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Inside Chinese Air Force: Big in number but full of old and faulty aircraft


With 3,400 aircraft, the Chinese Air Force is only 1,700 combat aircraft in service with the PLA. However, the majority of Chinese fighter aircraft are older generation fighters.

The People’s Liberation Army Air Force and the Chinese Navy Air Force (collectively referred to as the People’s Liberation Army Air Force), currently have in service 1,700 combat aircraft (including fighter, bomber, and ground attack aircraft). Currently, the Chinese Air Force uses many different types of aircraft.

Most Chinese military aircraft, however, are inspired by or copied from Russian or American designs, so it’s not too difficult to grasp their capabilities, given their origins.

The type of fighter most copied by China is the MiG-19 with the Chinese name of the J-6 fighter ; This was the first supersonic fighter of the Soviet Union, using air intakes in the nose. The ground attack version of the J-6 is the Q-5, which still has about 150 aircraft in service; but upgraded to use precision-guided weapons.

Nanchang Q-5
Nanchang Q-5

In the early 1960s, the Soviet Union also transferred to China its most modern combat aircraft, the MiG-21 fighter; later reverse engineered by China into the Chengdu J-7. The J-7 production schedule only really started from 1978 to 2013. Factories in China have produced thousands of J-7 light aircraft in dozens of variants; In addition to serving in the Chinese Air Force, also for export. There are still about four hundred J-7s, still in service with the Chinese Air Force.

The J-7 is an aircraft designed from the 1950s, in terms of maneuverability and speed, it can keep up with the F-16, but the J-7 cannot carry much fuel or weapons. and only equipped with a low power radar in the cone. However, China has made efforts to improve to meet the requirements of modern warfare. The J-7G version introduced in 2004, included an Israeli doppler radar, with a 60km detection range and improved missiles, for BVR combat, as well as a digital glass cockpit.

military
Chengdu J-7 of PLAF

The J-7 is unlikely to “survive” against modern fourth-generation fighters, which can detect and engage the enemy at much longer ranges (actually demonstrated between the Israeli and Syrian Air Force in the past year 1982). Although hypothetically, the J-7 relies on numbers, able to overwhelm defenders, with swarm attacks.

Another clone was the Xi’an H-6, a twin-engine medium bomber, based on the Tu-16 Badger, developed by the Soviet Union in the early 1950s. It is also the only bomber of the Chinese Air Force today, but the bomb load of the H-6 is only 8 tons, even IAF Rafale can carry 9t weapons, also the performance is far below of the American B-52 or the Russian Tu-95 Bear.

Xian H-6 Bomber
Xian H-6 Bomber

In the mid-1960s, China began to develop its own fighter aircraft. In 1979, the Shenyang J-8 interceptor was born; this is a supersonic, twin-engine interceptor that can reach speeds of Mach 2.2. However, the J-8 lacks the modern avionics and maneuverability of an interceptor.

The successor to the J-8II is improved on the old version with Israeli radar and a new spike shape, the air intakes were shifted to the sides, making it a heavyweight fighter, but with a fast speed like F-4 Phantom. About 150 J-8IIs are still in service.

The JH-7 bomber, which entered service in 1992, is a two-seat naval bomber that can carry weapons up to 9 tons and has a top speed of Mach 1.52. JH-7 can attack targets from a distance, with cruise missiles, out of the enemy’s fire range. But this fighter is equipped with poor quality engine with limited thrust. Currently more than 270 JH-7 aircraft in service with PLA.  

JH-7 Bomber
JH-7 Bomber

The J-10 single-engine light fighter, considered the “pride” of China’s fighter design industry; The J-10 has a highly maneuverable, wire-driven system, to compensate for the aerodynamically unstable airframe. Currently, J-10 is still using Russian AL-31F engine. The most advanced version of the J-10 is the J-10C, which is equipped with an advanced infrared tracking sensor and an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. However, the fleet of 250 J-10s, which have had a number of fatal crashes, may be related to malfunctions in the wire flight system.

The current main fighter of the Chinese Air Force is versions based on the Soviet Su-27 Flanker. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia was in an economic crisis. China has seized the opportunity to exploit military secrets, including the Su-27 fighter, which was not previously exported by the Soviet Union.

After importing the initial batch of Su-27 fighters, Beijing bought a license to domestically build its own copy, the J-11. After mastering technology from Russia, despite Russian objections, China began independently building more advanced models such as the J-11B and D, .

After continuing to import from Russia versions of Su-30MKK and Su-30MK2, Chinese designers copied them into J-16; this is also the only fighter of the Flanker series, equipped with active electronically scanned array radar (AESA); Currently, this type of fighter is rapidly increasing in number in the Chinese Air Force.

J-16 fighter
J-16 fighter

Regarding fighter ships, refusing to buy Russia’s Su-33 fighter at a high price, China bought a test prototype of the Su-33 from Ukraine and copied it into a J-15 ship fighter. There are currently about 40 aircraft in service with the country’s Liaoning and Shandong aircraft carriers.

Versions from the Chinese Su-27, theoretically on par with fourth-generation fighters such as the F-15 and F-16. However, they are powered by domestically produced WS-10 turbofan engines, which have had serious technical problems and are difficult to generate enough thrust.

Jet engine technology remains the main limitation of Chinese fighters today. In 2016, China purchased 24 Su-35s, the most advanced and maneuverable variant of the Flanker series to date, with the aim of copy Russian AL-41F turbofans engine technology.

In the field of stealth fighters, China has developed two aircraft models, the J-20 and J-31; in which the J-20 is a heavy stealth fighter equipped with two engines, first tested in 2011, entered service with the Chinese Air Force in 2017, is considered the most modern fighter of the Chinese Air Force today. But the aircraft is still lacking of good engine.

j-31 and J-20 vs F-35 and F-22
J-31 (Upper) and J-20 (Lower)

The smaller, privately developed J-31 (or FC-31) is essentially a clone of the F-35 Lightning; According to the question, the J-31 can completely use the design hacked from the computer of the Lockheed company. Currently J-31 is still in the testing process and is only for export.

Currently, about 33% of the PLA Air Force’s fighter aircraft are second-generation fighters of old, with little combat value, to be able to withstand against peer competitors. Another 28% consisted of strategic bombers and more capable but obsolete third generation aircraft. Finally, 38% are fourth-generation fighters, theoretically able to counter the likes of the F-15 and F-16 and Su-30MKI. J-20 stealth fighters account for only about 1%.

Despite possessing a large number of fighter aircraft, China lacks good pilots and advanced air doctrine, which greatly affects the combat ability of the Chinese Air Force. Therefore, the Chinese Air Force is large, but not very strong.


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