China’s Aggressive Aerospace Push

anil chopra, air power asia, China, Aerospace

“We must have some of our people learn aviation, for we can use them whenever we are in need”.
—Dr. Sun Yat-Sen (1909)

As China’s military expands, so does its world influence. Chinese aerospace developments have been making headlines for over a decade. The “Made in China 2025” industrial plan, which targets 10 high-value industrial sectors for global dominance, demonstrates that the Chinese government is doing more than merely “breaking the rules;” it is seeking to set new terms for international economic competition. China has singled out the most successful American industrial product in its markets for competition, that is air and spacecraft, and the related technologies required to mass-produce them, represent perhaps the highest end of the value chain in exportable goods in the global economy in terms of value and scale required for production.

China’s J-20 Stealth Fighter. Image Source: Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China

China’s Period of Strategic Opportunity

China’s leaders have benefited from what they view as a “period of strategic opportunity” during the initial two decades of the 21st century to develop domestically and expand China’s “comprehensive national power”. Over the coming decades, they are focused on realizing a powerful and prosperous China that is equipped with a “world-class” military, securing China’s status as a great power to emerge as the preeminent power in the Indo-Pacific region. China’s leaders seek to align civil and defence technology development to achieve greater efficiency, innovation, and growth. In recent years, China’s leaders elevated this initiative, known as Civil Military Integration (CMI), to a national strategy that incentivizes the civilian sector to enter the defence market. The national CMI strategy focuses on hardware modernization, education, personnel, investment, infrastructure, and logistics. China’s leaders are leveraging China’s growing economic, diplomatic, and military influence to establish regional pre-eminence and expand the country’s international influence. China’s advancement of projects such as the “One Belt, One Road” Initiative (OBOR) will probably drive military overseas-basing through a perceived need to provide security for OBOR projects. China’s leaders are committed to developing military power commensurate with that of a great power. Chinese national interests overseas include a growing emphasis on the importance of the maritime and information domains, offensive air operations, long-distance mobility operations, and space and cyber operations. PLA modernization includes command and force structure reforms to improve operational flexibility and readiness for future deployments. Its military modernization program has become more focused on investments and infrastructure to support a range of missions beyond China’s periphery, including power projection, sea lane security, counter-piracy, peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance/disaster relief, and non-combatant evacuation operations.

China’s Targetted Belt and Road Initiative. Image Source:

Goals of PLA Airpower

The largest aviation forces in the region, the PLAAF and PLAN Aviation, continue to work toward achieving long-range power projection capability. The PLAAF continues to modernize with the delivery of indigenous manned aircraft and a wide range of UAVs. China has begun test firing the Russia-produced S-400 long-range SAM system, and is developing the HQ-19, which will likely have a ballistic missile defence capability. PLAAF and PLAN Aviation are the largest aviation forces in the region and the third largest in the world, with more than 2,700 total aircraft (not including trainer variants or UAVs) and approximately 2,000 combat aircraft (including fighters, strategic bombers, tactical bombers, multi-mission tactical, and attack aircraft).

H-6 Bombers. Image Source:

Focus on Air Superiority

China has made rapid relative improvements in air superiority in the Asian region, and modernized its airpower with more than 700 fourth generation fighters. The Chinese J-20 stealth fighter is more advanced than any other air platform currently deployed in the Asia-Pacific region. They are also testing the smaller stealth fighter, the FC-31, which is targeted to rival the technological capability of the U.S.’s F-35. China’s J-10 and J-11 fighter jet aircraft could be roughly equivalent in capability to an upgraded U.S. F-15. Russian-built Su-27s and Su-30s, and the recently inducted Su35, offer significant range. These aircraft along with J-10A/B/C will allow China the ability to conduct air superiority missions in the Taiwan Strait, and over the Himalayas. The Chinese today have very long range indigenous air- to-air missiles.

China’s J-10 fighter jet. Image Source:

Second Priority: Strike

China’s second focus area is Interdiction, and Maritime strikes, to be conducted in conjunction with PLARF, short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) and land-attack cruise missiles (LACM) units for coordinated air and missile strikes against high value targets. A typical air campaign will start with cyber network attacks, electronic deception, electronic interference, and firepower destruction. The targets will be air bases, AD command, control centres, and SAM sites. Manned aircraft will follow in subsequent waves. Suppression of Enemy AD (SEAD) will be a focus area. Anti Radiation Missiles (ARM) will be used. The latest bomber H-6N, a heavily redesigned version capable of aerial refuelling and carrying Air Launched Cruise Missiles (ALCM) will be used. JH-7/As and J-16s would be important for the maritime strike role.

J-16 Fighter; Image Source:

Third Priority: AEW&C and ISR

The third focus area is AEW&C, Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and Electronic Warfare (EW). PLA medium-large AEW&C aircraft such as KJ-500, KJ-200, and KJ-2000 would seek to maintain at least two persistent 24-hour orbits within Chinese airspace for monitoring air and maritime activity and relaying information to PLA aircraft, ships, air defences, and building overall situational awareness. Two or more ELINT and Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) aircraft would also operate at standoff range within defended Chinese airspace alongside two or more Y-8G/Y-9G standoff ECM aircraft.

KJ 2000. Image Source:

Fourth Priority: Game Changing Technologies

“We had an environment where we could do whatever we wanted in the air, and what the Chinese have done is to say you no longer can,” said Douglas Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Some of China’s biggest strides are coming in air- to-air missiles, the weapons that for one or two million dollars can destroy a US$ 150 million aircraft. China’s new aircraft, combined with the latest air-to-air, cruise, anti-ship and Russian S-400 air- defence systems (considered the world’s best) “have made the ability of the USA to operate in contested areas very high risk”, said Tim Heath, a senior international defence researcher at Rand. Cyber-warfare, AI, and hypersonic aerial systems are other areas.

