A new report by the US Defense Intelligence Agency highlights Beijing’s continued development of airpower capabilities.
The unclassified report draws on public sources to discuss the full spectrum of Chinese military capabilities, from land forces to space and cyber capabilities. It also underlines the airpower developments that are of specific interest to Washington.
“The People’s Liberation Army Air Force [PLAAF] is closing the gap with Western air forces across a broad spectrum of capabilities, such as aircraft performance, command and control, and electronic warfare,” it says.
The PLAAF’s role has evolved from one of protecting China’s population centres and industrial areas to projecting power. A major focus in recent years has been the addition of airborne early warning & control (AEW&C) aircraft such as the Ilyushin IL-76-derived KJ-2000, the Shaanxi KJ-200, and KJ-500.
“The PLAAF is developing new medium- and long-range stealth bombers to strike regional and global targets,” it adds. “Stealth technology contin¬ues to play a key role in the development of these new bombers, which probably will reach initial operational capability no sooner than 2025. These new bombers will have additional capabilities, with full-spectrum upgrades com¬pared with current operational bomber fleets, and will employ many fifth-generation fighter technologies in their design.”
On the fighter front, the PLAAF Is rapidly advancing. While filling out its ranks with new, fourth generation types such as the Chengdu J-10, Shenyang J-11, and J-16, it is also developing the J-20 and FC-31. These aircraft include capabilities found in advanced Western types, such as active electronically scanned (AESA) radars, sensor fusion, advanced datalinks, and the internal carriage of weapons.
“Designed with network-centric warfare technology, [these fighters] will have potent air-to-air lethality and standoff attack capabilities in sensor-to-shooter operations.”
The role of aircraft operated by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has broadened in the last decade. This has been enabled by China’s improved surface combatants, which are more proficient at their own air defence.
“This has allowed the PLAN to con¬centrate on an expanded array of aerial mis¬sions, particularly maritime strike, as well as maritime patrol, ASW, airborne early warn¬ing (AEW), and logistics,” says the report.
Obsolete attack aircraft such as the Nanchang Q-5 and Harbin H-5 have largely been replaced with advanced types such as the Chengdu J-10A, Shenyang J-11B, and Xian JH-7.
“Equipped with modern radars and glass cockpits and armed with PL-8 and PL-12 air-to-air missiles, PLAN J-10As and J-11Bs are among the most modern aircraft in China’s inventory and are capable of extended fighter patrols beyond China’s coastal areas,” says the DIA.
For long-range strike, the H-6 (a variant of the Tupolev Tu-16) family continues to receive updates, with the H-6K capable of carrying up to four long-range cruise missiles. The JH-7 supports the H-6s in the attack role, while some H-6s have been converted to tankers.
By interpreting recent photographs, the DIA suggests that an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) version of the Shaanxi Y-9 has entered service. This is an important development, because ASW has traditionally been a major capability gap for China.
“The new aircraft is equipped with a magnetic anomaly detector boom, simi¬lar to that of the US Navy’s [Lockheed Martin] P-3,” says the DIA.
“This Y-9 ASW variant is equipped with surface-search radar mounted under the nose as well as mul¬tiple-blade antennas on the fuselage, proba¬bly for electronic surveillance. A small electro-optical/infrared turret is located just behind the nose wheel, and this variant is equipped with an internal weapons bay in front of the main landing gear.”
On other programmes, the DIA suggests that the AVIC AG600, ostensibly developed for parapublic missions, will also serve as a military asset. The report acknowledges well known shortcomings with China’s sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, namely its ski-jump configuration that limits the payloads carried by its J-15 fighters, and precludes the deployment of an integrated airborne early warning & control (AEW&C) aircraft similar to the Northrop Grumman E-2 Hawkeye.
“The PLAN is expected to begin construction in 2018 on its first cat¬apult-capable carrier, which will enable addi¬tional fighter aircraft, fixed-wing early warning aircraft, and more rapid flight operations,” says DIA.
The report adds that the PLAAF is working to make training more realistic and less scripted. It quotes a former PLAAF officer as saying that “when the PLAAF trains, it must “train for battle” instead of “doing things for show…[or] going through the motions.”