In late 2009, websites monitoring China's armed forces reported that Shenyang Aircraft, a leading military aircraft manufacturer in the country, made a test flight for a fighter jet that closely resembled Russia's Sukhoi Su-33.
Photographs of the jet emerged a few months later, confirming a long-held suspicion that China was developing a copy of the Su-33. This was part of its plan to build a naval fighter fleet to operate on its forthcoming indigenous aircraft carrier fleet, as China sought to acquire a deep-sea capability.
The J-10 is said to be close to the Saab Gripen, but China says it is purely indigenous. Picture: Vladimir Kamozov
unsuccessfully tried to buy Su-33s from Russia early this decade. Undeterred, it bought a Su-33 prototype from Ukraine in 2001 and used that to develop its version, designated the Shenyang J-15. Sukhoi
's chief executive Mikhail Pogosyan confirmed at the 2010 Farnborough air show
that his company has "intelligence" about a Chinese Su-33 copy, but tersely added that little could be done.
"There are licence agreements in place when countries buy our aircraft and it is illegal to produce a copy of it without getting our agreement," said Pogosyan. "We are always looking very carefully at what the competition is doing. What I can stress is that no copy is equal to the original, it will always be inferior to the original product. They do not have the technological capabilities that we have."
China's factories are infamous for making relatively high-quality reproductions of branded Western consumer goods such as handbags, t-shirts and shoes. Military observers say China's military has long been at that game. Pogosyan may dismiss the J-15's capabilities, but it is a significant addition to China's arsenal.
Russia's refusal to sell Su-33s, sources say, is linked to China blatantly copying its Su-27SK flankers. China signed a $2.5 billion deal in 1995 to licence-produce 200 Su-27SKs, designated the Shenyang J-11A.
Moscow cancelled the agreement in 2006 after Shenyang Aircraft manufactured 95 aircraft, when China developed the J-11B, a clone of the Su-27SK with indigenous systems, in violation of the contract.
Even the USA is worried, it seems. Taiwan wants to buy 66 Lockheed Martin F-16C/Ds to replace its older F-16A/Bs, which it also wants to upgrade, in response to the military build-up across the Taiwan Straits. Washington has approved utility and attack helicopter sales to Taipei, but it has dithered on the fighter request due to the USA's important geo-political and economic ties with Beijing.
Beijing's fifth-generation fighter programme aims to develop an F-22 competitor. Picture: Lockheed Martin
Two sources familiar with military sales programmes to Taiwan also believe that Washington is worried that the F-16C/D's technology could make its way to China. "I'll even bet that the minute an F-16C/D gets to Taiwan, the Chinese will be able to find out about it. That's also a big concern for Washington," says one source.
Roger Cliff of US analyst Rand testified to the US Congress in May that in 2000, of the estimated 3,200 aircraft operated by the Chinese air force and navy, most of the fighters were licence-produced MiG-19s and MiG-21s (designated the Shenyang J-6 and Chengdu J-7, respectively). The exceptions were the relatively newer Sukhoi Su-30MKK/MK2s that Beijing bought from Russia.
Their strike aircraft "carried only unguided gravity bombs and rockets", without the "low-observable capabilities" of the US Air Force Lockheed F-117s and Northrop Grumman B-2s. As China had only one operational airborne early-warning aircraft, its fighters were dependent on ground-based radar or outdated on-board sensors to locate and identify enemy aircraft.
Except for the Su-30s, they were limited to within visual-range engagements as they did not have beyond-visual-range anti-aircraft missiles (BVRAAM).
A fundamental doctrinal change took place around 2000 and was formalised in the 2004 Chinese defence white paper, which says that the air force has "shifted from one of territorial air defence to one of both offensive and defensive operations". Last year President Hu Jintao of China called for a "new chapter" in the development of the air force, and military officials say that new advanced fighters could be ready within 10 years. A rejuvenation of the fleets is certainly under way.
Beijing will continue buying Su-30s, but that will taper off as it develops its own capabilities through reverse engineering and indigenous development. Richard Bitzinger, a senior fellow with Singapore's S Rajaratnam School of International Studies' Military Transformations Programme, says several challenges exist.
