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IHS Aerospace, Defence & Security

IHS Aerospace, Defence & Security

Analysis: China’s Air Ambitions

November 2013

While gaps still remain in key areas, China’s overall development and production of military aircraft is advancing rapidly. IHS examines the developments, ambitions and outlook.


Over the last 15 years China’s domestic aerospace industry has made rapid progress in developing its capabilities to such an extent that it can now increasingly meet the requirements of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in aircraft design and development.

While there are still some key areas of deficiency, both in

terms of military and industrial capabilities, it is clear that efforts are being made to address these remaining gaps

in order to create a domestic military aerospace sector

that is truly self-reliant.

A number of high-profile events have made it difficult to

ignore the development of Chinese aerospace capabilities

over the last five years. Since 2011 seven new aircraft have made their maiden flights, including two fifth- generation combat aircraft designs.

including two fifth- generation combat aircraft designs. China’s aircraft production (Source: IHS Jane’s DS

China’s aircraft production (Source: IHS Jane’s DS Forecast)

IHS Analysis: China’s Air Ambitions

The PLA’s aviation arms have also achieved a rapid pace of inventory modernisation and enhancement, due in no small part to the existence of nine known military aircraft production programmes in China that produce aircraft for the Chinese armed forces. In 2012 up to 148 aircraft are thought to have been produced for the army, navy, and air force.

Fifth-generation ambitions

The two highest-profile projects to come to light since 2011 are the Chengdu Aircraft Industrial Corporation (CAC) J-20 and Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC) ‘J- 31’ fifth-generation combat aircraft. While the emergence of the J-20 in 2011 had been widely anticipated following tacit acknowledgement of the programme by PLA officials, the emergence of a second design just 21 months later was a clear demonstration of the breadth of developmental work under way in China. At present there have been no indications of intent to acquire the J-31. However, the J-20 now looks set to become a future mainstay of the PLA Air Force’s (PLAAF’s) twin-engine fighter fleet.

Both designs incorporate features that are clearly aimed at radar cross-section (RCS) minimisation. However, judging the two aircraft’s capabilities remains extremely challenging as systems and sensors are now more crucial to military aircraft performance than at any time in the past. Until more is known about the technology within the J-20 and J-31 it is impossible to accurately compare the

the J-20 and J-31 it is impossible to accurately compare the two to other fifth-generation combat

two to other fifth-generation combat aircraft. In addition, the eventual production-standard aircraft may well differ in some respects from the prototypes now in flight test as new technologies are refined and developed.

Given the relatively limited maturity of Chinese technology in a number of areas, the kind of integrated capabilities possessed by these aircraft is unlikely to be of a similar standard to Russian and Western systems. For example, the first generation of Chinese-developed electronically scanned array radars has yet to enter service.

Perhaps the best indication of the nascent capabilities in these areas is the reported reluctance of Russia to supply Beijing with Sukhoi’s ‘4++’-generation Su-35 for fear that the aircraft’s systems will be reverse-engineered by China.

Even if access to technology is not behind Beijing’s interest in the Su-35, its purchase at a time when so many indigenous fighter development and production programmes are ongoing would suggest the Russian aircraft is superior in some respects.

Strategic lift

Arguably a more important milestone for both industry and the PLA, however, was the first flight of the Xian Aircraft Industries Group Y-20 strategic transport aircraft that took place in January 2013. The Y-20 represents the first example of a truly indigenous large aircraft, albeit with Russian-made Aviadvigatel D-30KP2 engines and

IHS Analysis: China’s Air Ambitions

apparent design input from Ukraine’s Antonov, and demonstrates a further expansion of Chinese industrial capabilities. The emergence of the type also provides a potential opportunity to develop a genuine air-to-air refuelling platform in the future, thereby addressing two of the key weaknesses of the PLA’s current aviation inventory.

