Accessing the biennial Airshow China gathering in Zhuhai is by no means easy – for aviation journalists, at least. There is considerable bureaucracy involved in securing a “J2” visa, and once in Zhuhai itself, hotel rates jump by five or six times during show week. It is also challenging to get affordable transport out to the show, which is a 90min drive away, and once there, the entrances change daily.

It is as if the organisers are unconsciously channelling the anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy that is so much a part of Chinese military planning. Airpower elements of A2/AD, which broadly aims to push enemy forces a good distance from Chinese territory, have been evident at the last few editions of the show.

The 2010 version saw a missile-carrying unmanned air vehicle – the China Aerospace and Science Corporation WJ-600 – depicted striking a US Navy Arleigh Burke-class destroyer with an air-to-surface missile, while also vectoring long-range, truck-launched missiles against a US aircraft carrier, in a promotional video. And in 2014, just months after the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine, the static display area featured a large park full of mobile radar systems and long-range surface-to-air missiles.


All eyes will be on the J-31 at this year's event


Quite apart from the bombast, the show is eagerly awaited among China-watchers for what it can reveal about Beijing’s airpower ambitions: particularly in the areas of frontline combat aircraft, which would play a key role in the A2/AD strategy.

One aircraft that was notably absent from the 2014 Zhuhai show was the Chengdu J-20. This aircraft, which first appeared in 2010, is a large, twin-engined jet boasting canards and a twin canted tail. Social media reports from China have covered its flight test campaign exhaustively. Reportedly it has entered low-rate initial production, with the 11th aircraft produced.

Half a decade after its emergence, official word about this fighter is virtually non-existent. Little is known about how many will be procured, or even the specific roles of the jet. A telling blog entry was re-posted by the defence ministry on its website in early September, stating that Indian media was being “over-sensitive” to the appearance of the J-20 in Tibet. Apparently the aircraft was there for testing in high-altitude conditions, and India’s sensation-addicted media pounced on a juicy story. The blog entry went on to say that the J-20 is not likely to be deployed in China’s west, but rather along its oceanic frontier.

Despite the secrecy around the programme, and China observers’ obsession with the type, Malcolm Davis, senior analyst of defence strategy and capability at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, says the J-20 needs to be taken seriously.

“Clearly J-20 is important in terms of where it takes the [People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s] long-range anti-access/area denial capabilities,” he says.

“The aircraft is not so much a competitor to the [Lockheed Martin] F-22 or F-35, but instead is designed to strengthen China’s ability to undertake long-range counter-air operations against critical combat support platforms, such as airborne early warning and control and air-to-air refuelling. If these platforms can be pushed back beyond useful range, China’s A2/AD is strengthened considerably – particularly as carrier-based airpower is likely to be pushed back similarly by anti-ship ballistic missiles. If this happens, then the F-35C becomes somewhat irrelevant, and F-35As operating forward are vulnerable anyhow, so the whole US and allied air capability within the second island chain is weakened.”

The “second island chain” Davis refers to stretches roughly from the Kurile Islands in the north Pacific to the Marianas and Palau Islands in the south. US allies such as Japan, the Philippines and South Korea are well within its bounds.


The other Chinese fighter that will be in the spotlight at this year’s show is the AVIC J-31; a developmental type that bears an uncanny resemblance to the F-35. Apparently powered by a pair of Klimov RD-93 engines, the same powerplant as used by the RAC MiG-29, the J-31 performed in the flying display at the 2014 show. The type’s maiden sortie had been covered by social media in 2012, but two years on, the flying display was very careful, with the pilot perhaps wary of pushing the envelope too far. At the AVIC stand in the show hall there was a large model of a type resembling the J-31, the FC-31. A plaque read “fourth-generation multipurpose medium fighter”.

Advanced Fighter Engine

Beijing has yet to develop a capability to produce its own advanced fighter jets

Greg Waldron/FlightGlobal

No other information was forthcoming, and AVIC representatives flatly declined to discuss the aircraft. But one year later, at the 2015 Dubai air show, AVIC was more forthcoming, briefing journalists with a surprising level of detail about the FC-31. It also gave the type a name, Gyrfalcon, and a promotion, upgrading it to fifth-generation status.

In the Dubai briefing, Gyrfalcon designer Lin Peng said the FC-31 is envisaged as a fighter with “multispectrum, low-observability characteristics.”

The Gyrfalcon will be capable of a range of missions, including offensive/defence counter-air, deep strike, suppression of enemy air defences, interdiction, close air support, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. In a video shown during the presentation, a squadron of FC-31s communicated with each other through secure datalinks. Another slide showed how the aircraft’s small radar cross section improves survivability in a high-intensity threat environment.

No specifics were given about the FC-31’s sensor suite or weapons, but AVIC says these and communications equipment can be tailored to customer requirements. The aircraft has six external hardpoints, with an internal weapons bay that can carry a further four munitions. Payload is 8,000kg (17,600lb), of which 2,000kg can be carried internally. Combat radius with internal weapons is 648nm (1,200km), and maximum take-off weight 25,000kg.

The first flight of a production example is planned for 2019, followed by initial operating capability in 2022 and final operating capability three years later.

During a brief question and answer session with journalists, it emerged that the FC-31 has yet to find a launch customer, although there are discussions with China’s air force. Executives also declined to name the engines that power the J-31, or the planned FC-31.

Crucially, the FC-31’s first flight in 2019 is contingent on securing a “well-funded” customer, says AVIC. Suffice to say that interest in the FC-31’s progress will be high at Zhuhai this year. AVIC has said that the J-31 will put in a second appearance at this year’s event.