Russian S 400 Air Defence System in China. Image Source:

Military Aviation Industry: Counterfeit Approach

China’s military-aviation industry is in the midst of a transformation that appears to be resulting, finally, in significant improvements in military aviation production capabilities, as China finally emerges out of decades of licence-production of military platforms. To achieve this, China has often skipped expensive and time-consuming R&D, and chosen stealing or reverse engineering military technologies. In addition, it is most visible in Chinese aircraft and sub-systems designs. Having acquired technologies from the closed Israeli aircraft project ‘Lavi’, the J-10 has a striking visual resemblance with the F-16. Of course, the current updated version of the J-10 has an advanced fire control radar array, and increased use of composite materials to reduce weight, and a number of other domestically developed updates. When the Soviet Union collapsed, China seized the opportunity to secure the production line for the Sukhoi Su-27. China quickly set about producing their own Su-27s, and then improved upon the design to develop what would become the J-11. When the Soviets refused to part with their carrier-based Su-33 design, China purchased a Su-33 prototype aircraft from Ukraine, dubbed the T-10K-3 , and quickly set about reverse engineering it to make the J-15. America claimed that China’s Caihong-4 (CH-4) armed drone was based on stolen plans for the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper, but later they made their own better variant (CH-5). China mixed and matched the F-16 design with MiG-21, to create FC-1 (JF-17 in Pakistan), with the F-16’s nose and tail joined by a distinctly MiG-21 wing design. The J-20, China’s first fifth generation fighter, has copied technologies and concepts from the American F-22 Raptor. The Lockheed Martin design was stolen by a Chinese national named Su Bin. Similarly, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter design was also compromised leading to China’s J-31 program, at least in external appearance. Although some airframes and engines are old, by Western standards, many aviation firms are also beginning to produce military systems that are comparable to aircraft in service with the world’s advanced militaries. Like the U.S.A. China today deploys aircraft with a broad range of capabilities. They have, of late, invested heavily in weapons technologies.

American C 17 and Chinese Y 20. Image Credit:

Fifth Generation Fighter

China has an array of major military aircraft projects. The Chengdu J20, also known as Mighty Dragon, is a single-seat, twin-engine, all-weather, stealth, fifth generation fighter designed as an air superiority fighter with precision strike capability. The J-20 made its maiden flight on 11 January 2011, and the first PLAAF combat unit was formed in February 2018. It is the world’s third operational fifth-generation stealth fighter aircraft after F-22 and F-35, and was the first in Asia. The Shenyang J-31 or Gyrfalcon is a twin-engine mid-size fifth-generation fighter currently under development. It has also been referred to as the ‘F-60’ or ‘J-21’ in some media reports. On 31 October 2012, prototype No. 31001 conducted its maiden flight. China became the second nation to have two stealth fighter designs in field-testing at the same time. The J-31 incorporates certain stealth characteristics such as forward swept intake ramps and diverterless supersonic inlet bumps and a two-piece canopy. The J-31 can carry 8,000 kg of payload, with four munitions totalling 2,000 kg internally.

FC-31.(J-31). Image Source:

H-20 Stealth Bomber

The Xian H-20, sometimes referred to as Xian H-X, is a subsonic stealth strategic bomber that is to enter service around 2025. It is expected to carry nuclear weapons. It is meant to strike targets beyond the second island chain (up to Guam) while carrying a payload of at least 10 tons. The bomber is expected to have a maximum un-refuelled range of around 8,000 km and maximum pay load anywhere between 10 to 23 tons, says aviation analyst Sebastian Roblin in the National Interest magazine. The H-20 could use a low-probability-of-intercept AESA radar, and fuse that information to a firing platform hundreds or even thousands of kilometres away. The H-20 could also be used for electronic warfare or to deploy specialized directed energy. Aviation researcher Fu Qianshao states that China’s long-range bomber should have a range of at least 12,000 kilometres and 20 tons of payload capacity.

H-20 Stealth Bomber. Image Source:

The Xi’an Y-20 is a large military transport aircraft (payload 66 tonnes) which was officially launched in 2006. Within the Chinese aviation industry, the aircraft is more commonly known by its nickname ‘Chubby Girl’ because of its wide fuselage. In June 2016, Jane’s magazine reported that up to 1,000 Y-20s are being requested by the Chinese military. On 6 July 2016, the first series production Y-20 (serial number 11051) was handed over to the PLAAF. On 8 May 2018, it was announced by PLAAF spokesperson Shen Jinke that Y-20 had “recently conducted its first joint airdrop training with the country’s airborne troops. There are rumours about an aerial refuelling variant of the Y-20. China has also reportedly been working on a medium transport aircraft called ‘Y 30’. It is likely to be of the C-130 ‘Hercules’ class.

