At Airshow China 2021 (also known as the Zhuhai Airshow) held from late September to early October, China displayed a host of eye-catching combat equipment, including its electronic warfare fighter jet, the J-16D. Now, less than a month later, China has attracted international attention by unveiling more new aircraft.
Chinese air defence system bulking up
These new aircraft include a twin-seater version of the J-20 stealth fighter, the J-35 stealth fighter, the KJ-600 airborne early warning aircraft, and the even more mysterious hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV).
On 27 October, netizens posted photos and videos of the J-20 taxiing on the runway at Huangtianba Airport in Chengdu, confirming the existence of the fighter aircraft. And on 29 October, the official Global Times account on 163.com (枢密院十号, “Privy Council No. 10”) as well as other media released reports on the successful first flight of the J-35, while the KJ-600 also appeared in the media for the first time that day, accompanied by other fighter aircraft.
These three aircraft are no ordinary aircraft; once the Chinese air force and navy are equipped, the combat capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will be greatly boosted.
On 29 October, an article on the UK website FlightGlobal said: “The images, if accurate, mark the second major development on China’s fighter scene this week. On 27 October, images and video emerged of a two-seat Chengdu J-20, making China the first country in the world to develop a two-seat stealth fighter.”
US media such as the War Zone under The Drive as well as Defense News also reported on China’s stealth fighters. An article on Defense News said the rear seat would be occupied by a weapons system officer, or WSO, responsible for operating the J-20′s radar and weapons, or to control a “loyal wingman” or other unmanned combat aerial vehicle or UCAV.
Making inroads in ‘loyal wingman’ aircraft
Yang Wei, chief designer of the J-20, said at the Zhuhai Airshow: “Assuming we do have a twin-seat version of the J-20, it would not be a trainer aircraft, because it would be developed for the enhancement of the aircraft.” Military academics have said that the twin-seater version of the J-20 signals that China is a world leader in developing “loyal wingman” systems for stealth fighters.
The loyal wingman is an unmanned stealth craft that can engage in coordinated combat alongside fifth-generation stealth fighters. The latter possess excellent stealth capabilities but have much lower munitions carriage due to their stealth function. The loyal wingman can carry a large load of air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles, making up for the limitations of fifth-generation stealth fighters in air-to-ground hits. At the same time, the loyal wingman can use data chains to boost combat awareness of fifth-generation stealth fighters, and carry out high-risk hit missions in place of fifth-generation stealth fighters, reducing pilot casualties.
With the loyal wingman, a fifth-generation fighter could become an omni-role fighter rather than an air superiority fighter, which would be a qualitative improvement from traditional fifth-generation stealth fighters in terms of combat effectiveness.
Gaining in the carrier-based stealth fighter category
The J-35 aircraft carrier-based stealth fighter, whose predecessor is the FC-31 stealth fighter jet developed by Shenyang Aircraft Corporation, is the world’s second aircraft of its kind following the US’s F-35. At the Zhuhai Airshow, FC-31 chief designer Sun Cong said that the people should be able to see “the next-generation aircraft carrier-based fighter jet” this year. Less than a month later, the J-35 made its maiden flight.
Compared with the F-35, the J-35 — which is still in the test flight phase — lags behind in terms of maturity and reliability. The engine that it currently uses does not meet the requirements of a fifth-generation stealth fighter either. However, at the very least, the J-35 symbolises a great step forward that China has made in the carrier-based stealth fighter category. Following a decade of improvements, China’s J-20 is seen as being able to rival the US’s F-22. It is believed that the J-35 will be able to effectively rival the F-35 in the future.
...from a technical standpoint, there are no longer any generational differences between the two major carrier-based aircrafts matched with heavy aircraft carriers of the Chinese and American navies.
The KJ-600 early warning aircraft uses the active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, which is more advanced than the pulse Doppler radar that the E-2C / D Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft uses. At present, the Liaoning and Shandong aircraft carriers of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) are equipped with the Z-18 early warning helicopter. In terms of flight altitude, flight distance, flight time, and detection and locking of air-to-sea targets, the Z-18 lags far behind the US’s fixed-wing early warning aircrafts such as the E-2C / D Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft. The KJ-600 is set to offset some of these shortcomings in China’s new generation of aircraft carriers.
According to Chinese military experts, the emergence of the J-35 and KJ-600 implies that from a technical standpoint, there are no longer any generational differences between the two major carrier-based aircrafts matched with heavy aircraft carriers of the Chinese and American navies.
The Forbes report also mentioned that this possible new PLAN carrier air wing is not all that different from a US Navy air wing “with its mix of fighters, radar planes and jammers”.
Chinese military expert Yang Chengjun thinks that the HGV has massive potential military value in enabling China to fend off any country from the southern hemisphere
The ‘mysterious’ hypersonic glide vehicle
Apart from new military aircraft, it was revealed in October that China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile in August, which made the West even more uneasy. On 16 October, the Financial Times reported that China in August conducted a test launch of a hypersonic weapon from a near-orbital trajectory and only missed its target by approximately 30 kilometres. Western media and public opinion have called this a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile, which is essentially a fractional orbital bombardment system (FOBS). Senior US military officials consider this type of missile a new threat in China’s military technology and think that it would pose a major challenge to the US’s air defence, early warning systems and combat capabilities.
Chinese public opinion has referred to the HGV as a “revolutionary breakthrough” in strategic weaponry. Chinese military expert Yang Chengjun thinks that the HGV has massive potential military value in enabling China to fend off any country from the southern hemisphere; such missiles could catch its opponents unaware and give them little chance to respond, thereby incapacitating their missile defence systems.
Unlike China’s usual secretive modus operandi, experts in China’s military technology field have been revealing China’s new weapons of late, perhaps as a result of recent cross-strait tensions. But amid rising comprehensive national power and increasing investments in scientific research, it is not surprising that China’s military technology has entered a period of rapid development.
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