Russia’s T-10 family, known in the west as the ‘Flanker’ series, is a heavyweight fighter aircraft range that forms the core of the Chinese air and naval air- forces. China’s Flankers (some of which may be illegal pirate copies) are so varied it’s hard to get your head around them, so we went to a leading authority on Chinese air power, Andreas Rupprecht, to find out more.
How many Chinese flanker variants are there?
Besides the Russian-imported variants (Su-27SK, Su-27UBK, Su-30MKK and Su-30MK – and Su-35), it is simplest to think of three individual branches: the fighters; the twin-seater multirole fighters; and the carrier-capable variants, let’s have a look in more depth.
- The fighter versions: Within the first branch these are the J-11, J-11A and J-11B as well as the twin-seaters J-11BS plus their equivalent naval (but not carrier-capable) variants, the J-11BH and J-11BSH. And finally, their updated variants J-11BG and J-11BHG. The final and probably most capable variant within this branch is the radically modernised J-11D, which did not enter service.
The Su-27SK is a simple fighter variant, the Su-27UBK is a simple fighter-trainer variant. The Su-35 is an advanced single-seat multirole fighter.
1A. J-11 series
J-11 = Su-27SK built under license by SAC
J-11A = slightly improved type
J-11B = indigenous fighter variant with updated Chinese avionics, weaponry, and WS-10 engines
J-11BH = land-based naval variant
J-11BS = indigenous fighter trainer comparable to J-11B
J-11BSH = land-based naval variant of J-11BS J-11BG/BHG = upgraded fighter variants after MLU new radar + AAMs)
J-11D = projected variant with new AESA and structural changes, not purchased
2. The twin-seater multirole fighters
The second branch consists of the J-16 and the EW-variant J-16D
Su-30MKK = imported from Russia, simple twin-seater multirole fighter variant
Su-30MK2 = imported from Russia, simple twin-seater naval multirole fighter variant
J-16 = indigenous twin-seater multirole fighter variant with updated Chinese avionics, weaponry, and WS-10 engines
J-16D = indigenous EW-/jammer variant
3. The carrier-capable
This is all the J-15 variants, namely the J-15,
J-15S twin-seater, the J-15D EW-jammer,
the J-15T catapult testbed and the most recent J-15B.
Once again simpler: J-15 = indigenous carrier-borne multirole fighter variant with updated Chinese avionics and weaponry
J-15S = indigenous carrier-borne twin seater
J-15D = indigenous carrier-borne twin seater for EW-/jammer role
J-15T = catapult capable demonstrator / prototype
J-15B = improved catapult capable serial variant based on the J-11D avionics
In fact this plethora of variants and subtypes was one major reason to add a recognition guide in my latest book.
What is the most advanced radar used on a Chinese Flanker and how does it compare to Russian radars?
If I knew such classified information, I would no longer work as a teacher! Depending on the role, the most capable fighter radar is the AESA type installed in the J-11D, which is now integrated into the J-15B (which is currently in production for the Type 003 aircraft carrier Fujian). For the multirole, air-to-ground and anti-shipping mission, the AESA installed in the late production J-16s, is said to be the second most capable AESA after that fitted to the J-20. However, for both no performance data is given, and not even their designation is known (but it can be assumed). But based on a very interesting interview with a former test pilot, who flew both the Su-35 and the J-16 – the latest Chinese radar is more capable than its Russian equivalent. This is mainly because the Chinese radar is an AESA type (a technology Russia has yet to field. But again, nothing is confirmed known.
What is the most capable Chinese flanker and how does it compare with the best non-Chinese Flanker?
Overall, I don’t like such questions, since we don’t know enough for a conclusive answer. However, as a fighter, I would most likely rate the J-11D project as the one with the biggest potential, as for ones in actual service these are the updated J-11BGs (which use the J-11D’s radar) and the soon-to-enter service carrier-capable J-15B, which is without any doubt the most capable carrier-borne Flanker ever. For strike and multi-role, it would be the J-16. Comparing this to Russian Flankers, I would rate the J-11BG on par with the Su-27M3, while the J-16 is more modern – based on radar, avionics, cockpit display and weaponry – than the latest Su-30SM (albeit without canards and thrust vector control engines.
How many Flankers does China have?
Difficult to say, for the regular Su-27SK/UBJ and J-11/J-11A series there are about 120-130, for the improved J-11B/BH/BG series I think about 150 (I’m quite certain of this number) plus around 90-100 J-11BS twin-seater. For the J-15 series perhaps 60-65 are in service and for the J-16 there are about 250-260 available.
<this gives an upper estimate of 705 aircraft>
Does China manufacture Flankers?
Yes, all of the variants currently in production are produced in China for China only.
Can China produce all components itself?
As it seems, yes. At least it is no longer reported that Russia contributes anything.
How good are the cockpit displays?
Sorry, here I have no confirmed facts, but given that the Chinese Flankers have been using a fully digital cockpit with multi-functional displays for decades, and that the J-16 even has a cockpit with two large flatscreen panels (and we all know where most LCD-screens are built), anyone can draw their own conclusion.
What are the best operational Chinese air-to-air missiles used by Flankers?
