The Chinese air force struggles on with its long march to modernity
On paper, the Chinese air force is by far the greatest of Asia's Tigers, with its vast fleet of combat aircraft. In reality, it is closer to a woefully inadequate circus of museum pieces.
The air force has somewhere in the region of 2,500 fighter aircraft on inventory, but the bulk of them are of a 1950s Soviet design heritage, and incapable of meeting the demands of air- warfare doctrine on the eve of the 21st century.
None is more conscious of this than the air force itself, which is desperately keen to revamp its fleet with fourth-generation combat aircraft, as well as adopting an operational doctrine more suited to its role as the air force of the dominant regional power as it enters the next millennium. Efforts at renovation have been under way, albeit falteringly, since the middle of the 1980s.
A decade later, the air force has found itself supporting a plethora of programmes, including new aircraft projects such as the Chengdu F-10, Xian FB-7 and Chengdu FC-1, along with the conceptual XXJ fighter, as well as various upgrade programmes for aircraft such as the Chengdu F-7 and Shengyang F-8.
It is also actively pursuing acquiring an airborne early-warning (AEW) aircraft, as well as an air-refuelling capability. A common characteristic of the majority of these projects is the involvement, overtly or covertly, of overseas manufacturers.
In part, this has been driven by the realisation that China's indigenous industry was incapable, at least independently, of designing and developing adequate next-generation combat types for the air force.
In the mid-1980s, there was a rapprochement between China and the USA, culminating in two upgrade projects being implemented by the then Grumman Aerospace: the Peace Pearl upgrade programme for the Shenyang F-8II and the Chengdu Super-7 programme. The political fall-out from the incidents in Tiananmen Square in 1989, however, put paid to both these projects.
The upgraded variant of the F-8II and the Super-7 would have provided the air force with two relatively adequate combat aircraft for the latter half of the 1990s - giving the service at least a modicum of room for manoeuvre in its pursuit of more advanced types.
Instead, with the US-assisted route effectively closed, the air force was forced to look to its erstwhile armourer, in the shape of the then Soviet Union, for immediately accessible defence materiel.
The F-8II project was eventually to re-emerge as the F-8IIM, complete with Russian radar and beyond-visual-range (BVR) semi-active radar-guided air-to-air missiles, while the Super-7 metamorphosed into the Chengdu FC-1, which was ostensibly a collaborative project with Pakistan, with Mikoyan providing design assistance .
The most visible fruit of the air force's return to the Russian fold, however, was its acquisition of the Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker. China is understood to have concluded a contract in 1991 covering 24 Su-27SKs and two Su-27UBK two-seaters. A further batch of 24 Su-27SKs was ordered in 1995.
The order for a third batch of aircraft, possibly including a combination of single-seat Su-27SMKs and a variant of the two-seat Su-30, is now being finalised. China and Russia have also hammered out a licence-production agreement on the Flanker.
The US Navy's Office of Naval Intelligence projects that, by around 2010, the air force will have about 250 Su-27s in service - providing China with the basis for a considerable air-power projection capability in the region. That is, however, dependent on its ability to operate the aircraft effectively.
While the Su-27, even by 2010, will remain a capable air-superiority aircraft, the air force will need to evolve the necessary air-combat doctrine, integrated command infrastructure and operational capability to exploit the Flanker's capabilities fully.
Although it is early days for the Su-27, some of the air force's exercises with the aircraft appear idiosyncratic. The Su-27SK which forms the basis of China's first two batches of aircraft is optimised as an interceptor. Its NIIP N-001 radar is designed for the air-intercept role, but, despite this, the air force has used the aircraft in the air-to-ground role dropping parachute-retarded bombs as well as carrying unguided rocket pods. This hardly reflects the best use of what remains a limited high-value asset.
The arrival of the Su-27SK gave the air force a BVR air-combat capability for the first time, with the Vympel R-27R (AA-10 Alamo) missile. Indigenous attempts by Chinese industry to develop its own semi-active-radar air-to-air missile (AAM) so far appear to have failed to deliver a deployable weapon.
