Everything you always wanted to know about Chinese air power (but were afraid to ask) – Interview with Andreas Rupprecht

Few have written more on the subject of Chinese air power than Andreas Rupprecht. We grilled him on the hottest topics in that most dynamic of subjects, Chinese warplanes.

China appears to be producing new designs at a greater pace than other nations, is that true, and if so, why?

If they indeed are “producing new designs at a greater pace than other nations” (which I’m not sure is true) it it is because they have both the political will, the military ambition, and the money to make it happen. Also, for several years there are no longer only state-owned design and manufacturing companies, but universities and private enterprises. You only have to take a look at the UAV scene, and how many companies are currently developing in that area. They are willing to invest their own money – besides the official contracts – with the aim of earning money with it at some point. Additionally, in contrast to the West, the desire to serve national ambitions is much deeper embedded in China (at least to my perception). The aim is clear: China wants to be the dominant power in the Far East, inviolable from others and the goal is to be on a par with the USA.

What is the biggest strength of Chinese military aerospace technology?

In my opinion to put together the best available – or accessible technologies – from both East and West. To analyse competing products and to find – based on their own technical abilities – an indigenous solution. This is often made without much public announcement (in contrary to Russia and India where much is loudly promised and barely anything materialises). This is done with a huge budget behind it, and most importantly of all, the highest political and military support. The resultant aircraft types are most often put into service in an interim version that then receives continuous updates, modifications and new systems at a much higher pace one than one likes to accept or expects in the West.

What is the role of the J-20?

A good question and in fact one of the most controversial ones in social media groups. Quite interesting, the commonly often heard claim “it cannot be a fighter since it is so huge!” is based on very early and incorrect calculations of the J-20’s dimensions. It was first estimated to be a very long (23m+) and flat fighter and consequently several concluded as a fighter of that size with underpowered engines it might at best possess high speed and a long operational range but cannot be manoeuvrable like a true fighter. This became a constant theme in nearly all discussions and was surely assisted by a relatively modest aerobatic display in the Zhuhai 2016 and 2018 airshows. In essence the J-20 became a large lame duck that could only be a long-range supersonic striker like a modern F-111 or at best serve as an interceptor used to engage strategic assets like tanker and AEW types from far away.

However, all these conclusions ignore the surrounding evidence: first the J-20’s true dimensions, which is in fact shorter than the Russian ‘Flanker’ series, which is without doubt rated as one of the most manoeuvrable fighters. Second, there is a well-known study made by Song Wecong, the chief designer of the J-10 and mentor of the J-20 designer Yang Wei, that was posted in 2001 and clearly demanded that stealth aircraft “must have the capability to supercruise and perform unconventional manoeuvres such as post-stall manoeuvres.” Thirdly, the PLAAF itself praised repeatedly this type’s performance and expressed its satisfaction even with the interim engines. This surely can be rated as propaganda, like the official brochure, which explicitly stated the J-20 being capable of “seizing & maintain air superiority, medium & long range interception, escort and deep strike.” In summary, the J-20 is rated by the PLAAF a true multi-role fighter and I see nothing that contradicts this. How comparable the J-20 is to the F-22 and F-35 is another question, but this statement also applies to all other PLAAF operated types.

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I’m still going to ask you…how does the J-20 compare to the F-22?

Only the PLAAF and CAC know this for sure as such, I have to admit I don’t like questions like that. On the one hand because it is not my area of expertise and on the other hand because there is hardly any information available that enables an assessment. I also dare to doubt whether I could do this at all. For me, the question is more how the J-20 compares to its predecessor in PLAAF service and even more so, how the J-20 evolved. With this in mind, I am convinced that the F-22 was actually the benchmark for CAC but I am also convinced that it was clear to CAC that developing a twin-engine heavy fighter and a stealth aircraft for the first time after the J-10 would be a huge challenge. All of this coupled with the knowledge that one has hardly any experience in this area and, above all, that the engines will still only be temporary solutions. On the other hand, it has been around 15 years since the development of the F-22 and a lot has happened in China in the area of electronics, sensors and materials since then. But, it’s important to note that the predecessor of the J-20 in PLAAF service is the ‘Flanker’ and this came from a completely different period, was for a completely different requirement and was designed by a company with vastly more experience. So in conclusion, I am sure the J-20 is no worse than a J-11B in all areas of performance, but certainly – especially with the current interim engines – it does not come close to a F-22. I do not presume to make any further judgment.