For the long-range air-combat scenario it is surely the PL-15, an AAM comparable in configuration and size to the AIM-120C or even AIM-120D. It is said to use a dual pulse rocket motor which could extend its kinetic range up to 200km; for the export version 145km is confirmed. As a short-range IR-guided AAM it is the PL-10, a new generation missile in the same class as the AIM-9X, ASRAAM, A-Darter, AAM-5, and IRIS-T. It features TVC and enables a range of 20 km. And finally, there is the PL-17 – its designation was just confirmed two weeks ago – which is an ultra-long-range AAM for a range of more than 300km against high-value targets like EW/AEW assets and tanker.
Does Russia approve of all Chinese flanker developments?
In fact this is one of the most controversial topics and also included as a sub-chapter in my book. This is easy to answer, at first glance at least. Based on what is known about the contracts, every Chinese ‘Flanker’ from the J-11B onwards is an illegal copy or illegal further development. According to the original contracts, China had the right to build 200 J-11s under a fairly strict licence manufacturing agreement. This specified an exact copy of the Su-27SK, no more, no less. But not everything here is as black and white as some would like to portray. The original J-11 and J-11A are clearly not illegal copies. They were all built according to the contract and are as such legal. The J-11B, however, is a different story. Here, most analysts agree that the moment SAC decided to add a Chinese radar, engines and weapons the aircraft must be rated as illegal. This is even more valid for the two-seat J-11BS since the licence agreement never included the trainer version, and again for the carrier-capable J-15 and the multirole J-16. Consequently, there is nothing to debate. All these are illegal copies and developments since Russia did not – at least not officially – agree to them. But at the same time, the situation is less straightforward than some would like us to think. Consequently, there have been several attempts to explain this. One theory revolves around still-unknown paragraphs in the original contract under which any further Russian debt could be compensated by additional ‘Flankers’. Other explanations suggest that Russia may have simply accepted the fact that there was nothing it could do about the situation. And since Russia has recently depended more on China’s money than China does on Russia’s technical expertise, Russia simply tried to maintain a good level of relations. And finally, there may have been a secret agreement according to which Russia continued to be paid or was paid differently via parallel trade or by other offset deals.
I don’t know for sure, but if Russia really considered that the production of more ‘Flankers’ was a breach of contract and the J-11BS, J-15 and J-16 were illegal developments outside the scope of the license, why was there not more political outcry? Why have there been no sanctions? Why have there subsequently been additional contracts for other Russian products, including engines, and finally the Su-35 deal? I’m sure this mystery will only be solved when the full contract is revealed but I don’t expect this to happen.
What are the strongest and weakest areas of Chinese avionics?
This is the most difficult question to answer. Overall, I think, the biggest strong points are that Chinese avionics are modern, fully digital and built indigenously. Since China manufactures most modern Western digital devices it, therefore, has a very clear understanding of what’s high-end – and China has the production capabilities to rapidly include more modern systems and updates in large numbers. Its weakness is at least said to be in sharing information: but how capable Chinese systems are in terms of netcentric warfare and joint operations is beyond my knowledge.
Will J-20s replace Flankers?
As it seems, no. Or at least not all units have been former Flanker operators. According to the first transitioned units, they were Flight Test & Training units replacing Su-30MKK and also the first operational unit at Wuhu, was flying Su-30MKK. Other units more recently converting were former J-10A/AS, J-10B, J-10C and J-11B/BS units.
Does China use thrust vectoring technology?
It is not yet operational on the J-20 but it seems like confirmed that the WS-15 will be a TVC-engine similar to the J-10B testbed shown on Zhuhai 2018 with the WS-10B-3 engine. Similarly, it is said that the same engine was tested on a Flanker and since June 2021, a single WS-15 engine with a TVC nozzle was fitted on a J-20 prototype testbed at CAC. The axial-symmetrical TVC nozzle appears similar to that of the WS-10B3 engine tested and these tests were continuing at the CFTE since late 2021.
In operational service, the PLAAF only uses 24 Su-35.
How good are the Chinese engines?
That’s probably the biggest question mark in an overall more than unconfirmed and often speculative topic. Yes, they had issues with the early WS-10-series of engines, but at least since 2009 no new-built Chinese Flanker – with the exception of the carrier-borne J-15s – is using Russian AL-31F engines and as such, since the crash rate is at least not an issue discussed in the public – comparable to several crashes of J-1A fighters related to failures of the AL-31FN – it seems to be stable, reliable and powerful enough. Especially since from mid-2019 on also all J-10C and J-20A are using variants of the WS-10 Taihang, it seems to be reliable enough for operational use. Any technical data and especially failure rate or lifecycle are speculative but said to be better than the Russian ones.
What should I have asked you?
Why I am so obsessed with Chinese military aviation and the PLAAF? Why I share all this information more or less for free on social media and why I’m not working for an institute or agency for a much better income? 😉
What roles do Flankers perform in Chinese service?
In PLAAF and PLAN Naval Aviation service the J-11-series is surely still most of all an air-superior fighter like the F-15. As such a fighter is primarily armed with air-to-air missiles. The J-15 was always more aimed for multirole including attack and anti-shipping roles besides being a fighter and the J-16 is a true multirole fighter developed for long-range precision strike and fighter roles.
Do they have a high accident rate?
Few Chinese Flankers have been lost. Or at least few reported – and even fewer are reported with the reason for the crash made public. It is reported, that besides a handful of known crashes in operational service, one J-11BS prototype was lost. The J-15 suffered a few more accidents. This is best explained by the fact they were the most frequent and intensively flown types during their early operational career – and that PLAN Naval Aviation initially had very little experience in operating aircraft from a carrier.
For more on Chinese Flankers we recommend Andreas’ new book Red Dragon ‘Flankers‘