China’s largest military trade show was held at Zhuhai near Macau from September 28 to October 3.
As expected, the event – which had been pushed back from November 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic – showcased the giant steps China’s aviation industry has taken in recent years, and what the industry has developed for China’s domestic and export military markets.
It was also an opportunity for military and industry leaders to hint at what’s coming next and, despite the lack of attendance from foreign media due to pandemic-imposed travel restrictions into China, there was plenty of media coverage from journalists based in China and the country’s own state-owned media outlets.
The debutants included China’s new Shenyang J-16D electronic attack aircraft based on the J-16 multirole fighter. Other notable debutants at the show included high performance and stealthy attack Uncrewed Aircraft Systems (UAS) in service with the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), while Chinese companies also exhibited a number of their own new UAS designs aimed at the export market.
The most notable debutant at Zhuhai was the J-16D. A single example of the type – which was known to be in development but not known to have entered service with the PLAAF – was parked at the static display area for the duration of the airshow.
Images of the J-16D taken on the ground and posted online show that it has some notable differences from the standard J-16 strike aircraft which was itself based on the Russian Sukhoi Su-30MKK/MK2 Flanker. These include a noticeably shorter nose radome suggesting that a smaller radar has been fitted, the lack of the cannon mounted on the right side of the fuselage, and the deletion of the familiar infra-red search and track (IRST) system in front of the canopy.
One of the most prominent changes from the standard J-16 is a pair of large pods mounted on its wingtips, in lieu of missile rails. These pods resemble and are believed to perform a similar function to the AN/ALQ-218 passive Electronic Intelligence/Electronic Support Measures (ELINT/ESM) system carried on the wingtip of the Boeing EA-18G Growler which is used for detecting, locating, identifying, and analysing radio frequency (RF) emissions.
The J-16D at Zhuhai carries the number 0109 stencilled on its engine intakes, indicating that it is the ninth aircraft from the first production batch. It carries low-viz PLAAF markings but no numbers on its tail, making it impossible to identify which unit it has been assigned to.
The aircraft was also fitted for the airshow with four of what appear to be three distinct types of standoff jammer pods on external stores hardpoints below both engine intakes and wings. Markings on two of the pods suggest that they are designated as the RZK930-22 and -32 and, while details and the differences between the pods are unknown, it is likely they are for jamming different bands of the electronic spectrum similar to the high-, medium- and low-band versions of the AN/ALQ-249(V) Next Generation Jammers (NGJ) being developed for the EA-18G.
It has also been reported that China is developing a carrier-capable version of the J-16D to provide its growing carrier air wings with an electronic attack capability. Although, as with many things related to China’s secretive military, it is difficult to say for certain until such a time when the country’s officialdom decides to reveal what it wants to reveal.
NEW CARRIER-BORNE FIGHTER
But what the PLA did revealed about its carrier air wing intentions, is that it is developing a new fighter type to equip its current and future aircraft carriers.
Sun Cong, the chief designer the Shenyang J-15 Flying Shark which is currently the only carrier-capable fighter operated by People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) carrier air wings, said that “people should be able to see good news on the next-generation aircraft carrier-based fighter jet” later this year. He also said in remarks at a press conference during the show that was carried by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-friendly tabloid Global Times that more will be revealed about the program when the time is right.
In parallel to Sun’s comments, China’s state-owned aerospace and defence conglomerate, Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) said on its Weibo social media account that a new carrier-capable aircraft will be revealed before the end of 2021, although it is not clear if it was making its own announcement or just echoing Sun’s remarks. Neither Sun nor AVIC revealed more details about the program, although the social media post included a graphic showing what appeared to be a stealthy twin-tailed design under wraps.
Analysts believe China is developing a new carrier-capable fighter jet based on the Shenyang J-31, and Sun is also one of the key members behind the development of this aircraft type. The J-31 is a twin-tailed twin-engine mid-wing design that incorporates some low-observable features and bears a passing resemblance to the Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II. It first flew in October 2012 and was present at the 2014 Zhuhai airshow.
Shenyang has offered the J-31 primarily to the export market as the ‘FC-31’, continuing its development primarily using its own funds, but there have – to date – been no takers.
But the design continued its development and undergone a substantial rework, and started flying again in 2016 amidst rumours the PLAN now saw the type’s potential for its carriers. Like the J-15, the J-31 has so far only flown with imported Russian engines, although China has since made significant strides in its ongoing efforts to refine its own indigenous combat aircraft engine development efforts.