Y-20. Image Source: Wikipedia

Civil Aviation Aircraft

China has made major progress in civil aircraft. A C919 airplane took off at the Shanghai Pudong International Airport for a test flight to Xi’an on November 10, 2017. The C919 is a narrow-body twin-jet engine airliner developed by Chinese aerospace manufacturer, Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC). The aircraft’s maiden flight was on 5 May 2017. Its first commercial deliveries are expected in 2021 to Chinese Eastern Airlines. The aircraft can carry 156 to 168 passengers in a normal operating configuration up to 5,555 km. It is intended to compete primarily with the Boeing 737 MAX and Airbus A320neo. As of 31 August 2018, COMAC has 1,008 commitments including 305 firm orders, mostly from Chinese leasing companies or airlines. The COMAC ARJ21 Xiangfeng (Soaring Phoenix) is a twin-engine regional jet. The 78 to 90 seat jet has a range up to 3,700 km. It made its maiden flight in June 2016 and mass production started in September 2017. Around 30 ARJ21s are in service. In June 2018, an ARJ21700+ was planned to cut weight and drag for a 115-seat -900 stretch variant to be ready by 2021. COMAC has secured an order for 105 ARJ21-700 regional jets from China’s three largest state-owned airlines. The China-Russia joint CR929 wide-body, 250 to 320 seater passenger aircraft has entered the preliminary design phase, according to COMAC. It is meant to challenge the Airbus and Boeing duopoly. A joint venture of COMAC and Russia’s United Aircraft Corp., was set up in May 2017 to jointly develop the CR929. More importantly, China’s domestic civil aviation industry capacity has been upgraded following the development of the three major models. The next developmental step would be a 400-seat C939. Meanwhile an Airbus A320 plant in Tianjin, China, has been producing aircraft for Chinese airlines since 2009.

C 919 Airliner. Image Source: Wikipedia

Combat Helicopters

The Changhe Aircraft Industries Corporation (CAIC) Z-10 is an attack helicopter designed primarily for anti-tank missions but has secondary air-to-air capability as well. It was co-designed by Kamov design bureau of Russia under a contract with the Chinese government. The Z-10 attack helicopter has recently been fitted with new engine exhaust outlets. Z-19 is the smaller counterpart Harbin Z-10. In September 2016, the PLA announced that all of its ground force aviation units had been equipped with the Z-10. The aircraft is armed with HJ-10 Air-to-Ground Missiles (AGM) considered to be similar to AGM-114 Hellfire and has an antihelicopter capability in addition to anti-tank capability. The Changhe Z18 is a medium transport helicopter developed by CAIC to replace the older Z-8. A naval version of the Z-18 was first revealed onboard the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning. Earlier in 2014, the army version of Z18 was revealed in Chinese army publications. The Z-18 has a distinctive boat hull lower fuselage with a tail ramp for offloading small vehicles. It also has a glass cockpit, and extensive use of composites. It has a maximum take-off weight of 13.8 tonnes and can carry 27 troops or five tonnes of cargo with a range of up to 1,000 km. Several versions are planned, including utility/VIP transport, airborne early warning (AEW), and antisubmarine warfare (ASW). It has a chin-mounted surface search radar and is probably fitted with a data-link similar to the Ka-28. The Z-18J AEW variant has a radar antenna fitted in place of the loading ramp that is lowered for operation when airborne. It can operate in high-altitude areas such as Tibet as in flight tests it was able to reach as high as 9,000 m.

Z-10 Combat Helicopter. Image Source: Wikipedia

Advanced Trainer Aircraft

The Hongdu L-15 Falcon is a supersonic advanced training and light combat aircraft developed by the Nanchang-based Hongdu Aviation Industry Corporation. It will meet the lead-in fighter trainer (LIFT) requirements of PLAAF and People’s Liberation Army Naval Air Force ( PLANAF), as well as next-generation training and light combat needs for foreign customers. Zambia has already ordered it and Pakistan, Ukraine are contenders.

L-15 Falcon Trainer. Image Source:

There are more than 300 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) developers/manufacturers in China. China is also called the ‘Wal-Mart’ of UAVs, as it produces nearly 50 per cent of UAVs used by hobbyists. Over two-thirds of them are private enterprises, and the remaining are government owned enterprises (GOE). GOEs are engaged in the entire development of UAVs of various sizes, from the initial design to the final production in various sizes, ranging from the smallest micro air vehicles to the largest UAVs. The Chengdu Pterodactyl, also known as Wing Loong, is a MALE UAV intended for use as a surveillance and aerial reconnaissance platform. The Pterodactyl I is capable of being fitted with air- to-surface weapons for use in an unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) role. It can reportedly carry the Chinese BA-7 air-to-ground missile, YZ-212 laser-guided bomb, YZ-102A anti-personnel bomb and 50-kilogram LS-6 miniature guided bomb. There are six variants of Wing Loong. Among the latest are the upgraded Wing Loong II, which can reportedly carry up to 12 air- to-surface missiles. It officially entered service with the PLAAF in November 2018. The Wing Loong ID has improved aerodynamics and engine enabling greater takeoff weight, service ceiling, and endurance. It can carry both internal and external stores, as well as communications equipment. The variant was launched in 2018 with Egypt being the first buyer of 32 systems. The variant achieved its first flight on 23 December 2018. Many countries have acquired Chinese UAVs. In October 2018, it was announced that Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) and Chengdu Aircraft Corporation would jointly produce 48 Wing Loong II UAVs for use in the PAF.