"Are they learning fast enough and broadly enough, in terms of engineering and technology like fluid dynamics, electronics, stealth to be able to keep up with the state of the art? So far, they make rather impressive versions of systems that are still basically 20 years behind the state of the art," he says.
At the same time, he is increasingly "less sceptical" as the Chinese are getting "better at reverse engineering" than before. "It still requires considerable capabilities - you can't just tear something apart and copy it, you need other types of skills such as metallurgy and systems integration. That said, the Chinese have been putting considerable effort and resources into building up their research and development base, and especially their human capital - engineers and technicians," he points out.
Several aircraft have caught the eye of Western observers. In addition to the J-11B, which is reportedly comparable with classic Boeing F-15s, the fighter receiving the most attention is the Chengdu J-10, said to be similar to the F-16. Bitzinger believes that China will eventually induct around 300 J-10s and 300 J-11s.
Beijing acknowledged the existence of the J-10 only in December 2006, when the official Xinhua News Agency reported its entry into service. China had been working on it for around 10 years before that, and officials say it is based on the cancelled J-9 programme.
The J-10 flew at Airshow China 2008, and an upgraded J-10B is being developed, say official sources. There are reports that technology from Israel's cancelled Israel Aerospace Industries Lavi programme was used for the J-10, and Russia was involved in the initial stages at least. Chinese officials, however, insist that the J-10 is purely indigenous.
"Our nation's new fighter's external design and aerodynamics configuration are completely made by us and did not receive foreign assistance. This made me very proud," Song Wencong, the J-10's chief designer, told the Chinese media. "Our nation developed the J-9 in the 1960s. This adopted the canard configuration. So, those statements that said J-10 is a copy of the Israeli Lavi are just laughable."
Bitzinger says that the J-10 is "pretty close" to the Saab Gripen, but "probably not comparable in terms of quality, low observability, avionics, or weapons mix".
He adds: "The Chinese do not possess the range, or quality, of air-launched weapons that approach the flexibility of Western fighter aircraft. They have just got BVRAAMs, but the West is already moving on to much more sophisticated BVRAAMs such as the Meteor. And they lack, so far, the wide range of sophisticated air-to-ground munitions. This limits the fighting effectiveness of their combat aircraft," he adds.
That has not deterred Beijing from its fifth-generation fighter programme to develop a competitor to the Lockheed Martin F-22 and F-35. Chengdu Aircraft and Shenyang Aircraft were reportedly working on separate aircraft programmes, although a senior Chinese military official said in 2009 that only one aircraft is being developed.
Apart from several photographs of a full-scale mock-up with a reduced radar cross-section, there has been little else to go by.
The USA, however, is taking it seriously. Defence secretary Robert Gates said in 2009 that China could have a "handful" of fifth-generation fighters by 2025. In May, however, after what was probably a reassessment by Washington, Wayne Ulman of the National Air and Space Intelligence Center told the US Congress that a fifth-generation fighter could be "operational right around 2018". This could eventually present a challenge for the West, says Bitzinger.
"The Chinese continue to pursue next-generation fighter aircraft and upgrades to current systems, while most Western countries are standing 'pat' on next-generation fighters - all we've got is the F-35. This Western lack of new fighter research and development basically gives the Chinese a chance to catch up," he adds.
Beijing will continue buying Su-30s, but that will taper off as it develops its own capabilities. Picture: Vladimir Karnozov
There are doubts, however, about China's ability to design an aircraft with the thrust-vectoring and super-cruise capabilities of the F-22 or F-35. The Chinese must overcome this lack of "truly sophisticated subsystem capabilities", says Richard Aboulafia, vice-president of analysis at the Teal Group.
"Building a copy of a Sukhoi jet is one thing. Building a reliable and capable AESA radar or a powerful and durable jet engine is quite another. It's the building blocks that have kept China from successfully replicating Sukhoi fighters in large numbers," he says.