“For now it is difficult to assess the latter two new-generation fighters, with the J-20 not going into full-scale production until 2018 and little known about the subsystems on the J-31,” says Forecast International analyst Dan Darling.


Another locally developed fighter that will receive attention at this year’s show will be the single-engined Chengdu J-10. While the J-10A is a common sight at Zhuhai as the aircraft flown by the August 1st aerobatic display team, the J-10B has yet to make an appearance there. Whereas the J-20 and (possibly) the FC-31 are aimed at a high-end future, the J-10 family forms the backbone of Chinese fighter power today. Flight Fleets Analyzer shows there are 240 J-10s in service.

The multirole J-10B reportedly entered service in 2015. A key improvement over the J-10A is an active electronically scanned array radar, whereas the J-10A has a mechanically-scanned system. Another difference is the engine intake. The J-10A has a an open intake offset from the lower fuselage, while the B-model’s is flush with the aircraft, and has a diverterless supersonic inlet.

Beijing, apparently, would like to export the J-10B. For several years Pakistan has been listed as a possible foreign customer for the J-10, but this has never officially been confirmed. Iran is also reportedly interested in the J-10B, with the (supposed) potential to obtain up to 150. If, indeed, the J-10B is aimed at the export market, it is entirely possible that it will make its air show debut this time at Zhuhai.

Apart from locally produced equipment, the Sukhoi Su-35 is likely to have a high profile at this year’s show. Indeed, in 2014 the Su-35 was the star of the flying display. Reports in 2015 and this year indicated that a long-awaited deal for Beijing to buy 24 of the type has been concluded.

“Chinese acquisition of the Su-35 Super Flanker is very important,” says Davis. “It has longer range and an air refuelling capability, compared to the Su-27, making it the fighter of choice for the South China Sea. It also has superior sensors and aerodynamic performance, and its technology is likely to be retro-engineered into Chinese aircraft. Given the establishment of air bases on disputed territories in the South China Sea, the deployment of advanced air combat capabilities to these islands would give China the ability to enforce an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) should they choose to declare one – something they could not do with the East China Sea ADIZ. From such air bases, Chinese Super Flankers could project power all the way down to the eastern end of the Straits of Malacca.”

China has long experience with the Su-27 family, which it reverse engineered to create the J-11 fighter. The People’s Liberation Army Navy force of 27 carrier-capable J-15s is based on Russia’s Su-33. For now, its only carrier is the Liaoning, a former Russian Admiral Kuznetsov-class vessel. A second carrier, of an all-new class, is under construction.

Despite the show of force visitors can expect at Zhuhai, some experts are sceptical about the state of China’s fighter technology. Richard Bitzinger, senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, brings up the perennial bugbear of Chinese aerospace: engines.

“Ten years ago, everyone thought China was turning the corner with the WS-10 fighter engine for both power and reliability,” he says, noting that despite this locally produced powerplant having been around for several years, the Chinese air force for the most part still relies on Russian engines. Most examples of the J-20, for example, are apparently powered by Saturn AL-31Fs.

“It’s hard to develop a modern engine when you’re about 30 years behind,” Bitzinger says. He points out that western manufacturers, such as GE Aviation, have decades of experience with power plants such as the F404 and F414, of which thousands have been produced.


Apart from advanced fighters, China has long been interested in developing a strategic bomber, tentatively designated H-X. In early September, the China Daily posted a report in which air force Gen Ma Xiaotian confirmed that work was taking place on the project. He gave few details, although Chinese defence websites are awash with images speculating about what the new aircraft might look like. The consensus appears to be a low-observable platform akin to the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, but it is difficult to say exactly what is planned or when the world will get its first glimpse of the new aircraft. All Ma would say is that the aircraft will appear “some time in the future”.

For the time being, show visitors will have to make do with that mainstay of the Zhuhai static display: the Xian H-6, based on the Tupolev Tu-16. In 2014, the H-6M made its show debut, complete with two hardpoints under each wing. Prior to 2014, only the H-6H, with one hardpoint under each wing, appeared at the show. The type is used for a range of missions, including conventional bombing, cruise missile strike, air-to-air refuelling and intelligence-gathering. Flight Fleets Analyzer shows that China's air force has 120 H-6 aircraft, and its navy 30.

Another likely return visitor is the air force’s Xian Y-20 strategic transport, inducted into frontline service earlier this year. The four-engined type is another important step in the development of China's power-projection capabilities.

“While China has made strides in terms of fighter capability and advanced technologies, it is fair to say that versus an F-35-armed Japan or USA it would attempt to negate its foes’ qualitative advantages with quantity,” says Forecast International’s Darling. “Meaning in terms of the sheer quantity of fighters it could mass at a given point [in terms of a conflict scenario in China's immediate neighbourhood], the goal would be to overcome an adversary’s superior firepower with numbers.”

A high-level conflict with Asia’s other leading power and the USA is but one, hopefully distant, eventuality. Davis says Chinese airpower is even more impressive when weighed against other potential foes.

“China severely overmatches all Southeast Asian states, but really two are most relevant – the Philippines and Vietnam. The Philippines does not have an air combat capability, so the Chinese would own the sky above Manila. The Vietnamese air force has a small force of Su-27/30s, but they would be no match for the PLAAF.”

There is nothing quite like a fighter roaring overhead to fire national pride. China is, rightfully, proud of its aerospace tradition. No other venue matches Zhuhai for the prominence it gives to the country’s hopes and dreams for fighter jets.

Source: Flight International