How good is Chinese radar technology?

Similar to the previous question, I think I’m not able to answer this: Again barely any reliable information is available, most is based on hearsay. From what appears the most reasonable information, it seems as if China committed to AESA technology quite early on, and was able to equip most of its current generation types – the J-10C, J-16 and J-20 – with AESA radars. And even if I don’t know any specifications I’m sure the PLAAF wouldn’t use AESA radars them if they weren’t as powerful as conventional systems.

How good is Chinese aeroengine technology?

We surely know that China has some serious issues with previous generations of aeroengines, including the current ‘best’ Chinese engine, the WS-10, which had a very long and protracted development. As such this is surely the field of expertise in which China is still the most behind. How far, I don’t know.

But anyway, it seems as if they finally have a sufficiently powerful and reliable engine to power all its latest fighters. How reliable these engines are is (quite understandably) not known and I’m sure we won’t get any info on this any time soon.

What does China see as the priority threat to counter and does this manifest in their base locations and aircraft choices?

By my understanding, China has three priorities. To safeguard the own country from any internal threats, external threats and to protect its sphere of interest against any external interference. The first part includes operations other than true wars, like controlling unrest in certain areas especially Tibet and Xinjiang, but also to provide disaster relief and evacuating nationals abroad in emergencies. Here especially bases in Tibet and Xinjiang play an important role, but those are not necessarily PLAAF bases.

As for external threats, these generally fall into three areas: the priority is the Eastern Theatre Command standing against Taiwan, which includes the defence or at least deterrence of US forces that might intervene on Taipei’s side. Secondly, the Southern Theatre Command deals with the disputed South China Sea and the countless islands in and around the nine-dashed line (a demarcation line used by the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China for their claims of the major part of the South China Sea). And surely too, but to a lesser extent than India rates this hotspot, the Western Theatre Command with India (which also encompasses Tibet). And a similar important sector is the Northern Theatre Command against Japan, which again potentially faces US forces in that area and potential instability in North Korea.

In principle – at least today – the PLA’s traditional doctrine has focused on fighting regional conflicts and not global ones. However, in recent years this has changed dramatically, and can be seen not only by the introduction of more modern equipment, but also in the command structure (as well as the locations of their bases). During the early 2000s, a new doctrine was issued, that shifted the focus for the first time from pure defence to some sort of ‘proactively defeating enemies beyond China’s borders, including through preemptive strike if necessary’. In line with this, a limited capability for global expeditionary operations and governance missions (both to safeguard its rising political and economic interests and also to demonstrate its superpower status) were directly endorsed for the first time; the naval base in Djibouti and at Pakistan’s Gwadar port is a clear testimony to this shift.

Other than saying this, I won’t go any deeper into strategic matters. But this fundamental restructuring of the PLA has created a much faster-responding, more flexible and more lethal force, than the PLA has ever been. In achieving this there has been a move away from the traditionally all-dominant ground forces to an increased importance on the PLAAF, navy and rocket force. Additionally, there is the newly formed Strategic Support Force. How much this modern PLA already is able to fight joint operations is still not clear, but again, the PLA’s strategic objectives have dramatically expanded from pure territorial defence to regional dominance over East Asia and the western half of the Pacific. This will further expand into the Indian Ocean soon.

