I’ve been a long time follower of Kanwa magazine. Even though I do not have much regard for the quality of writing, I do find its interviews and news from weapon shows to be quite good. In fact, Kanwa became a good PLA sources back in the days, because it had many contacts with Russian military industrial complex. Even though I don’t always agree with the view points of the people that Kanwa interviews, it’s always interesting to see what they have to say. However, Kanwa has been forced to do more and more of its own analysis in the recent years, because of China’s reduced reliance in Russian weapons. While the sections on weapon shows and Chinese imports/exports are still quite useful, it’s analysis have generally been extremely painful to read. The problem is that Kanwa has a very narrow view of Chinese military industry and believe that everything China produces must be somehow copied from Russia. As a result, it tends to vastly underestimate the capabilities of newer systems even though official news reports already disproved kanwa’s estimations. Even now, it still insists that Type 071’s displacement is under 10,000 ton when official reports put it at 19,000 ton (in reality, it’s dimensions are almost the same as San Antonio class). As I read through newer issues of Kanwa, I’ve often have to just skip through the ridiculousness of some of the Kanwa articles. In the November issue of Kanwa, there was an article so off that even I could not ignore it.
In this article, Kanwa tries its hardest to argue that the gap between Chinese and Russian military industrial complex is increasing rather than shrinking. I will just go through each of Kanwa’s points and look at whether they are accurate or not. Kanwa starts by looking at the nuclear technology between the two countries. Post Soviet Union, this is probably the one area that Russia has put in heavy investment to try to stay on par with America. Kanwa talks about the latest ICBM and the development of Borei/Bulava class. The cost overruns and launch failures on Borei and Bulava project have been known for a while. I do think that this new generation of SLBM and SSBN will join service in the next few years due to the huge investment that Russia has allocated toward it. It would be easy to argue that Russia is ahead of China in ICBM/SLBM technology (which is what Kanwa did), but it would be hard to argue that the gap between the two countries is expanding here. Considering what the Second Artillery was fielding prior to DF-31 and JL-2 as nuclear deterrent, the PLA leap in this field is quite large. Even if the 094 class is extremely noisy, that’s still a couple of generations ahead of operating something like the 092 class which could not even hold intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Next, Kanwa argues about the conventional forces. Interesting enough, instead of making any argument that the gap between Russian and Chinese designs is expanding, Kanwa ended up arguing that Russian weapons are still better. Well, I don’t think there has ever been any doubt that Russia is still ahead of China in many areas of weaponry. Looking at the weapon systems that Kanwa compared:
KJ-2000 – Kanwa thinks that it is in testing phase and has not reached maturity. It used the small number of KJ-2000s and China’s desire to purchase Phalcon system as the proof for this.
Reality: The limited number of KJ-2000 is due to the lack of available IL-76 or equivalent sized transports. PLAAF has been very pleased with its performance and have inducted both KJ-2000/200 into service. AEWC&C is one area where China is ahead of Russia.
Next generation fighter jet program – Kanwa argues that J-20 used AL-31FN and is a demonstrator, so it is behind the Russian program. Kanwa states that PAK-FA already has 117 series engine to be able to perform supersonic cruise and has AESA radar that is in second year of testing.
Reality: J-20 is unlikely a demonstrator program, because PLAAF has publicly stated that they expect its 4th gen program to be inducted by 2017 to 2019. In fact, SAC is also reported to have an ongoing 4th gen program. Even if J-20 is not 5th gen by Western standards, it is certainly a much large evolution over previous Chinese fighter jet than PAK-FA is. I see PAK-FA as basically just a stealthy version of Su-27. Neither aircraft are in the same league as F-22/35 in terms of stealth technology. Engine is clearly one area that China is behind Russia, but the WS-15 project is going pretty well by all report. J-20 will certainly not be fielded without AESA radar and the ability to cruise at supersonic speed.