Meanwhile, the Shaanxi Aircraft Industries Company Y-9 programme – a comprehensive modernisation of the company’s Y-8 tactical transport aircraft featuring a redesigned wing, fully pressurised fuselage, and new six- bladed propellers – provides further evidence of the increased focus on airlift. Despite initial delays as a result of design changes, the first production aircraft in PLAAF colours was seen in the latter part of 2012 and the type is now expected to begin re-equipping the air force’s transport regiments.

The parallel development of a maritime patrol and anti- submarine warfare version of the aircraft – featuring a large chin-mounted surface-search radar, electro-optical turret, ordnance bay, and magnetic anomaly detector boom – also appears to have made rapid progress over the last three years, with the aircraft pictured in flight in late 2012.

This was followed in November 2013 by images suggesting a new airborne early warning (AEW) variant of the Y-8/9 was also under development. This featured a top-mounted rotating dome radar, possibly representing

a top-mounted rotating dome radar, possibly representing a further development of the ZDK-03 AEW aircraft supplied

a further development of the ZDK-03 AEW aircraft supplied to the Pakistan Air Force in 2011. With the Ilyushin Il-76-based KJ-2000 and Y-8-based KJ-200 already in service with the PLAAF and the PLA Navy (PLAN), China appears to be intent on enhancing an airborne surveillance fleet that is already second in size only to the United States.

Brand new trainers

The modernisation of the PLAAF and PLAN’s advanced jet trainer fleets has now also begun in earnest with the Guizhou Aviation Industry Company JL-9 and Hongdu Aviation Industry Group JL-10 (formerly known by its manufacturer’s designation of L-15) having both entered series production. On 1 July the initial JL-10 production aircraft for the PLAAF conducted its maiden flight. With 250 of the aircraft’s Ukrainian Motor Sich AL222-24F afterburning turbofan engines placed under contract in 2011, it seems highly likely that at least 100 aircraft will enter service as replacements for the ageing CAC JJ-7 inventory. At present the PLAN appears to be focused on the less technologically advanced JL-9 design, with state media revealing the existence of a carrier-training variant in 2011.

The rotary-wing sector has seen more mixed progress. Local industry has yet to develop a suitable medium- or heavy-lift helicopter design despite pressing requirements for both from the PLA. The development of the Hafei Aviation Industry Company Z-9 (based on the Eurocopter

IHS Analysis: China’s Air Ambitions

AS 365 Dauphin) to fill a range of roles such as troop transport (Z-9B), anti-submarine warfare (Z-9C), anti- surface warfare (Z-9D), and close air support (Z-9WZ) has been in part due to the lack of a viable, indigenously produced alternative to meet these requirements.

The most notable recent successes from a PLA perspective have come in the form of the Changhe Aircraft Industries Group Z-10 and Hafei Aviation Industry Company Z-19: two indigenously produced attack helicopters. The Z-10, which is now known to have been designed in its initial form by Russia’s Kamov, has been identified operating with at least five army aviation regiments and provided the PLA with its first true attack helicopter. Meanwhile, recent photographs suggest the Z- 19, a further extensive re-development of the Z-9 with a tandom cockpit, may now also have entered service.

Nevertheless, the scale of imports of Russian Mil Mi- 17/171 helicopters over the last 10 years provides an indication of the comparative lack of progress that has been made by the Chinese aerospace industry in the rotary-wing sector. Since the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, where PLA units sent to assist in rescue operations were delayed by a lack of tactical airlift, import orders have accelerated in an apparently pragmatic recognition that local industry would not be in a position to address this capability shortfall soon enough.

In the future a militarised development of the civil Hafei Aviation Industry Company Z-15 (EC175) co-developed

Hafei Aviation Industry Company Z-15 (EC175) co-developed with Eurocopter and an unnamed design resembling the

with Eurocopter and an unnamed design resembling the Sikorsky S-70 (UH-60) Black Hawk – often referred to as the Z-20 – offer the most likely short-term prospects for success.