This is certainly manifested in their base locations and aircraft choices: The latter – new aircraft choices – is the part, which is commonly best known due to the rising interest in Chinese matters. As such nearly all enthusiasts of modern military aircraft know the Chinese latest fighters like the J-10C, J-16 and especially the J-20. But it’s not only the enigmatic fighters that are important. Of equal or perhaps greater significance –– are the modern training assets like the JL-10 and new transport aircraft like the Y-20. Never before in China’s history have so many modern types been introduced into the armed forces as within the last decade. To the final part of your question, as to where China sees the priority threat to counter and how this is manifested in basing locations: This is most of all the Eastern Theatre Command, which is most often the one which receives the most modern types and is surely the most capable regional force. Second to this comes the Southern Theatre Command, which is similarly equipped to the ETC and only then – even if India rates this quite differently – comes the Western Theatre Command facing India. The main reason for this is that China has other priorities – and the fact that against India is the well-secured border of the Himalayas. So this a well secured border for its core interests, not needing the fielding of many units.

What happened to the J-31?

To nit-pick … nothing. Since there is no ‘J-31’. The type often claimed to be a J-31 is in fact the SAC FC-31 and from all we know, the second flying demonstrator no. 31003 must have been transferred to the CFTE in Xi’an-Yanliang earlier last year. At least this was a clear hint that something changed and eventually its status from “manufacturer owned demonstrator for an export type” changed to something more PLA related. I try to be cautious as possible, since nothing is yet confirmed, but all hints towards the idea that this type has been selected by the PLAN as the J-15’s successor and future carrier-borne fighter. Allegedly named ‘J-35’, a first prototype is said be ready and we expect its unveiling if not even its maiden flight early this year.

How capable is the J-10C compared to Western types?

Once again a comparative question! Oh well, well I must give a brief answer given the paucity of reliable (or even official) information and even more since I hate such ‘4th Generation’ or even 4+ or 4++ generation discussions, these are just for fan-boys and the more or less uninformed public but in real life other factors are more important than an additional +. Therefore I refuse to give a clear statement like “it is better than the F-16” or “it is on a par with the Eurofighter or Rafale”. But I think from what is known, given the weapons we have seen, the systems, like its IRST and the AESA-radar, it is comparable to the latest Western generation. Surely its powerplant is (or at was for a long time) its Achilles heel. It seems to have, in comparison with the Rafale and Typhoon, a smaller weapons load, especially in terms of the number of weapons stations and overall load carrying capability. How effective its netcentric capabilities are is simply not known.

What is the biggest myth about Chinese warplanes?

That they are all unlicensed copies and clones, that they are worthless trash. This claim in fact drives me crazy since it is simply stupid. Many who always post this in social media or forums either have no clue, have not bothered to check the facts or their accusation is often politically motivated, and most often none of them are interested in facts anyway.

Therefore, first of all, before I go into more details why in my opinion this generalised claim is stupid, a short preliminary admission:
Yes, China has developed little or nothing on its own for decades.
Yes, China has built a lot under license for years; in fact, because there were licenses to do so.
Yes, China has further developed these types and has not always recognised the intellectual properties of other nations.
Yes, China does espionage on a large scale – as do other great nations too; Saab can tell you a thing or two about it

But, especially in the last decades there have been many projects that were also developed in cooperation with foreign (mainly Russian and Ukrainian) companies or for which they were contracted and paid: The Y-9 and Y-20 (with Antonov), CJ -7 and JL-10 (with Yakovlev) and Z-10 (to Kamov). So these are not copies or even stolen drafts.


And even if there are ‘similarities’ to other types, isn’t this the case with other types too? The South Korean KFX, the Turkish TFX and the Indian AMCA are all heralded in the media as indigenous concepts, great achievements of developing aerospace industries in order to develop fifth generation fighters, but only China is accused of having copied the F-35 as it is with the FC-31, but oh .. they added a second engine. But these are details one can easily ignore.

As such, none of that makes China’s aircraft clones and copies straight away. The main problem – and actually an interesting one because these accusations often contradict one another – is that it is (at least in my understanding) technically hardly likely and even less possible to copy something so easily without direct access to the original.

In addition, these ‘copies’ are equipped with different systems, powered by vastly different powerplants, have very different dimensions, they are built from different materials and therefore they have to be structurally different, ergo, they cannot be a copy or a clone, at least not under what I understand as a copy or clone. Despite this, this remains a constant meme in the Western media.