"China refers to plans for a fifth-generation fighter of its own, with only very limited reference to the subsystems that make a fighter truly fifth-generation. Getting outside help with aircraft design and integration is possible. But getting outside help with advanced subsystems and all of those enablers is quite difficult, if not impossible," he adds.
Some believe that China has focused too much on the aircraft, when it should be looking more closely on what is inside the airframe. This includes radars, engines, weapons, sensor fusion, information management, and early warning packages, as well as issues such as command and control systems, datalinks and network architectures, doctrine and training programmes.
"This is where China is stumbling. They're on the right track in terms of airframes, and they've done some impressive work on precision-guided munitions, but the rest badly needs work, or is completely lacking," says Aboulafia. "They have only the most rudimentary air-to-air refuelling capabilities, and are still trying to develop a working airborne early-warning system. They are a long way from creating a robust battle management network. Key enablers like these are what make an air force great. Without them, it's just a collection of planes, good and bad."
The Chinese are working to overcome these challenges. Two advanced jet trainers, including the Hongdu L-15, have been developed. The Shaanxi Y-8 twin-turboprop, reverse-engineered from the Antonov An-12, is the platform for the development of airborne early warning, electronic intelligence and instrument flight rules aircraft.
There is also the KJ-200, which uses electronically steered active phased array radar technology, and the larger KJ-2000, that reportedly uses an active phased array radar,
Two transport aircraft are being developed - the Y-20 that is said to be similar to the Boeing C-17, and a smaller, medium-size medium-range Y-9 to replace the Y-8s. The Y-20, as well as the Comac C919 narrowbody and any future commercial aircraft that China develops, could be the platform for air-to-air refuelling tankers.
Studies continue and several unmanned aircraft and several conceptual designs have been unveiled. These include the Shenyang Dark Sword and Zhanying Combat Eagle UCAVs.
FOREIGN POLICY TOOL
This research into new aircraft is also a foreign policy tool. The Chengdu JF-17, which China developed with Pakistan, is in service with the Pakistani air force, and several countries are assessing it. When Sukhoi's Pogosyan refers to China as a "competitor", it is not just in strategic terms. Beijing is also increasingly vying for international military contracts.
Given that funding for China's defence research and development programmes is channelled through government departments, it is not clear how much is being spent on them. What is certain, based on statements by senior Chinese officials and intelligence reports from Western governments, is that it is a priority.
The aim, say observers, is to match Japan, South Korea and the USA in the Pacific and, by extension, South-East Asia, and in the Indian Ocean vis-à-vis the USA and India. This is also spurring on military modernisation programmes throughout the region.
"China's air forces are no longer those of a third-world country," says Rand's Cliff. "Improvements in air force capabilities, coupled with improvements in the conventional missile capabilitiesmean that prevailing in an air war with China will be increasingly challenging."
That could well have been a quote from the policy-makers driving the modernisation of China's air force.
INDIGENOUS MILITARY AIRCRAFT DEVELOPMENTS
- J-10A/B Based on Israel's Lavi and cancelled Chinese J-9, with Russian input.
- J-11B Reverse-engineered Sukhoi Su-27, with Chinese avionics, system and engine.
- J-15 Reverse-engineered Sukhoi Su-33, with Chinese avionics, systems and engine.
- Fifth-generation fighter Initial indications point to development of a twin-engined F-22 look-alike with a reduced radar cross-section, internal weapon bays, thrust-vectoring capabilities.
- Y-20 Under development and similar to the Boeing C-17.
- Y-9 Smaller medium-size, medium-range aircraft to replace Y-8s.
Airborne early warning/intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance
- Y-8 Platform to develop of airborne early warning, electronic intelligence and instrument flight rules capabilities.
- Y-20/Comac C919 Likely platforms for future air-to-air refuelling tankers.
- Z-10/Z-19 Various attack helicopters of different sizes, including one that resembles the Eurocopter Tiger.
- Z-15 Chinese variant of Eurocopter EC175, could be used for utility roles.
Unmanned air vehicles
- UAVs being developed include combat UAVs and those for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.