Combat aircraft developments

While the spectrum of activity in aircraft design and manufacturing has broadened over the last three years, combat aircraft remain the short-term focus of the aerospace industry. Of the nine production programmes known to be active in China in 2013, four – Xian Aircraft Industries Group’s H-6K and JH-7A, the J-10A, and the J-11B – are producing aircraft for PLA fighter and bomber divisions. Similarly, five of the identified developmental efforts that are under way – the J-10B, J-15, SAC J-16, J- 20, and J-31 – are multirole fighter designs.

The J-10 programme remains arguably the most important Chinese fighter project of the past two decades, representing a breakthrough moment for the domestic aerospace industry when it entered service in 2003. While deliveries of the J-10A have proceeded at pace over the intervening 10 years, production is now expected to draw to a close following completion of the development of the enhanced J-10B.

There has been no official confirmation of PLAAF units being equipped with this new variant, although imagery from China suggests series production is now well under way, with the aircraft expected to enter service in the next few months after a lengthy flight programme. Ultimately,

IHS Analysis: China’s Air Ambitions

more than 600 J-10s are expected to enter service with the PLAAF as the remaining CAC J-7-equipped regiments are recapitalised.

the remaining CAC J-7-equipped regiments are recapitalised. China’s fighter fleet has undergone a generational shift

China’s fighter fleet has undergone a generational shift (Source: IHS Jane’s DS Forecast)

The J-10B variant provides an excellent example of the incremental approach to the development of combat aircraft that has been a standard approach for Chinese manufacturers since the 1970s. Production of the initial variant has continued at pace alongside the development of the J-10B. The aircraft appears to feature a scanned array radar – the first fitted to a Chinese fighter – a modified diverterless engine intake, and an enhanced range of sensors and electronic warfare capabilities.

Chinese officials have confirmed an increased use of composite materials and the creation of a “pulsation production line”, demonstrating that manufacturing

production line”, demonstrating that manufacturing techniques are maturing alongside system and aircraft design

techniques are maturing alongside system and aircraft design capabilities.

While in the past the approach of incremental developments to existing aircraft designs was necessary due to the lack of capability in platform design, this may no longer be the key motivation. With production shifting from foreign to indigenously designed aircraft, this technique is in many ways well suited to the pace of progress being made in parallel areas such as engine and system development. The breadth and tempo of projects currently under way in China necessitates such a flexible approach and has also provided a key advantage in rapidly building the competency of domestic design bureaus and production facilities.

Simultaneously, SAC’s previously troubled J-11B project now appears to be making steady progress. Following several years of setbacks – largely a result of development issues with the intended indigenous Liming Aero-Engine Manufacturing Corporation (LMAC) WS-10A Taihang powerplant – at least four regiments are now equipped with the type. While the aircraft is essentially an indigenised development of the license-built Sukhoi Su- 27SK, the design incorporates substantial improvements, including a reduced RCS, a strengthened airframe with the use of composite materials, an improved fire-control radar, a new flight-control system, and a glass cockpit. The PLAN also began taking deliveries of the J-11B in


IHS Analysis: China’s Air Ambitions

One significant consequence of the proliferation of indigenous combat aircraft projects is that the PLA’s fighter fleet has experienced a rapid pace of modernisation over the past decade. While a large number of regiments continue to be equipped with obsolete J-7 and SAC J-8 designs, the increasingly reliable flow of aircraft from the J-10 and J-11 production lines has allowed for significant qualitative advances. In 2007 around one in four of the PLAAF’s combat aircraft fleet could be considered to possess modern, fourth- generation capabilities, whereas by late 2013 – just six years later – close to half of the fighter fleet is thought to have reached this standard.

Nevertheless, modernisation to date has been largely limited to combat aircraft fleets, with the development and production of combat aircraft prioritised over support

aircraft such as airlifters and aerial refuelling platforms. As

a result the PLAAF’s inventory remains largely focused on

the provision of capabilities suited to localised operations and possesses only limited power projection capabilities.