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Or perhaps China the only country able to copy someone else’s product simply by looking at a photo? This however would raise another question: If it is so easy to copy, why don’t other countries do it too? Surely it’s not just that other nations obey intellectual property laws? If China is indeed capable of such miraculous tasks, then it is extremely alarming. This however contradicts the second often claim: all of China’s copies are junk and worthless and they fall apart immediately.

So at least in my understanding, there is a contradiction here: On the one hand, portraying China as stupid and its products as worthless, while at the same time stirring up the great fear of China’s great ‘clone army’!
As I said, I don’t want to give China a blanket excuse, and no one denies that China did not always develop its ideas alone, but these allegations are often created from ignorance of the facts, and they are testimony to one’s own political convictions and bias, or simply stupidity and ignorance.

How does the Chinese air force compare with that of Russia?

Oh well, another difficult question to answer even more since I am not a specialist on Russian types nor the Russian Air Force, you probably should ask Piotr Butowski. I will try my best to answer. In my opinion – as in so many fields – China listened to others, adopted, copied, tried and tested, found its own solution to their own needs and most of all put a lot of money – surely much more than Russia – into its military in all important areas. So that today I would rate the Chinese air force better equipped, with more modern types in larger numbers, better connected and prepared for joint operations. The PLAAF operates more UAVs. They have more (both in number and sophistication) EW and AEW assets. Their fighter and strikers more frequently use precision munitions guided by targeting devices. The PLAAF operates several more UAVs and UCAVs, and they even more ahead in having a modern training system. The PLAAF has more and more modern trainers, the training syllabus, in my opinion, is closely related to the US training syllabus and the pilots train more, fly often and are most likely better paid. And finally, this all it embedded into a general command adapted to modern aerial warfare.

(Photo/huanqiu.com)

If this results in a more capable force, I don’t know for sure, since the PLAAF not only lacks a sufficient number of tankers and true strategic bombers – both which will be available in a few years – but most significantly lacks true combat experience. I must admit, however, that I don’t want to find out what the PLAAF can do in real combat.

How good is Chinese stealth technology?

Actually, I think besides the PLAAF and the individual design teams at CAC, SAC and XAC no one can say this for sure. Surely there is a lot of discussion going on in social media groups and by analysts as well, but at least for the social media sector most of these discussions are pure armchair-analyst’s conclusions based on eyeballing and I don’t want to participate on such discussion since in the end it most likely results in wrong conclusions. Most often such discussions are led by certain fan-boys and so consequently the outcome of any such discussion is most often already predetermined by a fixed opinion like “canards are not stealthy” or “the Russian Su-57 cannot be a stealth fighter” based on a layman’s opinion, bias and prejudice. Anyway, I would at least agree that the discussion of certain details like planform alignment, the treatment of seals and panels, the engines and so on is possible and as such it might be questionable if the J-20 and FC-31 are as stealthy as the F-22 or F-35, but to what degree, no one can tell for sure.

https://hushkit.net/2018/09/12/our-latest-film-analysis-of-the-j-20/

What is happening in the realm of hypersonics?

To admit, this is again not my field of expertise, but from what I see it seems as if the Chinese are highly active in this field since years, they seem to be quite successful, but to what extent the mentioned systems like the DF-17, the just recently spotted air launched ballistic anti-ship missile launched by the H-6N or the CJ-100 cruise missile I don’t want to assess.

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Do they have any operational stealthy UCAVS or UAVS?

This is again one of the biggest mysteries right now. ‘Yes’ if you rate the WZ-7 ‘Soaring Eagle II’ strategic reconnaissance UAV as a stealthy UAV and ‘uncertain’ for a true stealthy UCAV. We know for sure that in late 2013 the ‘Sharp Sword’ (Lijian) UCAV demonstrator flew for the first time. It seems as if a second revised prototype flew in 2016 and then it reappeared as the GJ-11 during the national day parade on 1 October 2019, indicating it might be in PLAAF service. However, the GJ-11 on display was clearly a mock-up only and even if we have seen several other UAVs – including the Soaring Eagle II – both at their factory, at various test units and frontline bases, this is not the case for the GJ-11; at least not to the public. Again, this does not exclude the type already being in service. AVIC claimed in late 2017 that after years of testing it was finally ready for production at Hongdu/GAIC and that this type is ready to enter PLAAF service “soon”, and that quite realistic scale models are available, again suggesting it to be ready since AVIC usually only does this after a type entered service, but we still lack any evidence like an image.

