PLAN’s naval aviation arm has gotten a huge boost since the commissioning of CV-16. In the past year, this has been especially more pronounced with more and more activities off CV-16. As PLAN is becoming more and more a blue water navy, this is expected to continue. Historically, PLAN’s naval aviation wing is dominated by a lot of land based aircraft that are focused on nearby water. Outside of some naval helicopters, they were fixed wing aircraft that simply could not land on a ship. That’s not a sign of a modern navy. It’s well known that USN has more aircraft than USAF. More importantly, most of these aircraft are expected to be able to operated off surface combatants. So in order to become a modern navy, PLAN’s air force needed to transform from a bunch of land based aircraft that can attack naval targets to ones that can take off/land on flat tops and carried to distant land. With that, we can take a look at the recent improvements in the operation of J-15s and naval helicopters.
For the past month, CV-16 made a lot of news operating in a carrier group formation (with 3 052C/D, 2 054As and 1 Type 903A AOR) from its base all the way down to South China Sea. This fleet certainly does pack a lot of offensive fire power while providing adequate AAW and ASW protection. As it passed by Japanese islands and Taiwan, alarm bells understandably went off in those defence ministries. It might have even got some more play in US press if not for the news of Russian hacking. Against countries around South China Sea, this would present a lot of hard power. Back when Chinese naval planners had first thought about carriers, this is exactly what they had envisioned. Of course, this carrier strike group would present a lot of power projection even further away from Chinese waters, but it has not travelled that far yet.
As impressive as this strike group was, the air wing operation off CV-16 was the focal point. It seems to most PLAN watchers that PLAN has been able to developing carrier aviation operations reasonably quickly since CV-16 was first commissioned. In the 4 years since that time, we have seen more intensive take-off and landings from CV-16. CV-16 was even declared fully operational and combat ready earlier this year. It seemed a little premature at the time, since how would one quantify the move from training to combat ready. This most recent deployment does seem to resemble a combat ready carrier operation. First of all, we saw more aircraft on deck than at any time before. There were pictures showing 13 J-15s and 1 Z-18 on deck at the same time. I am sure more aircraft were in the hangar at the time. There were also pictures showing 7 helicopters and multiple J-15s at the same time. That’s definitely something Russian Navy is not capable of carrying out at the moment. Secondly, the J-15s appeared to have been taking off and landing in very quick succession based on the still photos that we saw. There were 2 J-15s set up in take off location with more J-15 looked ready to be moved over after each takeoff. We have yet to see night time operation photos of J-15, but this reportedly have also taken place in South China Sea. After that, the next big hurdle for J-15 operations would be taking off and landing in bad weather and high sea state conditions. What they have achieved thus far in terms of flight operation intensity at different times of day is something they didn’t even train on land before PLAAF’s modernization efforts. And finally, we have seen a variety of helicopters and J-15s set up for different missions. J-15s have been shown carrying AAMs and AShMs for air superiority roles and anti-shipping roles. An EW variant of J-15 was developed and flew last year. We have also seen J-15 with UPAZ-1A refueling pod under centerline to allow for buddy to buddy refueling. While this is not ideal, J-15s have already shown more multi-role capabilities than Su-33 showed with Adm K carrier.
We saw 3 Z-18J, 1 Z-18, 1 Z-18F and 2 Z-9S at the same time. PLAN has long been hampered by the size of Z-8/18 series of helicopters because they are too large to fit in the hangar of most ships under 20,000 ton. Up to this point, only Type 071 LPDs have been effectively using Z-8 helicopters. On CV-16, the additional payload and internal space of Z-18 helicopters make them a good interim solution until China develops fixed wing ASW/AEW platforms that can takeoff/land on carrier. Even when that becomes available, the STOBAR carriers will still rely on helicopters. China had purchased Ka-31 AEW helicopters from Russia, but prefer to use Z-18J on CV-16. I think that would indicate Z-18J is a better platform for AEW missions due to additional payload and space (for more equipments and personnel). Along the same line, Z-18F is installed with a powerful dipping sonar, large surface search radar, FLIR/TV turret, 30 openings for sonobuoys and 4 pylons (that can carry Yu-7K torpedoes and YJ-9 AShM). It also has more internal space to carry more electronic equipment and personnel than Ka-28. We have also seen Z-8JH on CV-16 as a SAR helicopter with medical equipment on board. This a wide range of helicopters should be able to adequately support CV-16/17 in the near term.
Since Z-8/18 couldn’t fit in the hangars of larger surface combatants like 052C or 054A, PLAN have been forced to use Ka-28/31 or Z-9C/D helicopters. Neither of these options are the perfect fit. Type 054A would be better served with a larger helicopter that can carry more equipment and fly further. Type 052C/D have been able to use Ka-28 for ASW missions and Ka-31 to search both enemy aircraft and ships. Even so, it would be better if they had a similar sized domestic option that can be fit with the latest Chinese subsystems. It’s clear that PLAN prefers its own electronics over Russian ones. Ka-31s were purchased recently, so I’d expect PLAN to continue to carry them on 052 series and possibly 055 series in the future to improve targeting against ships, sea skimming missiles and low flying aircraft. Z-9C and Ka-28 will be replaced by something that is more advanced. Currently, China is doing flight testing on Z-20 and AC-352 helicopters. AC-352 is now equipped with domestic produced WZ-16 turboshaft. It’s probably going to be the most advanced helicopter of its class. It has a lot of military potential in the role of utility or naval helicopters. I think that in the long run, it will be a good replacement for Z-9C on 054A sized ships. Z-20 is a little larger and uses domestically developed WZ-10 series of turboshaft. It is developed to serve the role of blackhawk helicopter in PLA. Initially, I think Z-20 will be deployed in that role. Further along, I think a naval version of Z-20 can be developed (similar to SH-60 sea hawk) to serve as Ka-28 replacement. If PLAN deems the cost to be too high, they may decide to only develop one of Z-15 and Z-20 in the naval role, since they are similar in size.
Several years ago, naval helicopter was regarded as one of the weakest areas for PLAN. I think it still remains that way, but the deployment of Z-8/18 on CV-16, Type 071 and other large ships have vastly improved this area. Ka-31 purchase was expected to provide AEW support for CV-16, but have found themselves on 052C/D instead. Once Z-15 and/or Z-20 naval versions get developed in a few years, this will have solved one of the remaining glaring holes with PLAN.