This past year was a really interesting one for PLAAF. The unveiling and first flight of the J-20 project early on in the year really set up wide spread interest inside and outside of China. While PLAAF had numerous worthy developments, this was definitely the biggest story of the year and continued to occupy our interest throughout the year. As the year progressed, we saw J-20 making more and more test flights until the news/pictures of J-20 test flights became old news.
I have followed PLAAF for many years, but the J-20 project has really transformed the way I look at PLAAF in many ways. I think I was most struck by how relatively transparent the J-20 project has been compared to other past PLAAF projects. When the J-10 project was in development, there were a continuous barrage of photoshoped and fake J-10 pictures until well into the middle of this past decade. In fact, I don’t think the first real J-10 picture came out until 2001 (3 years after the first flight). While security around high profile PLAAF projects have loosened up over time as we saw with the unveiling of J-10B and J-11B project shortly after their first flight, I was still expecting a couple of years of fake J-20 photos before genuine stuff comes out. Even if you had asked me in November of 2010, I could not have predicted seeing this many photos and videos of J-20 making test flights from CAC. After all, even a project looking for export orders like Russia’s PAK-FA has not been covered to this extent. Obviously, the increasingly more open Chinese society and the evolution in Internet and photo technology has made it more difficult than ever to hide a project like J-20 in a crowded city. Even so, I think this shows China is increasingly confident about its domestic industry. It feels good about displaying its latest technology to the world. In addition, it seems that CAC has much more relaxed security than SAC, because we have seen far more photos from CAC than SAC. In 2012, I expect to see more J-20 photos coming out. Hopefully, there will be one more prototype for flight testing, but it will be several more years before we start seeing production version of J-20. Just as importantly, the progress of the WS-15 project will be something important to focus on. Although, we might not get any kind of update this year.
As we see photos out of CAC of J-20, we also see plenty of photos of J-10 coming out. By now, we have identified 7 regular J-10 regiments, 1 FTTC J-10 regiment and 12 J-10s with August First flight demonstration team. It seems like there were enough J-10As produced this year to equip one more regiment. J-10B has been conducting flight testing for a little over 3 years now, so I would expect the production to shift to J-10B next year. We saw increasing number of photos of J-10B this year including No. 1035, which flies with WS-10B engine. We also saw that J-10B is equipped with some type of electronically scanned radar. Although there are still debates over whether the radar is active or passive, I have read enough sources to believe that it is equipped with AESA radar. Once it enters service, J-10B should be the most capable air combat fighter jet in service. In 2012, I will be looking to see where the last J-10A regiment will be at and where the first J-10B regiment be sent to.
There were also some other acitivity coming out of CAC. The JF-17 project has yet to obtain any new customer, but it continues to get more orders from Pakistan. We can also see more pictures of prototype 06 conducting different kind of testing out of CAC. In 2012, I’m hopeful that JF-17 will land more customers and read about more JF-17 development in PAF. Not much news have come out regarding the WS-13 project, so it’s hard to say when JF-17 will be able to remove RD-93 from the supply chain. Another aircraft that we saw this year out of CAC is the Soaring Dragon UAV. CAC’s previous UAV effort in Sky Wing did not seem to go anywhere. So in 2012, I will be looking out to see whether this Soaring Dragon will make any in road into PLAAF.
SAC has also had a lot of activity in the past year. Since Taihang has now finally started to be mass produced, J-11B/S production has really ramped up in the past couple of years. We are seeing J-11B/S in at least 4 regiments and possibly more. Most importantly, the production version of Taihang is finally getting the kind of production usage needed to sort out all of the problems. Once these fixes are applied, we will start seeing Taihang equipped on J-10B and J-15. We also saw a lot of J-15 photos this year, including one prototype that is equipped with Taihang. I think that J-15 will have to be installed with Taihang when joining service, so it’s good to finally see a Taihang J-15. As we stand with the 3rd sea trial of Varyag completed, I think that J-15 will not be ready to take-off and land on Varyag for another year or two. In 2012, we should watch to see possible new J-11B regiment and the appearance of the mysterious J-16 project. I definitely think SAC is developing a fighter bomber, whose photos should come out next year. However, I still have some doubts about the mysterious 4th generation SAC project. Even though many sources have stated this aircraft is about to appear in the near future, I think we should tamper our expectations until actually seeing photos coming out.
We don’t see nearly as much news coming out of other Chinese aircraft companies. There were some rumbling of a new JH-7B variant, but that has turned out to be fakes. H-6K project seems to have ramped up with the signing of more D-30KP2 engines. L-15 project has finally started low rate production, but it is still not ready for PLAAF (partially due to the foreign engine). JJ-9 has joined PLA in good numbers and even got navalized. I don’t think JJ-9 has defeated the L-15 project, but Hongdu does have to show PLAAF that L-15 is the right choice. In 2012, I expect to finally see the first flight of the large domestic transport project. At the same time, the Y-9 project should also finally take its first flight. In both areas, PLAAF badly needs these projects to be sucessful. Shaanxi AC also needs to be able to ramp up production to support transport orders and special missions unit.
As with all even years, a Zhuhai air show will be held in 2012. I’m excited to see what new products will come out in this next Zhuhai air show. We will hopefully see displays of more UAVs, PGMs, ground attack missiles, air-to-air missiles, aero engines and different types of avionics. We often get to see more exciting PLAAF developments in Zhuhai than at any other time of the 2 years cycle. I have read about numerous new air-to-air missiles and have seen some possible photos of them. Hopefully, we will start seeing the next generational of Chinese IR guided short range and radar guided medium range AAMs showing up.
I think the appearance of J-20 alone has made this a really great year for PLAAF. The appearance of the often talked about 4th generation SAC project will make things even more interesting in 2012. Now that China has finally made some serious progress with Taihang production, I have slightly raised my hopes for future aeroengine projects. Compared to PLAN, PLAAF suffers from not having the same industrial production base. Even though AVIC1 has really been successfully developing new aircraft, the production level for most domestic projects are still not great. In areas like bombers, large helicopters and transports, AVIC1 just cannot produce enough of them. Even so, the improvements in subsystems like radar, E/O sensors, flight control system, medium range missiles, PGMs and engines have been really significant in the past few years. I want everyone to not just become enamored with J-20 or other new project, but also think about production level, industrial base, PLAAF training and PLAAF doctrine. I have talked extensively about the challenges that PLAAF have faced in bringing up the level of its training and doctrine. These are all things that make a first class air force. If these issues don’t get addressed, even a successful J-20 project will not make PLAAF an elite air force.