What is the most capable Chinese Flanker variant and how does it differ from Russian technology?

On paper this was in my opinion the J-11D fighter variant, a still mysterious and secret variant. Once planned as a further improved variant of the J-11B featuring a new AESA radar in a reshaped nose cone and an improved digital fly-by-wire system it was to be powered by uprated WS-10 engines with up to 14 tons of thrust two additional hard-points added for the latest generation of AAMs including the PL-10, PL-15 and ultra long-range PL-21. Radar Absorbent Material coating to reduce the Radar Cross Section, a refuelling probe, a new IRST/LR and other improved systems would have made a formidable Flanker. Maybe – if rumours are correct, a Thrust Vector Control (TVC) -equipped variant, on par with the Russian Su-35, was to be fitted with a more modern AESA radar and more modern AAMs. Why this variant was cancelled is still a mystery, maybe due to cost? The most capable Chinese ‘Flanker’ today is the J-16 striker, an indigenous development broadly comparable to the latest Russian Su-30SM albeit without canards and TVC. As such the J-16 has less of a focus on manoeuvrability and more on its avionics and the weapons it can use.

Do you believe the JF-17, J-10 and J-20 were based on Soviet/Russian designs?

The cancelled Israeli Lavi fighter

No, a clear NO. The J-10 is undeniable based on CAC’s own experiences with the J-9 project, that went through so many iterations during its long and protracted development and surely the influence of the Israeli Lavi. But from my understanding the Israeli contribution was more related to FCS-development and integration, avionics, and overall programme management than the design of the fighter itself.

Artist’s impression of the J-9 from Militarywatchmagazine.com

The J-20 – even if surely claimed in certain social media – is surely NOT a Mikoyan MFI Mark 2 even if again certain design elements might be ‘inspired’ by it, but based on official reports, the requirements which led to the J-20 were much closer to the specifications of the F-22.

Concerning the JF-17 I’m still not that sure, especially in regard to the often mentioned Mikoyan Izdeliye 33 (or Project 33), which was of conventional layout single engined MiG-29-look alike under development during the 1980s. But there are wind-tunnel models of the JF-17, which are of earlier origin and that are already closer to the final design. As such there was surely some Russian input – most of all due to the RD-93 – but I don’t think it is based on that failed MiG-33.

Mikoyan 1.44 MFI

What can we expect to see in Chinese military aviation over the next 20 years? “Should I take a look at my the crystal ball, I would say that we surely will get some more surprises. That will start this year with the new J-35 naval fighter, I wouldn’t be surprised if we actually see a J-20 two-seater soon and certainly more UAVs / UCAVs. Also I expect the KJ-600 carrier-borne AEW and other EW types, but I’m not expecting to see the H-20 stealth bomber yet this year. To look any further into the future is difficult, especially because that depends on the political and economic situation not only in China but acrossthe world.

China will certainly continue to move forward (esp. concerning sensors, avionics, engines), it will develop more indigenous systems, will rely more on autonomy and networking … and I fear if China remains politically and economically stable, some day we might be accused of copying Chinese designs and concepts. (just a joke!)

How does the Chinese approach to military aviation differ to the US approach?

Another difficult to answer question. In my opinion, China and its military are aligned with the United States in almost everything. At first this may be seen as a simple copying, but one could also say: China has great ambitions and the US systems and the structure of their armed forces have proven themselves in many ways. So why reinvent the wheel? (one of the most important differences to India, by the way). On the other hand, other factors play a role and these are responsible for the differences: first of all, the Chinese do not have exactly the same ambitions – for example to be a global policeman – or to carry out worldwide missions overseas (at least not yet). China is aware of its limitations, so cannot simply import all US military concepts. It also has its own social and historical factors that also play a major role. Finally, the technological gap with the USA is closing, which forces China to develop more and more its own solutions.

https://hushkit.net/2018/09/12/our-latest-film-analysis-of-the-j-20/

What should I have asked you?