China and Russia are now in the throes of finalising the third-batch purchase of aircraft from Sukhoi. This order may be for the Su-27SMK, rather than the basic Su-27SK.
An aircraft in a colour scheme similar to that of China's Flanker, but bearing the letters 27SMK on the nose-section, has already been shown by the Komsomolsk production plant.
Initial reports suggested that the Su-27SMK would be offered with a two-target-engagement upgrade for the N-001, rather similar to that of the Phazotron "Topaz" upgrade for the MAPOMIG MiG-29 Fulcrum. This would allow for the full exploitation of an active radar-guided BVR AAM. Both the R-77 (AA-12 Adder) and the active-radar-guided variant of the R-27 have been touted by Russia as potential export weapons for the air force.
Phazotron, however, claims that, rather than an upgraded N-001, it has already delivered what is effectively a Zhuk-27 radar, a derivative of the N-010, to Komsomolsk to be fitted on an Su-27 derivative destined for China.
The N-010, or Zhuk, is a multi-mode pulse-Doppler radar originally intended for the upgraded MiG-29M. The Zhuk-27 uses the same processing system with a larger flat-plate antenna, courtesy of the Flanker's greater nose-section diameter.
In addition to providing a multiple-target tracking and engagement capability using an active BVR AAM, the Zhuk-27 offers several air-to-surface modes in support of weapons such as the Zvezda Strela Kh-31A (AS-17 Krypton) anti-ship missile.
As well as potentially providing the Zhuk-27 for the next batch of China's Flankers, Phazotron has developed a variant of the Zhuk, dubbed the Zhuk-8 II, for the Shenyang F-8IIM. This radar is now in flight test on a prototype F-8IIM. Phazotron's Komar and Super Komar pulse-Doppler radars, meanwhile, are being offered in collaboration with Chinese industry as upgrades for the Nanchang A-5 Fantan and Chengdu F-7, respectively.
Phazotron's and Sukhoi's ties with China, however, also expose the somewhat schizophrenic nature of the relationship between the former Soviet Union and the last remaining major power which pays at least lip service to the communist doctrine.
The initial sale of the Su-27 to China met internal opposition in Russia, where some within the political and military hierarchies believe that a military confrontation between the two states is still possible.
This concern has been further highlighted by the pursuit by the Chinese air force of a two-seat combat-capable variant of the Flanker. The air force's desire to acquire a fully combat-capable two-seat Flanker delineates the difficulties Russia faces in providing defence materiel not only to China, but also to one of the latter's regional competitors, India.
The Indian air force has ordered, and almost certainly paid for development of, the Su-30MKI multi-role variant of the Flanker. The Su-30MKI will be fitted with canards, as well as having thrust-vector control, and in all probability will have a phased-array variant of the N-011 radar.
The Chinese air force harbours aspirations to acquire an aircraft similar to the Su-30MKI, but faces two clear obstacles which are liable to thwart this: Indian and Russian opposition.
India is understood to have demanded assurances from Russia that the Su-30MKI, or a similar aircraft, would not be made available to China. In Russia there continues to be occasional bouts of heart-searching as to the nature and extent of the advanced weaponry it should provide to China.
The likelihood is that, should Russia acquiesce to China's demands, then the air force may be allowed to acquire a variant of the Su-30MK, possibly fitted with the Zhuk-27. The basic Su-30MK offered by Irkutsk, although described as a fighter-bomber, was initially offered with the N-001 radar, limiting the aircraft to the delivery of iron bombs only.
Defining the role
What has yet to be determined is the combat role which the air force would like a two-seat Flanker to fulfil. If it is intending to use the aircraft in the extended air -defence role originally envisioned by Russia's air-defence forces, then a sophisticated air-to-surface capability is of little interest. If, however, it sees the aircraft fulfilling a strike role, then a Zhuk-27-style radar and associated stand-off weaponry would be an essential part of any package.
If the Flanker satisfies China's requirement for a fourth-generation heavy fighter to replace the F-8 family, the aircraft which may meet its medium-fighter requirement to supplant the F-7 is the Chengdu F-10.