Wing Loong ID. Image Source:

Aerospace Craft

A Chinese hybrid space plane could reset the 21st century space race. It would take off from a runway, fly at hypersonic speeds, and then rocket into orbit. While SpaceX is making news with its recoverable rockets, the Chinese aerodynamically optimized aircraft-cum-space plane would place China ahead of the others in the air and space race by 2030. The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASTC) is beginning advanced research on a high tech, more efficient successor to the retired Space Shuttle, with hybrid combined cycle engines that can take off from an airport’s landing strip and fly straight into orbit. The hybrid space plane’s combined cycle engines would use turbofan or turbojet engines to take-off horizontally from a landing strip. Once airborne, the engine then shifts to ramjet propulsion and, as speed increases, adjusts into a scramjet engine with supersonic airflow. At the scramjet stage, the hybrid space plane would enter hypersonic flight in ‘near space’, the part of the atmosphere between 20 km and 100 km above sea level. Finally, the hybrid space plane would use its rocket motors to push out of near space and into orbit. The CASTC space plane’s easy reusability would exponentially bring down space launch costs. The combined cycle engine shares the same inlet and exhaust nozzle for both the turbojet/turbofan and ramjet. The hybrid spacecraft combined cycle engine and rocket motor prototype will be ready for testing by 2021. The space plane would improve ease of access to space for untrained persons, as it would have more gradual acceleration than a space launch rocket and could be used for space tourism. China is thus the second nation in the world after the USA to master scramjet technology.

Chinese hybrid space plane. Image Source:

Hypersonic Technology

China has the world’s largest hypersonic wind tunnel, the Mach 9 JF-12, called the ‘Hyper Dragon’ (operational since 2014), that could be used to easily test hypersonic scramjets without costly and potentially dangerous flight testing at altitude. The newer FD-21, a 556-foot-long wind tunnel, was finished in 2016 by the China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics. It can handle speeds of Mach 10-15, and is large enough to test full-sized components of hypersonic propulsion like gliders and scramjets. NASA’s hypersonic wind tunnel reaches to only Mach 7. Clearly, China is not content to restrict its flight research to the lower end of the hypersonic speed range.

The Chinese are also putting in the public domain, designs of a hypersonic military aircraft with a streamlined fuselage, a large ventral air intake, and relatively small wings. Flying in near space (20 km to 100 km altitude), it will be able to dodge existing air defences. This hypersonic bomber could carry a payload of eight tons. Timelines and the success matrix of the project are still evolving. Whether the project meets with success within the targeted timeframe or it slips by several years, only time will tell. The Chinese military could draw direct benefits from the combined cycle engine technology. Without the rocket motor component, the combined cycle engine would be a good fit to power hypersonic UAVs and staffed aircraft. Flying in near space at speeds above Mach 5, such aircraft could have a global reach, while their speed and high altitude would make them effectively immune to all existing air defence systems.

The Shadow Dragon hypersonic bomber concept is envisioned as PLAAF’s future arsenal.
The high profile broadcast of Chinese breakthroughs in space technologies suggests that, in addition to boosting Chinese prestige, the Chinese leadership is looking to raise public awareness and support to justify costly investments in next generation space technology such as hybrid space planes and super heavy “Moon” rockets. Getting the first mover advantage in these aerospace milestones would definitely give China a superpower status in both Earth and space. How China and the USA compare in the hypersonic arms race will decide who will control the planet. If Turbine Based Combined Cycle (TBCC) propulsion system succeeds, that would mean China could fly Mach 6 airplanes anywhere in the world in under three hours. American and Chinese defence giants are moving quickly to reach the edge of space. The world is watching this arms race that has the potential to revolutionize access to space and transform transcontinental travel for civilians. It could also transform national security, making existing air and missile defences obsolete.

In the race are two Chinese companies, Chinese Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) and Chinese Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC), and America’s Lockheed Martin, which claims that its hypersonic technology is nearly ready for flight testing. Lockheed Martin’s turbine rocket combined cycle (TRCC), an engine that switches between turbofan, ramjet, and scramjets for subsonic, supersonic, and hypersonic flight, will be tested on a fighter- sized flight test bed by 2020. Thereafter, the TRCC will power the SR-72, a Mach 6, unmanned twin-engine reconnaissance aircraft that is targeted to start flight by 2030. This aircraft is meant to enter highly contested and defended airspace at altitudes beyond the stratosphere (30 to 100 km), using its speed to outrun enemy defences like the SR-71 Blackbird once did. Executive Vice President and General Manager at Lockheed Martin Rob Weiss suggested that hypersonic planes could fire hypersonic missiles. This suggests that the SR-72 could join the B-21 stealth bomber in the USAF’s future global strike arsenal. Another key U.S. project is the “Phantom Express” XS-1 space plane, which is being developed by Boeing and funded by DARPA. It has recently been closed as Boeing walked out of the project. It is highly likely that because of the nature of material sciences and the laws of physics, hypersonic aircraft like the American SR-72 and its Chinese counterparts would look similar to each other.

The Tengyun spaceplane. Image Source:

The Tengyun space plane, which CASIC intends to deliver by 2030, will use a TRCC-engine hypersonic carrier aircraft to carry the second rocket-powered stage into near space, much like the abandoned XS-1. Both stages will be reusable; the hypersonic carrier airframe could also be used in hypersonic strike and reconnaissance roles. Teng Yun would have a combined weight of 100-150 tons. The first stage is a Mach 6 hypersonic ‘carrier’ aircraft, with TRCC engines. Unlike the XS-1, the Teng Yun’s second stage is a reusable, 10-15-tonne rocket-powered space plane capable of carrying either 2 tons of cargo or 5 passengers. CASIC Vice President Liu Shiquan said that the company has finished technology demonstration of key Teng Yun flight technology like the engine. The two-stage space plane could be flying by 2030, as part of a $16 billion research effort. In theory, it could cross the Pacific Ocean in one hour. Like the U.S. systems, the CASIC hypersonic carrier could have other applications besides space launch. It’s big enough to carry significant payloads (10-15 tons), which could include sensors and weapons. With modifications, like additional fuel tanks for increased range, its hypersonic speed and near- space flight altitude could fit with Chinese military needs for fast, global reconnaissance and strike. As CASIC manufactures most of China’s missiles, its experience with rocket motors, ramjet engines (and future scramjet engines) means that it is likely that it has the resources to build the complex TRCC engines for the hypersonic carrier, and by extension a hypersonic recon and strike plane.