Ha ha … a good question. Probably how do I still manage to follow the PLA so much besides all my private life and job? And I must admit … I don’t know.

How did you become interested in Chinese military aviation?

Oh well, that is a difficult question. At first when I was young and still building plastic model kits, I was interested in everything … fighters, bombers, and most of all US and Russian (then still Soviet) stuff. But later everything secret became more and more interesting. Everything around that buzzword ‘Stealth’ and what turned out to be the F-117, but also the latest Russian types, namely the Su-27 and MiG-29. After the Russians opened at least part of their archives and so much became public, the only two true nations that retained that exciting mystique of secrecy were Israel and China. This curiosity was spurred even more after the Lavi project was cancelled and rumours popped up that it would reappear in China. It did indeed, but not as expected – and still some claim – as a true copy but a very different albeit surely ‘inspired’ type. Regardless of what some claim, the J-10 is NOT a copy nor a clone; its larger size alone and the use of a Russian AL-31 exclude this option, but there were undeniable similarities and so I started to dig even deeper into this matter. And what I learned surprised me even more: There were indeed secret contacts, cooperation between the US and China – even so deep some in the USA today surely would like to ignore, contacts with Europe, Israel and Russia. And the deeper you dig, the more you find: old secret and long failed projects like the J-9 and J-13, the everlasting connection between politics and military desires. It was also fascinating to look at how this was affected by China’s technical and industrial shortcomings. And after years of watching China, its industries, and projects it became more and more apparent, that there is not only a great will to close this gap and to overcome these shortcomings, but also the political will to invest huge sums to solve it. And who knows China knows that everything is planned well in advance, with a lot of patience and perseverance. Most of all, however, I was fascinated by how China managed to move from merely copying and license producing aircraft to modifying and improving by integrating parts from different worlds – the East and West – to real indigenous developments. And yes, even if the J-10 looks like a Lavi on steroids and the J-20 features design elements from the F-22 and F-35, they are certainly not copies. This accusation is too simple, as if designing an aircraft by simply taking part A from here and part B from there and mating them together would work as if it is that simple. Frankly, don’t all other modern types look similar in some way too?

Check out Andreas’ excellent books on Chinese air power here.

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5 comments

  1. brian

    Thank you for the article, very interesting.
    What issues do you think the PLAAF, having not being involved in recent conflicts will find potentially challenging? Some lessons only come from experience. Even ‘Western nations’ struggle with these same issues. Here is my guesses:
    command & control when communications & information are degraded.
    local commanders solving problems & acting independently
    ECM & ECCM
    subtleties of stealth such as external antennae concealment
    maintenance & supply of spares in high tempo operations
    realistic training such as Top Gun & Red Flag
    Specialised assets such as Wild Weasels, Army Corps of Engineers & the Marines.
    Integration of new weapons into operational units with realistic training & testing
    Global reach transport
    Air to air refueling
    multiple recon assets and speed in being able to action results

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  3. @Rupprecht_A (@RupprechtDeino)

    Thanks again for the many kind and supporting replies and it was a lot of fun answering Your questions.  

    Also funny, maybe ironic but almost as expected, I get beaten from all sides: From the Chinese who see their J-20 down-rated, from the US guys who say I overrated the Chinese and especially the Indians, who see themselves not described as being equal to the PLAAF.

  4. jim

    What has happened to the J-16 that was shown carrying the 400km A2A missile about 3 years back? Project abandoned perhaps.

  5. Chang Lu

    The writer contributed an excellent aritlcle on the evolving Chinese airplane development. Especially the important point of pointing out the lack of actual fighting experience with other adverseries. Being a student of geo political history and global power evolutiion, the next 20 years will be a defining period for the degree of Chinese evolutiions in the air and also in all aspects of military,political and economic power.

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