The US Department of Defense (DoD) has observed significant developments in Chinese airpower, namely with airborne early warning and control (AEW&C), and fighters such as the Shenyang J-15 and Chengdu J-20.
In its annual report to the US Congress about Chinese defence developments, it notes that Beijing’s growing fleet of J-20s, Shenyang J-16s, and Chengdu J-10C fighters, operating with the Shaanxi KJ-500 AEW&C aircraft, allow for longer-range operations across the western Pacific Ocean.
This will enhance People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) anti-access/area-denial capabilities, and allow for improved counter-air operations. It notes that the KJ-500, a variant of the Y-9 tactical transport, is being produced at a rapid pace, joining earlier types such as the KJ-2000 and KJ-200.
“[AEW&C] aircraft amplify the PLAAF’s ability to detect, track, and target threats in varying conditions, in larger volumes, and at greater distances,” says the DoD.
“These aircraft also help to extend the range of the PRC’s [People’s Republic of China’s] integrated air defence system network. Furthermore, China has produced at least one KJ-500 with an aerial refuelling probe, which will improve the aircraft’s ability to provide persistent AEW&C coverage.”
As for the J-15, originally based on the Sukhoi Su-33, the DoD reveals that a variant has been developed to operate from China’s new catapult assisted take-off but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) aircraft carriers. The aircraft has undergone tests with land-based steam and electro-magnetic catapults at China’s Huangdicun site.
In addition, the J-15D variant has been developed to operate in the electronic warfare role.
CATOBAR-capable variants of the J-15 will eventually operate from CATOBAR vessels with a new variant of the Shenyang J-31/FC-31, as well as the KJ-600 AEW&C aircraft.
“The PRC’s aircraft carriers and planned follow-on carriers, once operational, will extend air defence coverage beyond the range of coastal and shipboard missile systems and will enable task group operations at increasingly longer ranges,” says the report.
The DoD also believes the J-20 is in line for upgrades, including increasing the number of air-to-air missiles that can be carried internally. The DoD report does not specify how many more missiles this would entail, but the J-20 has been photographed with four PL-15s in its weapon bays, leading to speculation that this could grow to six.
Finally, the DoD says that China keeps fielding greater numbers of fourth-generation fighters such as the J-10 and J-16, with fourth-generation assets now accounting for 800 of the 1,800 fighters operated by its air force and navy. It believes fourth-generation assets will make up the majority of China’s fighter force in the coming years.