The CASC’s hypersonic space plane, which was announced in August 2016, is also targeting demonstration of critical technologies by 2020, and a full-scale hypersonic space plane is expected to fly by 2030. The turboaided rocket-augmented ram/scramjet engine (TRRE), which uses rocket augmentation in order to aid in the transition into the supersonic and hypersonic flight regimes, could be the world’s first combined cycle engine to fly in 2025, paving the way for hypersonic nearspace planes and singlestage space launchers. Further improvements will lead to a scramjet engine powerful enough for the hypersonic plane to fly directly to orbit in one piece, as compared to the two-stage model. The Variable Specific Impulse Magneto-plasma Rocket (VASIMR) is an electro-thermal thruster under development for possible use in spacecraft propulsion. It will use radio waves to ionize and heat propellant. Then a magnetic field accelerates the resulting plasma to generate thrust. Presumably, CASC’s interplanetary nuclear spaceship will operate on similar principles. CASC also has equally ambitious plans for deep-space exploration. Key among these plans is for a nuclear-powered spacecraft, which is slated to enter service in 2040, most likely to support a manned Chinese Martian mission. CASC also has plans for China to engage in deep-space economic activity, like building orbit solar power plants, and mining asteroids and the moon.

PLAAF’s Hypersonic military aircraft would have a streamlined fuselage, a large ventral air intake, and relatively small wings. Flying in near space at speeds of up to Mach 10, it will dodge all existing air defences. It has the potential to revolutionize both military and civilian aerospace. Chinese engineers are working on a wide range of other hypersonic technologies such as plasma jets to steer hypersonic thrust, advanced heat resistant composites, and new fuels. China is set for a hypersonic flight boom.

Long March – 6 Rocket. Image Source:

Advances in Space Technology

CASC’s Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology will start testing vertical landing technology for LM-4 and LM-6 rockets in 2019 and 2020. To launch the thousands of tons of payload required to execute these plans, CASC is planning to make its rockets all completely reusable by 2035, from the small Long March 6 all the way to the giant Long March 5. The Long March 4B tested grid fins in 2019 (grid fins on reusable rockets like the SpaceX Falcon are used to control flight during the high velocity portion of the descent phase) and vertically land a Long March 7 rocket in 2020.

Since 2003, when the country launched its first astronaut, the multibillion-dollar space program run by the Chinese military has been right on schedule with achieving the landmarks it set for itself. The fiveyear plan released by Beijing’s State Council Information Office in November 2017 stresses that China is committed to peaceful uses of space and seeks to avoid a space arms race. While the USA and Russia have historically dominated space research and exploration, China’s militarybacked space program landed a roving vehicle ‘Chang 3’ on the moon in 2013, making China the third nation (after the USA and the former USSR) to reach the moon. Chang 3 discovered a new type of basaltic rock during its exploration of a volcanic crater in the Mare Imbrium. In November 2016, two Chinese astronauts concluded a 30-day mission aboard the country’s own space station Tiangong 2. China’s ambitions for its space program include a soft landing on the moon, a probe to Mars and private foreign investment. On 03 January 2019, the Chinese robotic spacecraft ‘Chang 4’ made a soft landing in the South Pole of the Aitken Basin area of the moon, otherwise known as the “far side” or “dark side” of Earth’s only natural satellite. Till now, China was emulating space milestones already reached by the Americans and Russians. It is the first spacecraft in history to attempt or achieve a landing on this unexplored area, which is never visible from Earth. The basin itself is the largest known impact crater on the moon, and one of the largest in the entire solar system. The distance from its depths to the tops of the highest surrounding peaks measures some 15 km, almost twice the height of Mount Everest.

Chang’e 5 is an ongoing robotic mission of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program. It was launched on 23 November 2020, and landed on the Moon on 1 December 2020, with an expected return to Earth around 16 December 2020. Chang’e 5 will be China’s first sample return mission, aiming to return at least 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of lunar soil and rock samples back to the Earth.  Like its predecessors, the spacecraft is named after the Chinese Moon goddess, Chang’e.

Image Source:

Space will remain an important part of President Xi’s plan to make China an ‘earthly paradise’ by 2050. Astronaut Jing Haipeng described China’s planned space station ‘a glorious mission’. China will conduct an average of 30 launches per year by 2020, and overtake the USA in some ‘key aerospace projects’ by 2045. The Chinese aerospace industry has labelled a ‘strategic emerging industry’, along with oceanography, information networks, life sciences and nuclear technology. The Chinese Communist party White Paper on space presented in the 19th Party Congress elaborates that China’s space programme will first work on “high-thrust liquid oxygen and kerosene engines, and oxygen and hydrogen engines”, for heavy-lift launch vehicles. China’s next-generation heavy-lift rocket, the ‘Long March 9’, is currently under development. The rocket will be able to take 140,000 kg to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and 50,000 kg to Lunar Transfer Orbit (LTO). There is a mention of developing non-toxic and pollution-free medium-lift launch vehicles, with the general aim of reducing pollution. There is a plan to develop small, reusable launch vehicles.