The F-10 project remains the source of intense speculation, but here is little doubt that its design lineage can be traced directly to the Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) Lavi fighter programme of the 1980s. A prototype of the aircraft is understood to be in the manufacturing stage at Chengdu's plant in the Sichuan region.
Israeli involvement in the F-10 programme is believed to have included many engineers being based at Chengdu, providing technical assistance on the Chinese programme. While there are suggestions that the F-10 designator preceded the tie-up, it appears to many observers that the air force has effectively acquired the Lavi design, and that this superseded any previous F-10 layout.
A first flight can be expected within the next 12-24 months, with a potential in-service date of around 2005. There are suggestions, however, that the pace of the project has slowed, and that the programme could end up as little more than a technology demonstrator should the pace of development not pick up again.
Nonetheless, the F-10 remains a critical programme for the air force, and for the Chinese defence-aerospace sector.
While the kit building and eventual licence manufacture of the Flanker will provide valuable experience, the fate of the F-10 will be more indicative of the extent to which China's manufacturers will eventually be able to address the air force's needs independently.
The F-10, should it reach the air force inventory, will replace the F-7 as the mainstay of the service's fighter fleet, providing an air-defence and a ground-attack platform.
A slice of the pie
As with the FC-1, Russian manufacturers are pushing for a slice of the F-10 programme, with Phazotron offering the Zhemchoug development of the Zhuk, and Saturn/Lyulka proposing a variant of the Su-27's Al-31F engine to power the production aircraft.
The extent to which Israeli subsystems manufacturers will figure in any production-standard aircraft is uncertain, however. The Elta El/M-2032 pulse-Doppler radar is likely to be a rival to the Phazotron offering, while some sources suggest that the cockpit will effectively have Israeli avionics.
Also yet to be resolved is the relationship, as far as the air force is concerned, between the F-10 and the Chengdu FC-1. The FC-1 emerged from the Super-7 project, replacing Grumman with Russia's MAPOMIG as the collaborative industrial partner. The aircraft potentially fulfils a similar role to that of the F-10, although it is a smaller aircraft with a substantially lower maximum take-off weight.
The FC-1 is intended not only to meet air force needs, replacing the Nanchang Q-5 and the F-7 in some roles, but also to provide the Pakistani air force with a light fighter. The latter air force, however, continues to delay placing an order, and providing a slice of the development funding. Pakistani prevarication places at least a question mark over the development timescale of the project.
It may be that, to an extent, China considers the FC-1 as, in part, a shadow project to the F-10. Should the latter come to a successful fruition, procurement of the FC-1 is liable to be considerably less than if the F-10 proves a failure.
The F-10 and FC-1 programmes highlight key areas of weakness within China's own industry - alongside basic aerodynamic design, the development of pulse-Doppler multi-mode radar and of military turbofan engines lags that of other major nations.
In the case of the radar design, Italian, Russian, UK and, recently, French companies compete, while, on powerplants, the air force has considered the choice of French-sourced, Russian and UK designs.
The UK's Rolls-Royce Spey 202 was delivered in limited numbers to China, beginning in the late 1970s, while China has also expressed an interest in the Turbo-Union RB.199, in which R-R remains a partner. More recently, China has also begun to look at the Snecma M88, the Dassault Rafale powerplant, as a potential engine for future combat aircraft.
The Klimov RD-33 engine, and variants of it, along with Saturn/Lyulka powerplants, remain the Russian options on offer for the air force. The FC-1, at least for the air force, is intended to be powered by the Klimov RD-93, a derivative of the RD-33 which powers the MiG-29 Fulcrum.
China has recently approached R-R to refurbish at least some of 50 Spey shipsets delivered to support the FB-7 project. The FB-7 was originally intended to provide a strike aircraft for the air force and naval aviation. The air force, however, appears for the moment to have lost interest in this long-running project.
The service's preference may be to acquire a two-strike multi-role derivative of the Flanker, if the Russian Government approves the sale, rather than to procure the FB-7.
