project started. Launched in the late 1990s and tested in 2010, the J-20 was officially commissioned in late 2017. Still, it is not yet fully operational and remains inferior to the F-22 on several dimensions: in other words, after more than twenty years, China has not yet closed the gap with the United States.
China Emerging Aviation Superiority
China’s defense industrial base is working to modernize its military to build a world-class force that can fight and win wars, an ambition repeatedly stressed by Chinese leadership. “The Soviets were never able to match, much less overcome, America’s technological superiority. The same may not be true for China,” former Deputy US Defense Secretary Robert Work and his colleague Greg Grant wrote in a recent report53. China’s economic power makes it highly unlikely that the US will be able to spend its way to victory in its strategic competition with China, the authors contend. The US has not faced a competitor with a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) greater than 40 percent of its own in more than a century. China’s GDP is currently around 63 percent of that of the US, and China is projected to eventually have the world’s largest economy. “China also has the political will and fiscal strength to sustain a steady increase in defense spending during the next decade,” the Department of Defense explained in its 2019 report on China’s military might, noting that these increases “will help support PLA modernization, develop an integrated military-civilian defense industry, and explore new technologies with defense applications.” The Pentagon identified the key elements of China’s military modernization as investments in domestic defense, the development of the defense industrial complex, a growing science and technology research and development base, civil-military integration, and the acquisition of foreign technology. “The result of this multifaceted approach to technology acquisition is a PLA on the verge of fielding some of the most modern weapon systems in the world,” Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, wrote in a letter prefacing a 2019 DIA report on China’s military modernization54. “In some areas,” he added, “it already leads the world.”
As China has set a target to become a leading super power by the year 2049, it is in competition with U.S. the current super power to whom it wants to replace. Its size of the economy is growing at the fast rate. It is already ahead of America’s GDP in PPP terms and well on track to overtake even in nominal terms. In the recent October 2019 parade, it displayed its military might. It is trying to persuade the nations to accept its new position by enticing them with financial help by using its massive economic clout, to accept its extraterritorial claims willingly or if necessary with its threatening posture and nations which do not succumb to pressures then by being overtly friendly. India falls in the last category. After the Doklam standoff where India stuck to its position. This approach helped both India and China to keep peaceful borders despite lingering boundary issue. Indian Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping concentrated mostly on trade and terrorism issues at the Mahabalipuram summit in October 2019.
Make in India defence production has finally started showing initial results. India is way behind, but all national energies need to remain focused on the aim for India to take its place on the global high table. Aviation technologies are much tougher to master. India needs to take foreign help to master them. It also needs to invest much more on research and development. Also the defence production needs to be released from the bureaucratic control as has been successfully done for India’s space and nuclear programs.
Picture Credit Chengdu J 20 : businessinsider.in
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18 thoughts on “China’s Aviation Industry – Forging Ahead, Yet Critical Technology Challenges”
A very comprehensive article. As I have maintained that Indigenisation doesn’t come at a cost, ‘ Indigenisation is at any Cost’
When we can send an aircraft to Mars a rocket by definition is a flying object, why we can’t make fighter aircraft. There is a serious disconnect.
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Well Said. Agree with you. Need for full support to indigenisation at all levels
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