Over the past couple of weeks, the world got a chance to see China’s new found wealth and power. As a burgeoning superpower, it’s often believed that China’s military prowess does not match its political and economical strength. One large part of the future of warfare is the so called “5th generation fighter”. I think we all know about the tremendous advantage that America enjoys with F-22. As far as most of us knows, the only other 5th generation fighters being worked on F-35, PAK-FA and MCA. Since DRDO has yet to finish developing LCA, so I will ignore MCA for the scope of this discussion.
Clearly, America is so far head of the curves in 5th generation fighter. 100 F-22s are already delivered, and 20 more are joining every year until the 183 (or possibly more) is reached. F-35 has received quite a bit of bad press in the past couple of years (due to the cost going up), but the A & B variants have already made the first flight. They are expected to join service by 2012. At the same time, the air force is ordering more prototypes every year. Due to the number of partners and other export clients for this project, the number of expected orders is huge. So, most of the 3rd tier probably would not get the aircraft until much later. At this point, the engine technology, stealth technology and radar technology are already mature from the F-22 project. So, we can safely say that F-35 (especially the A variant) is a plane that will reach/exceed its requirements and also be delivered on time. The B and the C variant require more work and I think that’s where much of the cost escalation might have come from.
Russia and India are working together in the PAK-FA project. Although, I think the real name when it comes out would not be called that. Compared to F-35, there is really not that much technology developed right now. The Russians claim that Su-35 will contain a lot of the technology to be used on their 5th generation aircraft. Realistically, I think they are only referring to the Irbis radar and the 117S engine. Even those two are likely to be only used for the initial prototype or first batch of the aircraft. I have read articles saying that the planned AL-41F engine is currently being delayed until they get more funding from the government. I would think that the Russians would like to have a true 5th generation turbofan engine rather than an upgraded 4th generation engine like 117S. There is only so much future upgrade potential for something that was originally designed for a lower generation of fighter jets. We have also heard about all the new missiles (like K-172) that the Russians are developing, but none of that has actually reached service. I do presume that these missiles will be ready by the time su-35 is exported. And I have not really seen the next generation of short range and medium range AAM from the Russians. Recent results have come out that the project with cost 14 to 16 billion USD and that India hopes the first test flight with happen at around 2015-16. Although, I’m not too clear whether that’s just the Indian variant (obviously India would have different requirements from Russia) or the project overall. While this is cheaper than the 40 or 60 billion USD (I’m not sure exactly how much is spent on the JSF RnD), it certainly isn’t as cheap as some of the earlier figures I saw. And I don’t think this cost includes the cost of developing the engine and the associated weapons either. On top of these cost, there is also the cost of modifying the Russian version so that it will fit India’s requirements. Consider the fact that India uses some Western/Indian avionics + missiles, that would be additional develpment cost. I’m sure that the Russians will get this fighter developed, but it probably will suffer delays and cost overruns as we have seen with other recent Russian projects.
As for the Chinese 5th generation fighter (or 4th generation as they call it), it has always been a battle between SAC and CAC. We’ve received a lot of mixed/contradictory news over the so called J-XX in the past few years. People first speculated that it will be developed by SAC due to the model they saw in Zhuhai 2002. By 2007, we started to receive news that CAC’s design was actually awarded the contract. At the same time, many people also certainly speculated that China was going to join this project for the longest time, but that never happened. I think that China knew what was at the stake in such a cooperation. They would likely get an offer from the Russians for ToT and some development work. Although, the Russians would freeze the design according to their needs and keep some of the trade secrets to themselves. The Indians have certainly found out first hand what you get out of such a partnership. Having said that, the Indians will still get more out of this than the JSF partners get from the Americans. We also speculated for the longest time that China would develop the 5th generation engine in cooperation with the Russians. That has also turned out to be false.
So, why did China not cooperate with the Russians. I think China realizes that it has enough aerospace technology base to be able to develop a true 5th generation fighter. At the same time, the Russians would always be the primary partner in such a project. It would be hard to imagine China wanting to act second-fiddle and be locked out of a large part of the development process and some of the advanced technologies. By working with the Russians, China would not only pay a majority of the development but also continuously pay Russians for certain parts of the frame, maintenance/repairs, extra supplies of the engine and maybe even missile/avionics cost. In the end, China has enough faith in AVIC1 to be able to develop this fighter.
Recently, we’ve received two pieces of news. The first one is an enthusiastic report on WS-15. The article just got really excited about using digital design for developing WS-15, but it did not really explain how well the project really is doing. According to some online sources, the engine should be ready in the middle to later part of next decade. The thrust performance is designed toward matching F-119, but it’s hard to think that WS-15 would be as reliable and stealthy as F-119. We also got one final confirmation from CAC that they got the main design work for the 5th generation fighter. Now, the production facility of SAC may still be used to produce a large part of the 5th generation fighter, but PLAAF clearly likes CAC’s design better. SAC will be saddled with the design for the naval fighter, future J-11 variants and UAV/UCAVs. CAC now has the upgraded J-10, the 5th generation fighter, the global hawk-like UAV and the JF-17 projects to work on. After SAC is done with J-8IIs (hopefully soon), SAC basically only has J-11 variants and UAVs to work on. Also, what does XAC have after JH-7A? I presume bomber or fighter-bomber projects, but there really isn’t a good report verifying much of anything. Also, it’s interesting that PLAAF selected CAC’s design over SAC despite neither firm having built a prototype. CAC will now be in charge of getting some built soon that will use 2 WS-15 engine (or maybe WS-10 series in the beginning), radar (by probably 14th institute) and integrating different avionics together. CAC is already getting a lot of experience developing a new generation of avionics on the upgraded J-10. The 5th generation plane should take that up a notch to be able to fighter in the new environment. A new generation of missiles are also being developed for future fighters. We’ve seen/heard a 5th generation SRAAM, a successor MRAAM to PL-12 and a Metor-like ramjet powered LRAAM. CAC has shown that it can integrate all of this in the J-10 project. So, I think PLAAF is making the right decision to pick it ahead of SAC for the 5th generation design work. At current time, I’ve been reading 2015 as the year that this plane will join service. I think this is kind of optimistic, because they are not expecting first flight until 2012. I guess we will see how it turns out.