The PLAN currently has two carriers in service based on the Russian/Ukrainian Admiral Kusnetsov class, and is building a third, significantly larger carrier. The first two ships are equipped with a ski-jump to assist aircraft in taking off, while the third vessel being constructed in Shanghai will be equipped with catapults to launch heavier aircraft and conduct operations more quickly.
Among the uncrewed aerial systems (UAS) on display is the Guizhou Aircraft Industry Corporation WZ-7 Xianglong (Soaring Dragon) high-altitude long endurance UAS, one example being present at the show’s static display while a second airframe was on display at AVIC’s booth.
This is an uncrewed reconnaissance type (WZ stands for Wu Zhen or ‘unmanned reconnaissance’) powered by a single domestically produced turbojet engine believed to have been derived from a Russian design.
The WZ-7 features a distinctive tandem, joined-wing configuration. This reportedly provides a rigid, less flexible design which provides an increased lift-to-drag ratio and less complex flight controls than that of a more conventional wing design such as that found on the Northrop-Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk.
This medium-large UAS is about 39 feet long and has a wingspan of about 72 feet, and has been in PLAAF service since at least 2019. It has been observed on satellite imagery operating from bases near the South China Sea and the disputed border regions with India.
Also on display at the static display at Zhuhai is a black dart-like WZ-8 UAS. Little official information exists about the WZ-8 which was first shown at a military parade in Beijing in 2019. It is powered by a pair of rocket engines, and is described as being capable of operating at “near-space” altitudes to conduct reconnaissance of strategic, high-value targets to aid in providing pre-strike targeting information for long-range missile attacks, or for conducting post-strike assessments.
The supersonic WZ-8 is air-launched from the PLAAFs Xian H-6N. The air vehicles displayed at Zhuhai carried no serial numbers indicating unit affiliation and may have been mockups judging by the mis-aligned panels and protruding fasteners on the nose. But those seen in December 2019 carried serials that tied them to the PLAAF’s 10th Bomber Division based at Anqing near Shanghai.
Also present in the halls was the GJ-11 (GJ – Gong Ji or attack/strike), a stealthy UCAV that was displayed alongside the WZ-8 in the 2019 parade. The GJ-11 is believed to have been derived from AVIC’s Lijian (Sharp Sword) UCAV demonstrator project, but featuring a whole host of low-observable improvements such as a blended fuselage, triangular air intake, and shielded exhaust nozzles.
A GJ-11 mockup was also put on display at AVIC’s stand at the indoor exhibition hall, with the mockup resting on its rear undercarriage to showcase the type’s twin weapons bays which carried four small bombs in the class of the GBU-39/53 Small Diameter Bombs in one bay, and what appears to be a 1,000-lb class bomb in the other.
The development of indigenous aircraft engines has always been a limiting factor for China’s aviation industry. The requirement for precision machining, exotic materials, and a lack of experience in the metallurgy required to develop powerful and reliable turbine engines has left China almost wholly reliant on imported engines for its military and commercial aircraft industry.
But there appears to be light at the end of the tunnel, as single engined J-10 and twin-engined J-20 fighters powered by indigenous engines both made debuts at this year’s show.
A pair of J-20s powered by WS-10C engines took part in the daily flying display, while a J-10 mounting a WS-10B was on the static line. All the jets carried PLAAF national insignia suggesting these were operational, not development aircraft, although neither carried five-digit PLAAF serial numbers.
These aircraft will join the increasing number of twin-engined Shenyang J-11s and J-16s which have been powered by the indigenous WS-10 since about 2012. J-10s powered by the WS-10 are known to be entering service with PLAAF units after a protracted development, augmenting Russian AL-31 turbofan-powered examples.
But production examples of the J-15 which, like the J-11 and J-16 are descended from the Russian Sukhoi Su-27/30 Flanker family, continues to be powered by the AL-31, suggesting that China still lacks complete trust in the WS-10 or the manufacturing capacity required to take it into the significantly more unforgiving realm of carrier operations.
Also still relying on Russian engines is the Xian Y-20 strategic airlifter of the PLAAF, of which more than 50 are believed to have entered service since the type’s debut in 2016. The Y-20’s chief designer said at the show that two types of indigenous engines are being developed and have undergone flight tests on the Y-20. The flight tests, which are believed to be referring to different sub-variants of the WS-20 high-bypass turbofan, have gone smoothly according to Tang, although he did not provide more details.