China’s PLAAF: On Multiple Tracks To Become A Modern Force

If one were to list the three factors responsible for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) emerging at the end of the last century as a modern military organization, the answers would come in descending order in terms of their impact: “Russia, Russia, and Russia.”

The PLAAF’s first purchase of 24 Sukhoi Su-27SK/UBK export models in the early 1990s represented the first step in its acquisition of real air power. The next major development came with the agreement in 1996 for the Komsomolsk-on-Amur aviation plant that produced the first off-the-shelf models to establish a production line at Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC) in China’s Liaoning Province.  The original contract called license assembly of 200 of the export model of the Su-27—designated J-11 by the PLAAF—at the facility.

But, by the end of 2004 and around 100 aircraft into the production run, SAC decided to truncate the contract after the engineering team at the Shenyang plant had succeeded in reverse-engineering and copying the Su-27SK design, now called J-11B in this configuration.

The Chinese playbook has allowed the country to develop some of its own versions of copies of the baseline Su-27 design—as well as copies of the Su-30MK-series that the PLAAF and the Chinese navy purchased later. Apart from the FC-31/J-35 design, SAC has largely been involved in developing multiple derivatives of the different Sukhoi fighter configurations originally designed in Russia.


Recent developments for the PLAAF involving the Russian airplane pedigree include the heavily revised design of the S-30MK known as the J-16D Howling Wolf electronic warfare aircraft. SAC has taken the two-seat configuration of the Su-30 and made several modifications to the design. It has improved the structure to carry heavier external stores, but without an increase in the weight of the aircraft thanks to the Chinese designers’ incorporation of a much higher percentage of composites into the airframe.  Some of the composites used include radar absorbing materials (RAM) to reduce the radar cross-section (RCS) of the aircraft.

The aircraft also gets its power from indigenous Chinese-built WS-10A jet engines—a reverse-engineered variant of the Russian Lyulka/SaturnAL-31F design that powers the Su-27s acquired in the previous decades.

Primarily a suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) platform, the aircraft represents an attempt by the Chinese to gain an equivalent to the Boeing EA-18G Growler. To accommodate the two-seat aircrew configuration and all of the new-generation avionics installed for the EW missions, engineers appear to have moved the front seat slightly forward, which makes the radome for the aircraft noticeably smaller than the standard Su-30MK radar. The radar also incorporates an active array (AESA) design, whereas the Su-30MK aircraft in Russia and in Chinese service use either a passive (PESA) or a mechanically steered (MSA) antenna array.

The EW equipment is the odd aspect of the design.  Rather than mounting the EW systems internally or in conformal arrangements, the J-16D has two ESM pods on the wingtips with a row of blade antennas along the length of the pod.  Then, the inner wing pylons below the air inlets carry four large and heavy jamming pods.

The aircraft first flew in 2015 but developers fitted it with the CETC KG600 pod seen before on other aircraft.  The only time the J-16D appeared with the new pods was at the 2021 Air Show China expo, held as a “make-up” date for the 2020 air show’s cancellation due to COVID.  Even then, the pods appeared on the aircraft only when it initially arrived at the Zhuhai aerodrome, as the PRC’s secretive security apparatus had the pods removed before the show opened to the public.

The other major Sukhoi model is the Su-35 Super Flanker. The PLAAF acquired 24 of them, the last delivery coming in 2018.  Analysts expect the aircraft to dramatically affect the capability of SAC and the other enterprises with which it cooperates.

The Su-35 comes equipped with a NIIP N035 PESA radar set that offers more functionality than the N011M PESA design that India acquired with its Su-30MKI aircraft.  The other major feature of the Su-35 is the next-generation AL-41F1S/117S jet engine, which the Russian design team describes as a “deep modernization” of the AL-31F model.

Representatives from the Komsomolsk plant have told AIN the two major subsystems—the new engine and the radar—constitute the entire reason for the Chinese acquiring the Su-35 in the first place. “They intend to take this Su-35 design and all of its new on-board capabilities and reverse-engineer them in the same manner that they did more than twenty years ago with the Su-27,” said one official.


While SAC has served as the lynchpin for the development of aircraft based on Sukhoi designs, the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC) in the Sichuan province capital has given birth to designs drawn from multiple sources.  The most famous—the J-20 “Mighty Dragon”— appears to be a stealthy design in the size and weight class of the U.S. F-22A.

The J-20 flew for the first time from the aerodrome co-located with the CAC design office in January 2011 during an official visit to Beijing by then-U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Although meant to herald China’s introduction to the “club” of nations that build state-of-the-art fighter airplanes, the aircraft was powered by two of the Russian-made Salyut/Lyulka AL-31F engines and not a new-age design. The CAC design team in effect used third-generation propulsion technology developed in the 1980s to power a 21st century, fifth-generation airplane.

One of the motivations behind the acquisition of the Su-35 lay with the chance it gave designers at both CAC and SAC to see how much of a difference the 117S next-generation engine would make in the performance of the J-20. (For that reason, when the PLAAF acquired the Su-35s, they also ordered the maximum number of spare engines per aircraft Russia would sell.)

Last year a Russian military affairs news site published an analysis of the inability of the Chinese to develop a new-generation engine: the WS-15 Emei model, originally intended to power the J-20. Plans called for that engine to go on display at the 2018 Air Show China in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province, but it never appeared due to successive problems during its test and validation.

Russian sources have reported that the WS-15 experiences “a sharp drop in thrust when the temperature of the turbine section approaches the maximum operating parameters.”

That could present a fatal performance failure for a pilot in the middle of a fight, so in the interim and until designers resolve the WS-15’s flaws, the J-20 flies with a Chinese-built WS-10C engine, itself an improved model of the WS-10A but still based on the older AL-31F Russian design.

“This is the reason why the Chinese have been trying to buy the Motor Sich aero-engine enterprise here in Ukraine,” said the director of one of the defense firms in Kiev.  “They do not want to keep buying engines from Russia or trying to power new-generation fighters with last generation’s technology.  Until they solve this problem their industry will not reach its full potential.”

Source: Ainonline

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