SAM – Kanwa argues that the 125 KM HQ-9 is behind 200 km S-300PMU2 and compares even worse versus the 400 km range missile under development. In naval SAM, the 9M96E system is much more compact, modularized and digitized than China’s Rif-M.
Reality: I won’t argue that HQ-9 is better than S-300PMU2, because Russian SAMs have always been very impressive. HQ-9 is however a couple of generations ahead of the HQ-2 systems that it’s replacing. We will have to wait to see what comes after HQ-9. In terms of naval SAM, I don’t understand why it compared 9M96E to Rif-M instead of HHQ-9 or HQ-16. China is certainly developing its own equivalent of a MK-41 launch system, while Russian naval SAMs have to wait for their ships to be ready.
Anti-ship missile – Kanwa argues that China does not have any kind of vertical launch system for AShM or indigenous supersonic AShM.
Reality: China is simply going Western style of using the much smaller, high subsonic AShM. I do foresee that future PLAN VLS will be able to launch AShM. It’s hard to argue that this is a field that China is doing badly in.
Ground attack missile – Kanwa argues that China is behind Russia, because KD-88’s range is only 220 km compared to 300 to 400 km range of Club/Yakhont.
Reality: Clearly, a smaller missile like KD-88 will have shorter range than a larger missile like Yakhont or Club. PLAAF uses a combination of KD-88, KH-59ME and KH-31/YJ-91 for different strike and SEA missions. Range is not the most important factor in ground attack munitions. China has put a lot of investment in different ground attack munitions in recent years and has produced a whole new generation of advanced guided missiles of different sizes. I would say this is one area it has clearly surpassed Russia in.
Naval Propulsion – Kanwa states that the major combat ships are all using locally produced version of French and Ukrainian engines.
Reality: This is the Achilles’ heel of PLAN. 052C mass production was delayed because QC-280 (domestic version of DA-80) took a long time to be ready. Even so, it’s hard to argue that Russia has improved more here, since Russia is getting all of its gas turbines from Ukraine too.
Naval MFR – Kanwa argues that Chinese electronics industry is behind the west and have not made miniaturized version of 052C, whereas Russia has come out with Zhuk-AS.
Reality: China has not made smaller version of those AESA radars, because none of the recent ships have needed it. The larger radar panels are needed for something like 052C, so that they can have more power and track targets further away. The 052C radar arrangements mirror that of SPY-1D on Burkes. Zhuk-AS is not even equipped on any operational ships. If a new PLAN frigate needs a smaller MFR, it will be developed and tested. Kanwa does not seem to understand the basics of naval ships. This is clearly another area where China is ahead of Russia in.
Kanwa tried to use these examples to prove that China needs to spend more time to be good students of Russia. It stated that by copying from Russia, China fell in an ugly continually copying rather than developing its own stuff.
Kanwa is clearly allowing its loyalty toward Russian military industry influence every argument here. In many of its examples, China actually came out with products ahead of Russia. China learnt what it could from the Russian weapon systems that it imported and then developed a whole range of weaponry. One cannot underestimate the contribution that Russia has made toward Chinese military industry. At this point, China has to develop new products independent of the Russians and has done so in many different areas. Kanwa’s desperation to argue against this made most of its arguments extremely muddled. It did give credit to China for UAVs, T-99 project and naval shipbuilding program, but only spent one very short paragraph on that.
I think there are still several areas that China is behind Russia that it can learn a lot from. It is clearly behind Russia in strategic systems like strategic bombers, nuclear submarines and ICBMs. It is also behind Russia in aerospace engine, surface to air missiles, large transport/tanker, medium/large helicopters and diesel submarines. China still imports these weapon systems from Russia. However, China has also surpassed Russia in many areas. I think China will simply surpass Russia in more areas in the coming years as the domestic industries receive more and more funding. I have a terrible feeling that Kanwa articles will degrade even more in quality as Russia becomes even less relevant in PLA development.