Strategic transformation

A comparative analysis of army and air force aviation in

the United States and China shows that mobility remains

a key capability weakness for the PLA. China operates

one transport helicopter for every seven US platforms; one C-130-sized tactical transport for every 13 in US service; and one strategic transport for every 14 operated by the US Air Force (USAF).

transport for every 14 operated by the US Air Force (USAF). The USAF, meanwhile, operates around

The USAF, meanwhile, operates around 570 aerial refuelling aircraft compared with just 10 possessed by the PLAAF. If training aircraft are excluded, then 42% of the USAF’s inventory is dedicated to support tasks such as airlift, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), and aerial refuelling. The PLAAF’s own support aircraft constitute 26% of its inventory.

own support aircraft constitute 26% of its inventory. US and Chinese transport aircraft inventories (Source: IHS

US and Chinese transport aircraft inventories (Source: IHS Jane’s Military & Security Assessments Intelligence Centre)

It is therefore perhaps no surprise that one of the Chinese Ministry of National Defense’s (MND’s) stated priorities for the PLAAF is to “accelerate its transition from territorial air defence to both offensive and defensive operations, and increase its capabilities for carrying out reconnaissance

and early warning

to build itself into a modernised strategic air force”. As a result, while the PLAAF is expected to continue to

and strategic projection, in an effort

IHS Analysis: China’s Air Ambitions

modernise its combat aircraft fleet over the coming decade, it is likely to be the support elements of the inventory that see a quantitative expansion as Beijing looks to create a more balanced air force capability better suited to supporting the expanding ambitions of the PLA and the Chinese government.

The entry into service of the Y-9 – which is expected to maintain a steady rate of production over the next 10 years – and the Y-20 in the longer term will provide Chinese airlift capabilities with a considerable boost and allow the PLAAF to modernise and expand its air transport fleet.

Although progress is likely to be relatively slow compared with the transformation seen in the combat aircraft fleet, particularly with regard to strategic lift, the domestic aerospace sector now appears to be much closer to being in a position to fill these increasingly important PLA requirements. Furthermore, the Y-9 and Y-20 are likely to form the basis of a number of ISR and aerial refuelling platforms in the future.

Air-to-air refuelling is perhaps the most significant gap in capabilities at present; the air force currently has just 10 H-6U modified bombers offering very little in the way of capacity and minimal hope that this capability can be expanded significantly in the short term. Until this situation is rectified the PLA’s ability to conduct and sustain operations at even modest distances beyond its national territory will remain severely constrained.

Importing capability

will remain severely constrained. Importing capability The government’s growing emphasis on indigenous sources

The government’s growing emphasis on indigenous sources for its defence equipment has certainly placed pressure on the domestic industry to develop the technologies and platforms now required to fill the more expansive strategic goals of the PLA. Nevertheless, the Chinese aerospace sector remains unable to meet all PLA requirements, with the clearest indications of the more persistent gaps in industrial capability being provided by the contracts signed over recent years for foreign- manufactured aircraft and systems.

While imports of Russian Sukhoi combat aircraft concluded in 2005 and local production of the licence- produced J-11A (Su-27SK) was curtailed in 2004, a number of contracts have been finalised since that time in areas where local capacity is less robust.

In total, contracts for 138 aircraft and 1,423 engines have been finalised with foreign suppliers over the past decade and there have been few signs of a discernible downturn in the pace or size of orders.

Of more than 1,400 engines, 707 ordered have been placed under contract since the start of 2011. With production rates suggesting that around 100 engines will be required annually to support fighter production alone over the next 10 years, reports stating that follow-on orders are already under negotiation seem plausible.

IHS Analysis: China’s Air Ambitions

Furthermore, a number of key aviation programmes remain reliant on the continued supply of foreign-made powerplants. The L-15 advanced jet trainer is currently powered by the Ukrainian-made AL-222-24F, the J-10 and J-10B by the Russian AL-31FN, the H-6K and Y-20 by the D-30KP2, and the CAC JF-17 – a key Chinese export programme – by the RD-93.