BeiDou Navigation Satellite System. Image Source:

BeiDou Navigation Satellite System

The second generation space navigation system, BeiDou Navigation Satellite System (BDS) became operational in China in December 2011 with a partial constellation of 10 satellites in orbit. Since December 2012, it has been offering services to customers in the Asia Pacific region. In 2015, China started the build-up of the third generation BeiDou system (BeiDou-3) in the global coverage constellation. The first BDS-3 satellite was launched on 30 March 2015. On 27 December 2018, the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System started providing global services. Project Director Ran Chengqi reported that the core of the BDS was completed in December 2019. BeiDou-3 now consists of 35 satellites and is already providin global services. BeiDou will provide an alternative global navigation satellite system to the USA-owned Global Positioning System (GPS), and the Russian GLOSNASS or the European Galileo systems and is expected to be more accurate than them, it is claimed, with millimetrelevel accuracy. According to the government mouthpiece, China Daily, in 2015 , fifteen years after the satellite system was launched, it was generating a turnover of $ 31.5 billion per annum for major companies such as China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp, AutoNavi Holdings Ltd, and China North Industries Group Corp.

Tiangong Space Station. Image Source:

Tiangong Space Station

Tiangong-2, China’s second space laboratory module, was launched on 15 September 2016. It carries a total of 14 experiment packages, including Space-Earth quantum key distribution and laser communications experiment to facilitate space-to-ground quantum communication. The satellite, nicknamed Micius after the ancient Chinese philosopher and scientist, has successfully conducted quantum entanglement and established a 2000-km quantum communication link between Beijing and Austria. Experiments over long distances allow the development of quantum encryption and quantum teleportation technology to facilitate communications safe from eavesdropping. By producing pairs of entangled photons, it allows ground stations separated by many thousands of kilometres to establish secure quantum channels. More Micius satellites will follow, allowing a European–Asian encrypted network by 2020, and a global network by 2030. In 2017, China’s first cargo spacecraft, Tianzhou-1, completed automated docking and refuelling with its Tiangong-2 space lab, showing the country’s progress in running its own space station. The frontier fields and experiments to be conducted in space include research into dark matter using the ‘hard X-ray modulation telescope – HXMT’ launched in June 2017. The next great leap forward for China’s space program will probably occur in 2020, if it succeeds in accomplishing three major tasks – a mission to Mars, completion of a space station, and in-orbit testing of a space-based solar power system that can beam energy back to Earth.

Long March 9 Launch Rocket

Capable of carrying 140 tons to low earth orbit (or 50 tons on a lunar bound course), the Long March 9 will be the world’s most powerful space launch rocket when it flies around 2030. It’ll be the workhorse not just for lunar missions, but for trips to Mars and beyond. The Long March 9 will likely be used for manned missions to the moon as well as installing orbital solar power plants. Its massive payload capacity would also support Chinese plans to explore Jupiter, Saturn and its moons, and other celestial objects beyond the asteroid belt. The Long March 9’s huge payload could come in handy for creating a base on the moon as well. It is likely to be a robotic facility; a manned base would cost a whole lot more. Jiao Weixin of Peking University says that a robot base dug into the lunar surface, unlike lunar rovers and landers, could conduct more sophisticated scientific tests of lunar soil, and send back lunar rock samples cheaply. Researching and operating all this is going to be very expensive, but it is clear China views the new space race as a way to pick up a lot of prestige. These new plans will be added to China’s already wide range of space offerings, including navigation and spy satellites, a vibrant hypersonic technology industry, and a growing robotics and AI industries.

China launches experimental reuseable spaceplane. Image Source:

Reusable Space Planes

China has been making some ambitious space plans backed by lots of money. These include reusable space planes, nuclear-powered spaceships, and robotic moon bases. In response, President Trump signed a Presidential Memorandum in 2018 directing NASA to send astronauts back to the moon for long-term exploration and to prepare for the long-awaited manned Mars mission. Billionaires Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson dominate the emerging industry of commercial spaceflight. They are competing to put satellites or tourists, or both in space in their bids to become cheaper alternatives to NASA, the European Space Agency, and other government-run space programs. However, like pioneers in the smart-phone and artificial intelligence industries before them, they now face competition from a deep-pocketed China that threatens to disrupt their launch-pads. President Xi Jinping has loosened the government’s monopoly on space launches, and that’s fuelling the formation of small domestic companies with ambitions to challenge Musk’s SpaceX, Bezos’ Blue Origin, and Branson’s Virgin Galactic. They can also rely on the expertise of rocket scientists from China’s vigorous manned space program. “We are really a start-up growing on the shoulders of the state aerospace giant,” says Zhang Changwu, chief executive officer of Beijing-based Landspace Technology Corp. “There’s no better time for a commercial rocket firm to grow in China than now.” The number of satellites in space increased 50 per cent from 2013 to 2017, to 1,738, according to the Satellite Industry Association. Chinese launchers could help manufacturers seeking an inexpensive way to get even more of them into orbit. One lucrative payload for the Chinese could be miniature satellites, which can weigh less than 200 pounds. Launching these satellites will generate $15 billion in revenue by 2027, up from less than $100 million last year, according to the Paris consulting firm Euroconsult. That’s also a niche where big players such as Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), whose Falcon Heavy rocket can lift into orbit payloads of almost 64 metric tons (141,000 pounds), have been less active. Several mainland companies have succeeded with suborbital launches and are vying to be the first in China to place satellites into orbit around the Earth. Founded in 2015, Landspace had raised 500 million Yuan ($ 72 million) from local investors by April 2018 and employs 170 rocketeers and other engineers, almost all veterans of the national space program, Zhang says. The company plans to launch a rocket this month carrying a satellite for state-run broadcaster CCTV. Two other Chinese companies have orbital launches scheduled by 2020. More than 60 Chinese companies have entered the commercial space industry in the past three years, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported in May.

