The time around Zhuhai air show is always interesting for PLA followers, because we see a whole bunch of new models displayed. This year was no different. A lot of pictures of different PGMs, ground attack missiles, army vehicles and air defense systems came out before the show even started. In many ways, Zhuhai is more like a defense exhibition rather than an air show. All of these systems are displayed for export purposes and many of them will never serve in PLA. The two items that attracted the most attention were FC-31 and Y-20.

For the latter, we saw pictures of it next to C-17 and IL-76. It was quite interesting also to see the current medium transport Y-9 side by side with Y-20’s prototype 783. We also found out that a Y-30 turboprop medium transport is coming out to either replace Y-9 or compliment Y-9/Y-20. Either way, there is good progress in this area for China that has long been needed. The bigger issue is whether or not AVIC1 can build up the industrial capabilities to produce large numbers of this class of transport. American aerospace companies are far more technologically advanced than AVIC1. Just as significantly, Boeing and Lockheed has the ability to mass produce large numbers of aircraft that AVIC1 currently simply do not have the capacity to do. Lockheed can produce well over 100 F-35 a year in the future and have the ability to produce 500 F-16s a year. CAC produces around 50 J-10s in a high production year. Chinese naval shipyard have been able to produce large number of high quality ships because domestic shipyards have developed very advanced shipbuilding capabilities as well as high quality management from all of the civilian shipbuilding projects. As a result of the COMAC’s C-919 and ARJ-21 project, China’s aerospace industry will also develop greater industrial capability to produce airliners. AS this is happening, AVIC1 subsidiaries are developing more efficient production and assembly process. It will be interesting to watch how well this affect the production of Y-20 transport, new UAVs and next generation fighter jets.

FC-31 definitely drew more attention from the Western press. It’s always amusing for me to read eye catching headlines about a jet that we have seen for a couple of years. Thankfully, there were a couple of articles that got me to think a little more. Reuben Johnson from JDW wrote a CNN article that is rather unflattering on FC-31. He was not very high on the flight performance of the jet. I think he is making a rather presumptuous judgement here, because this is quite a concept demonstration mule as I’ve explained in the past. Based on the picture of the FC-31 model from the air show, David Axe has already written an article on War is boring on what could change on FC-31. From air show interview, it sounds like that both an export and domestic version of the aircraft will be developed. The latter case is dependent on PLAAF orders. I would think that if this proof of concept aircraft did not achieve the desired flight performance of PLAAF, SAC would have to go back to the drawing board and make some serious changes. When J-20 project came out with its demonstrator prototypes, it was already a PLAAF sanctioned project, so 2 flying prototypes + probably 2 static prototypes were built to be tested out before they went through the major incremental change with the appearance of No. 2011. When one thinks about, it’s quite an impressive achievement to go from conceptual prototypes to pre-production prototypes in just over 3 years. It looks like we will see at least 3 new J-20 prototypes this year with the possibility of a 4th one. The J-20 is really making a big push this year. In comparison, FC-31 may go through a major redesign just to satisfy PLAAF requirements and then another big change to correct the issues found in the first redesign. We’ve seen this with Soaring Dragon UAV project where CAC/GAIC made siginficant changes based on issues found in the demonstrator aircraft. The change was so large that I thought a new UAV project came out when the redesigned aircraft came out. Regardless of Chinese bbs speculations, FC-31 is years away due to lack of appropriate engine options for the next few years. I would think it to be prudent to take the time to make sure the final design achieves all of PLAAF requirements.

Outside of the air show aircraft, we also saw some interesting movement with production aircraft. It looks like we have finally detected a first operational unit of J-10B aircraft. Although the unit numbers are smudged in the photos, these first production J-10B looks to be forming a new FTTC brigade (maybe Brigade No. 169). That is not too surprising since J-10A also joined FTTC before the first operational regiment was established in 44th division. Enough J-10B have been produced in this first batch for 2 operational units, so I would imagine the first non-FTTC unit would also be established this year. The first batch of J-10Bs should all be using AL-31FN series 3 engines which have increased service life and thrust over the earlier series. In a recent interview with 606th Institute rep at the Zhuhai air show, it was claimed that a 14000 kgf thrust version of WS-10 engine have been developed that may be installed on J-10B in the future. If that version is in production, it would represent an engine option that’s competitive with what the Russians are offering, so we may finally see J-10B installed with domestic options in the future. Continued improvement in WS-10 engine would also be very helpful to the J-20 program.

The other interesting development is the first production brigade of GJ-1 (Wing Loong) UAV with 151st brigade. Huitong’s website claims this brigade is with FTTC and was operational for this year’s SCO military exercises. The development timeline of GJ-1 project is quite interesting. We first saw Wing Loong (aka Yilong) display in 2008 Zhuhai airshow. At that time, it had already made its maiden flight in 2007 and conducted flight & ordinance testing. We continued to see its displays in 2009 to 2011 with some major modifications like the appearance of head bulge similar to RQ-4. By the time we saw the production version in 2012 airshow, it came with ground attack weapons, air attack missiles, E/O sensors, Satcom antenna and ground control station. UAE was already identified as the first export customer. Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan have also purchased unknown numbers. So from the first flight of demonstrator to induction into PLAAF takes about 6 years. It could be shorter for export opportunities depending on the needs of the customer. If we translate this timeline to CAC’s Soar Dragon HALE UAV project, the China hawk would join service around 2017. The even more advanced Lijian UCAV project from SAC first flew last year and might join service by the end of this decade. Out of all the UAV projects, Lijian UCAV maybe the most important going forward. It is probably dependent on the success of the WS-13 turbofan engine and also the next generation engine designed for FC-31. The recurring theme here is that the WS-13 engine developed for JF-17 project (and can be used by other project) has unknown status even after years of development. The next generation engine of this class has lower priority than WS-15 and is years away from completion.

So as usual, a lot of interesting development, but domestic engine options are holding them back.