Investing in engines

While Beijing has been pragmatic in its decision to continue importing large numbers of engines from abroad, government and industry continue to invest in closing this key capability gap. In April 2011 AVIC announced plans to commit more than CNY10 billion (USD1.53 billion) to aero-engine R&D over the following five years: a commitment that represented AVIC’s greatest independent investment during the period. The company also announced in 2012 that it would task LMAC – one of its major aero-engine subsidiaries – with the creation and implementation of a technology roadmap aimed at accelerating progress in this area.

There have, however, been indications of progress. The acceleration of J-11B deliveries is largely a result of the WS-10A turbofan being delivered in meaningful numbers. Furthermore, in early 2013 Chinese state media, citing officials at the PLAAF Command Institute, revealed that the Y-20 would also soon fly with an indigenous engine – thought to be the so-called WS-20 high-bypass turbofan – which would offer improved performance compared

turbofan – which would offer improved performance compared with the D-30KP2. While previous attempts at engine

with the D-30KP2. While previous attempts at engine development suggest any such maiden flight would significantly pre-date series production of the powerplant, this would nevertheless represent progress in an area short on success.

At present the WS-10A remains the only indigenously developed engine in series production, with a number of other projects, notably the WS-13 – the intended replacement for the RD-93 – delayed. There have been numerous indications that the domestic aero-engine industry has begun work on a number of powerplants for the next generation of Chinese combat aircraft. However, it seems likely that progress will remain slow relative to wider aerospace manufacturing capabilities. The entry into series production of the J-20 may well be dictated more by the ability of AVIC to develop and manufacture a suitable and reliable powerplant than by the development of the airframe and systems of the aircraft.

Building robust capabilities in this area will also be crucial in expanding Chinese exports in the military aerospace market, with the lack of control over this key element of the supply chain acting as an impediment to independence. While Beijing has been keen to promote the JF-17 to potential foreign customers in recent years, the aircraft’s Russian-made RD-93 engine ostensibly provides Moscow with a veto over potential sales of the aircraft, which in many markets is a competitor for Russian offerings. This awkward dynamic has arguably been a key reason behind the continued sales of the

IHS Analysis: China’s Air Ambitions

increasingly technologically obsolete F-7, with final deliveries of the most recent F-7BGI variant completed during 2013.

While engine imports continue at a rapid pace, orders for foreign-made aircraft have slowed noticeably since 2007 and are now limited to filling specific PLA requirements that cannot, as yet, be met effectively by local industry. Of the 138 aircraft ordered from foreign manufacturers in the last 10 years, 80% have been Russian-made Mil Mi- 17 ‘Hip’ transport helicopter variants purchased to address the lack of an indigenous medium helicopter design. An assembly line for the type opened in China in 2008 to provide a further 20 helicopters a year.

However, fixed-wing imports have slowed significantly following the collapse of China’s order for 30 Il-76TD ‘Candid’ strategic transport and eight Il-78M ‘Midas’ tanker aircraft due to complications relating to the aircraft’s production facilities. A contract for 10 refurbished Il-76MD airlifters announced in late 2012 suggests that, had a viable production line been available, significant orders for the type would likely have been placed throughout the past decade. However, China now seems likely to assess progress in the development of its own Y-20 strategic transport before considering the purchase of additional Russian-made aircraft.


While China has made great strides in aircraft development, aircraft systems, production techniques,

development, aircraft systems, production techniques, composites, and – to a lesser extent – engine

composites, and – to a lesser extent – engine development and manufacture, these capabilities remain far from a fully mature state at this stage.

Furthermore, in a number of these areas, in terms of the capabilities of both industry and the PLA, gaps remain. The challenge for China in the next decade will not be developing new indigenous combat aircraft, but in closing the gaps that still exist.

Nevertheless, given the political will and vast investments being made in the aerospace sector, it certainly appears to be a matter of when, rather than if, this state of full maturity will be achieved.

This analysis is abridged. The full report was developed using programme data and forecasts from IHS Jane’s DS Forecast and IHS Jane’s Defence Procurement and military inventories information from IHS Jane’s Military & Security Assessments Intelligence Centre.

IHS Analysis: China’s Air Ambitions

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