China is the second-largest market for Tesla Inc.’s electric vehicles and has inspired many start-ups. “SpaceX has had a huge impact,” says Lan Tianyi, founder of Ultimate Blue Nebula, a Beijing-based space consultant. “Nobody in China thought that a private company could develop a rocket. Now they see that a U.S. company can do this, and it’s very famous in China.” China wants to be one of the world’s top three aerospace powers by 2030, says Wu Yanhua, vice administrator of the China National Space Administration. Toward that goal, Xi envisions private-sector launches of satellites for customers in China and in countries participating in the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative and its program to build ties throughout Africa, Asia, and Europe by funding infrastructure projects. Landspace opened a factory costing almost 500 million Yuan about 90 miles west of Shanghai in 2018, with capacity to produce 15 rockets using liquid propellant annually. The facility eventually could make 200 engines a year, Zhang says. Another start-up, Beijing Interstellar Glory Space Technology Co., in September 2018 sent three test satellites into space aboard a solid-fuel rocket. The company, founded in 2016 and also known as i-Space, has raised 600 million Yuan from investors such as Shunwei Capital, whose chairperson, Lei Jun, is co-founder of Smartphone maker Xiaomi Corp. Blaine Curcio, founder of Orbital Gateway Consulting in Hong Kong, says most Chinese rocketeers have a long way to go because their rockets aren’t reusable and can’t handle heavier payloads. Instead, the start-ups will—for now, at least—count on demand from companies developing smaller, lighter satellites for meteorological, telecommunications, and navigational use. With an $ 8 billion national space budget, China wants to build a commercial launch industry to join the ranks of Western leaders such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic.

China Catch Up Strategy: Key Technologies

China is looking to catch up with rivals like the USA and Germany in high-end technology, making a major push with a “Made in China 2025” strategy that identifies 10 key sectors, including robotics, aerospace and clean-energy cars. President Xi Jinping’s drive is to neutralize the effects of the trade standoff between China and the USA. Chinese trade partners in Europe, especially Germany, have also raised concerns that a more protectionist China is aggressively moving up the value chain faster than expected. Among them are some key aviation related targets. Chinese plane makers are required to capture 10 per cent of the domestic market. The home-grown CJ-1000A jet engine should also be ready for commercial use. In the space race, China wants 80 per cent of civil space industry equipment to be domestically sourced by 2025.

CJ-1000A jet engine. Image Source:

American Assessment of Chinese Aerospace

The U.S. Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) report released on January 15 , 2019 suggested that “China’s military rise is well-planned, and Chinese leaders are following a strategy they believe will lead to greater power and influence, both regionally and globally…”. The report is a U.S. perspective on the current and evolving state of China’s military and its ability to wage war. Space operations, Chinese military thinkers thought, were a critical aspect of future warfare. ‘Space operations probably will form an integral component of other PLA campaigns and serve a key role in enabling actions to counter third-party intervention during military conflicts,’ the report contends. “The China Military Power report emphasizes the PLA’s growing reliance on a range of satellite applications for its operations, to include Earth observation, communications, and positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) satellites, much like the military of its U.S. rival. China Military Power, also highlights, however, Beijing’s continuing efforts in developing counterspace capabilities and antisatellite weapons.” A 12 February 2019 article in Japan Times also reported that “China is developing sophisticated space capabilities such as ‘Satellite inspection and repair’ and debris cleanup—at least some of which could also function as weapons against U.S. satellites,” according to the Defence Intelligence Agency.

American Response

The “U.S. military will withdraw hundreds of troops focused on counter terrorism operations in Africa over the next several years to support the Pentagon’s increased focus on countering threats from China and Russia,” officials said. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson had called for increasing the Air Force from its current size of 312 operational squadrons to 386 by 2030, as it prepares for a possible conflict against a major nation such as China or Russia. This 24 per cent increase in squadrons is the centre-piece of the service’s proposal, which has been in the works for six months. This proposal seeks to lay out what it would take for the Air Force to fight a peer adversary and win, as well as defend the homeland, provide a credible nuclear deterrent, counter a medium-sized rogue nation that might try to take advantage of the Air Force’s focus on the major adversary, and fight violent extremists such as the Taliban and the Islamic State. “We must see the world as it is,” Wilson said. “That was why the National Defence Strategy explicitly recognizes that we have returned to an era of great power competition.” Effectively, the USAF intends to add 70 new squadrons to counter rising China and muscle-flexing Russia. It will also mean 40,000 additional personnel, says Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly, commander of the Air Force Personnel Centre. A coalition between Russia and China is highly possible, the USA fears.

Chinese Muscle Flexing

President Xi Jinping told his military commanders to “concentrate preparations for fighting a war” as tensions continue to grow over the future of the South China Sea and Taiwan. “We need to take all complex situations into consideration and make emergency plans accordingly,” President Xi, told the officers of the Southern Theatre Command. President Xi’s words represent a significant ramping-up of the rhetoric being exchanged between Beijing and Washington. China had been angered by U.S. sanctions on its military for buying weapons from Russia, and by what Beijing sees as renewed Washington support for democratic Taiwan. President Xi “stressed the need to focus on combat research and commanding, to advance work in all areas and accelerate developing strong and efficient joint-operation commanding institutions for theatre commands to comprehensively boost the military’s battle-winning ability.”

