Terrorists and Western defence equipment had a bad time at this year’s Airshow China in Zhuhai. Hardened bunkers, speeding trucks and warships were no match for the barrage of missiles and bombs launched by Chinese-built fighters and unmanned air vehicles – all seemingly co-ordinated by emotionless men in sterile control rooms. F-15s, F-16s, F/A-18s and even AH-64 attack helicopters had a tough time, as easy prey for a relentless flow of air-to-air missiles.
Amid blaring music worthy of B-grade war films, computer-generated movies showing what Beijing sees as “war under informationised conditions” were de rigeur at the sprawling stands of big Chinese defence firms such as AVIC, CASIC, CETC and Norinco.
A great deal of the equipment backing up this vision was in the exhibition halls and on the static line, and no aircraft display seemed complete without a buffet of missiles, bombs and sensor pods laid out before it.
Rounding it all off was an all-too-brief pass by a pair of Chengdu J-20s – China’s latest fighter.
Taken at face value it was all very impressive, but a closer inspection raises questions. One Western engine expert was perplexed by the small propellers on two high-altitude, long-endurance UAVs on the static display, including AVIC’s Wing Loong II.
And then there were the weapons loads being shown. The Wing Loong II can supposedly carry up to 10 bombs or missiles, or a mix of both. Similar systems operated by Western air forces typically have up to six weapons, mainly available to strike targets of opportunity, because they are primarily surveillance platforms – not bombers.
Peculiar UAVs aside, the 11th iteration of China’s aerospace showcase offered little in the way of new insight, and even heightened the impression of secrecy. AVIC representatives adamantly refused to discuss either the J-20 or FC-31 fighter programmes, and the company’s chalet resembled a heavily guarded fortress, with layers of police and security at its door.
This made for an air show that was an uneasy mix of heavy firepower and total secrecy; although the dozens of promotional videos were anything but subtle.
Of course, Western defence firms also have made their fair share of bombastic movies, although, within reason, they are willing to discuss real capabilities. This clarity helps with the broader objective of deterrence.
Despite that, there are two clear lessons from this year’s Zhuhai event: the J-20 is a very loud aircraft and Beijing has developed a serious thing for firepower.