China's biennial air shows in Zhuhai offer a rare glimpse into Beijing's efforts to develop capabilities such as unmanned air vehicles, military jet engines and advanced weapons. This year's iteration, held from 13-18 November, was no different, with Chinese aerospace firms revealing some impressive new capabilities and offering tantalising hints about the future.
Perhaps the greatest surprise of the show was a model at the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) stand that was all but identical to the developmental aircraft that Chinese defence sites refer to as the Shenyang J-31, which reportedly made its flight debut on 31 October. Referred to as an "Advanced Fighter Concept", the model had no designation and was not accompanied by sales literature. However, an AVIC official says the proposed type will be offered for export.
While the aircraft is clearly designed with low observable characteristics in mind, it is questionable how far China's stealth technology has truly been developed, and also whether it would be willing to export its most advanced capabilities. Advanced engines, powerful active electronically scanned array radars and a high degree of sensor fusion are defining characteristics of advanced Western types such as the Lockheed Martin F-35 and F-22, and China is years, if not decades, away from achieving anywhere near technological parity with these types.
China also is yet to establish itself as a player in the export market with new military aircraft. The Chengdu/Pakistan Aeronautical Complex-developed FC-1/JF-17, for example, has been offered to foreign air forces for several years, but has yet to secure a customer outside of Pakistan.
AVIC's stand also showed a model of a maritime patrol aircraft based on the MA60 turboprop airliner. A brochure showed the aircraft with an electro-optical sensor turret and a surface search radar, but with its cargo door depicted on the port side of the fuselage, in front of the engine, the configuration would complicate the task of dropping search and rescue equipment such as supplies and life rafts.
This year's show also saw the official debut of China's two dedicated attack helicopters: the Harbin Z-19 and the Changhe Aircraft Industries Corporation WZ-10. Although neither appeared in the static display, and no models were on show in the halls, they did perform flying displays.
Based on the Harbin Z-9, a copy of Eurocopter's AS365, the Z-19 (above) is a light attack helicopter comparable to the Bell AH-1 Cobra series. The WZ-10 (below) is a larger, more heavily armed type designed to engage armoured formations.
As with previous events, Airshow China 2012 provided an insight into Beijing's development activities and aspirations in the unmanned air vehicle sector.
One of the key attractions at the 2010 show was a large mural labelled "Sea Defence System", which showed an apparently developmental UAV, the China Aerospace and Science Corporation (COSIC) WJ-600, striking a US Navy Arleigh Burke-class destroyer with an air-to-surface missile, and also vectoring long-range, truck-launched cruise missiles against a US aircraft carrier.
This year saw the concept reprised, but with the WJ-600 and other UAVs attacking only generic surface ships.
Labelled as a "medium-range, high-speed UAV," the turbojet-powered WJ-600 will have a 3-5h endurance, a maximum speed of 486kt (900km/h), and a payload of 130kg (286lb).
"Allowing different payloads such as (electro/optical) reconnaissance devices, search and rescue, electronic reconnaissance devices, and miniature missiles, this UAV is flexible in combat deployments to carry out various missions, such as aerial reconnaissance, target indication, precision strike, and damage assessment," COSIC says.
A graphic on the company's display showed the UAV being launched from a canister on the bed of a truck. It would then deploy conventional landing gear for recovery on an airstrip.
Making its public debut in the static display was AVIC's Wing Loong UAV (above), which resembles the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-1 Predator, with two air-to-surface missiles carried beneath its wing. Aerospace Long-March International also exhibited a scale model of its CH-4 medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV (below), which closely resembles General Atomics' MQ-9 Reaper. This featured four hardpoints for weapons, an electro-optical sensor turret, and what appeared to be a dome for a belly-mounted surface search radar.
Leaflets available at the latter company's stand suggested that it is working on a range of UAVs, from the man-portable CH-802 to the CH-3A; a large, missile-armed type with a maximum take-off weight of 640kg and an operational radius of 108nm (200km).
Source: Flight International