China’s Aerospace Power: Realities India

The strength of China’s PLA has dramatically increased in recent years. PLAN now has more warships and submarines than the USA. The USN remains technically more advanced with many powerful units including their nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. That quality gap, however, is rapidly closing. China has brought into service with surprising speed new stealth fighters and long-range missile-carrying bombers. Its warships are now equipped with advanced radars and control systems. Two relatively small aircraft carriers are being used to test and practise naval aviation warfare, and military analysts believe a further four carriers currently being built will be much larger and possibly nuclear powered.
Pushan Das of the Observer Research Foundation wrote about the widening gap between Indian and Chinese air power on 30 April 2018. “As the Chinese PLA continues to undertake significant organizational and modernization reforms to build a military that is ‘built to fight’, in line with President Xi Jinping’s recent rhetoric at the 19th Party Congress, asymmetric inequalities between the IAF and the PLAAF are set to widen”. If the IAF is to attain the capability to counter and fight any future informatised war or conflagration vis-à-vis the PLAAF, New Delhi must re-evaluate its existing and future air combat capability, Das adds. China’s progress in upgrading its air combat capability has been considerable in terms of the expansion of its aircraft inventory and extended range airtoair missiles. The IAF’s combat enablers like FRA and AEW&C could be targeted by long-range missiles like the PL-15. The PLAAF views stealth technology “as a core capability in its transformation from a predominantly territorial air force to one capable of conducting both defensive and offensive operations”, according to the U.S. Department of Defence. China’s fifth-generation fighter jets, represent a significant threat to the IAF. The PLAAF-IAF capability gap will continue to widen due to underfunded modernization and very slow procurement process. Pushan further quotes Air Vice Marshal (Retd) Arjun Subramaniam who has argued that the ability of the latest variant of the Chinese-built H-6 bomber to carry six DH-10 cruise missiles—each with a range of around 1,500 km and a combat radius of 1,800 km—means that “Chinese stealth fighters and bombers do not need to become airborne from airfields in Tibet but can launch their cruise missiles on critical Indian military targets from well outside any kind of air defence umbrella the IAF can put in place over the next decade.” The IAF currently is at an all-time low of 29 fighter squadrons. The 36 Rafale and very slowly inducting Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), or even acquisition of additional SU-30 MKIs will not be able to stem the further decline. India’s indigenous fifth generation fighter, the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), is still over a decade away. Increased defence budgeting and faster indigenization are the only alternatives for India to match the aggressively growing aerospace might of China.

IAF Rafale. Image Source: IAF

IAF Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa, in a first-ever frank assessment of the northern neighbour’s activities, had described China’s PLAAF as one of the fastest growing air forces in the world, ranked second in terms of combat airpower. Air Chief Dhanoa also said that during the process of modernization the PLAAF has developed credible year-round capability in the world’s toughest terrain—the Tibet region. “Over the past few years, we have seen a significant increase in aircraft and aircrew in the TAR from other military regions. The deployment of Sukhoi-27 and J-10 fleets (in Tibet) for continuous operations during the winter months affords them a credible year-round capability. Earlier, many years ago, they only used to occupy the airfields during the summer,” Dhanoa said. During a talk on the “Role of IAF in the Changing Security Environment” at the Vivekananda International Foundation (think tank) in New Delhi Dhanoa said, “It (China) has a credible mix of multi-role fighter and strike aircraft. They have got an adequate reserve to replenish after attrition. They have multi-layered air defence systems and rocket forces that allow them to fight a ground campaign without a decisive air victory.” He further added that China had developed a modern air force that relies on quality rather than quantity and ensures that more than 50 per cent of its fleet will comprise advanced multi-role combat aircraft. The IAF Chief’s statement comes after the force, that is currently facing a shortage of over 200 fighter jets, had just conducted an exercise named ‘Gagan Shakti’. The exercise was aimed at testing the IAF’s ‘Plan B’, which it intends to press into action in the event of a “two-front war” situation.

Rajesh Rajagopalan, a professor of international politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, has looked at the strategic choices with India. China’s alignment with Pakistan and deepening relations with other South Asian countries represent a significant challenge to India’s position in the region. Beijing’s ability to provide financial assistance and balance against New Delhi may tempt India’s smaller neighbours to play one power against the other, undermining India in its own backyard. A strategy of non-alignment, hedging, or alignment with China would not serve India’s interests because China’s power, geographical proximity, and policies already represent a clear danger to India’s security and global interests. A closer alignment with the USA, along the same policy path that India is already pursuing, represents the best way to meet the challenge of China’s rise, because the USA is the only power that is stronger than China. Further, New Delhi and Washington share a common interest in balancing Beijing. Among India’s other strategic options, efforts to build indigenous military power and forge regional partnerships are necessary and complementary means of countering China, but are by themselves insufficient, because China is already wealthier and stronger than India or any combination of other Asian powers, he writes.

However, the IAF and India’s space program have been heavily dependent on Russian technology and systems. Nearly 60 per cent of the IAF is composed of Russian aircraft. The SU-30 MKI fleet is nearly 40 per cent of the total IAF fighter assets. The worsening US-Russia relations and application of the U.S. law, Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) creates complications for the two countries. The USA is reluctant to part with high end aerospace technologies when India continues to buy modern Russian weapon systems such as the S-400 air defence system. If India wants to be a global player, it has to invest more resources in indigenous aerospace technologies. In the meanwhile, India may have no choice but to continue to do the balancing act between the USA and Russia, and continue to engage China.

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Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

4 thoughts on “China’s Aggressive Aerospace Push

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