The first prototype was flown in 1988, with at least two aircraft now at unit-level evaluation with the Chinese navy. There have also been suggestions that the aircraft may be offered to Iran.
Details of the FB-7 project remain scant, with little technical information on the project having yet been released. It is not known, for instance, which radar the production-standard machine is to have.
Recently released pictures of the aircraft being tested by the navy have shown it fitted with the YJ-1 (C-801) anti-ship missile on a wing station, with wingtip-mounted PL-5 short-range IR AAMs.
While the air force potentially has at least two options for fulfilling its tactical-strike role, with the FB-7 and an Su-30 variant, choices appear considerably more limited when it comes to a replacement for its strategic bombers.
It remains to be seen whether the air force harbours ambitions to replace its venerable Xian B-6, a licence-manufactured variant of the Tupolev Tu-16 Badger, with an aircraft in a similar class, or whether a Flanker-derivative is envisaged as an eventual B-6 replacement.
Despite being obsolescent, the air force's 120 or so B-6s provide China with its nuclear-strike capability. The twin-engined bomber is used by the air force as the delivery vehicle for its free-fall nuclear weapons.
China approached Russia in 1993 over the potential acquisition of the Tupolev Tu-22M3 Backfire as a B-6 replacement. At the time, senior Tupolev management says that the Russian Government was considering its position over the export of the Backfire to China.
It can only be assumed that, given the capabilities of the Backfire, the Russian Government saw fit not to release the aircraft to China. Whether this position may change remains to be seen. Given continuing Russian concerns over providing China with certain classes of advanced weaponry, however, a near-term sale of the Tu-22M would appear unlikely.
Another critical large-aircraft procurement for the air force is its outstanding requirement for an AEW aircraft. The service, along with practically every other air force, has no doubt spent much time and effort pondering what lessons were to be learned from the 1991 Gulf War. What this reinforced was the value of having an organic AEW capability in co-ordinating defensive and offensive air operations.
While Russia has been pushing a derivative of its Beriev A-50, the Chinese air force appears to be considering only offerings from GEC-Marconi, which is proposing the Argus system, and IAI, with a derivative of its Phalcon.
The exact relationship between the Israeli and UK projects is unclear. Initially, at least, the Chinese air force may have viewed the GEC Argus proposal, based on its a bipolar radar solution for the abortive British Aerospace Nimrod AEW.3, as a near- to-medium-term solution. The IAI Phalcon proposal may have been viewed as possibly fulfilling a longer-term AEW requirement.
Negotiations with GEC, however, have proved prolonged enough to leave the two projects effectively in direct competition.
Russia, having tried and failed to push the A-50, obstructed IAI from gaining access to Ilyushin Il-76 airframe data, eventually relenting once it became apparent that China was unwilling to have the A-50 foisted upon it, and that Beriev could have a role within the Israeli programme. Modification work on an Il-76 is believed to be under way.
GEC, in comparison, is believed to have been given access to Il-76 transports already procured by the air force. This was made possible because the GEC design does not require either an upper-fuselage fixed antenna-casing, or a rotodome. The dual radar antennas are instead mounted in nose- and tail-section dielectric fairings.
The importance of the air force's ambition to acquire an AEW capability should not be underestimated. Without such a capability, it remains constrained in its ability to carry out both offensive and defensive air operations.
Although the air force's ambitions to modernise are clear, what remains in question is how successful it will be in achieving this goal, and within what timescale.
While China has set in motion a series of procurement programmes which ostensibly address its needs, some of these appear contradictory, others clearly remain ambitious.
Identifying combat types which meet emerging requirements for the air force remains only a part, albeit an important element, of forging an air force capable of implementing an integrated air-warfare campaign effectively.
What the service must also address is developing the requisite command and control infrastructure, combined with appropriate training for air and groundcrew, if it is to exploit the capabilities of the combat-aircraft types now being developed and procured. If it does not, then to borrow from Chairman Mao - it will remain only a paper Tiger.