ISLAMABAD - China's avionics industry is closing the gap with other avionics producers, with benefits flowing to Pakistan and new challenges emerging for the U.S.
Chinese aircraft are helping Pakistan maintain conventional deterrence toward India as New Delhi pursues cutting-edge technology to revamp its airpower. As a result, said Usman Shabbir, of the Pakistan Military Consortium think tank, the new "JF-17 Block II [combat aircraft] may see a Chinese AESA [active electronically scanned array] radar along with an IRST [infrared search and track] sensor, and an even better ECM [electronic countermeasures] suite."
Wider advances by China's aviation industry would result in "greater use of composites to reduce the overall airframe weight" for the JF-17 Block II, and also a thrust vectoring control engine; though Shabbir conceded the latter "has never been officially confirmed."
Analyst Kaiser Tufail said an AESA radar is "the way to go," and that "all future [radar] acquisitions or retrofits would be AESA, whether mechanically scanned or phased-array type."
Tufail said the current JF-17 radar, a variant of which is fitted to the Chinese Chengdu J-10 combat jet, is an interim solution "because the [Pakistan Air Force] had been unable to find a radar vendor who could sell cutting-edge technology at an affordable price."
Tufail said Pakistan's acquisition of advanced Chinese avionics should not be seen through the prism of Indian programs, such as the Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft program. Rather, he said, it should be seen as Pakistan's effort to keep pace with modern weaponry.
And China benefits from its collaboration with Pakistan.
"Traditionally, the Chinese aviation industry has found an excellent test bed in the PAF, and their products have been, and can be, proven in ways that are not possible with [China's Air Force], due to limitations of comparative analysis in truly operational scenarios and with respect to Western equipment that PAF operates," he said.
As a result, a "Chinese AESA radar would, therefore, be a synergetic success in partnership with Pakistan," he said.
However, it is unknown whether the new JF-17 Block II radars are variants of those fitted to the improved J-10B. If that is the case, analyst and Chinese specialist Andrei Chang said the new radar is unlikely to be an AESA type.
"The phased-array radar testing on the J-10B is a passive model," he said.
Chang said he does not think the Chinese have developed "a useful AESA radar for the JF-17 and J-10B," but they could in the future.
"I know they are researching AESA radars, but it takes time," he said.
China's technological advances give potential adversaries cause for concern, Tufail said.
"As in many other fields like space and information technology, China is making a mark in major ways which impacts geostrategic and security issues," he said. "Technological developments like AESA radars would, thus, certainly have a bearing on the comfort levels of countries that have an adversarial relationship with China."
The potential threat posed by Chinese advances in avionics is an issue Carlo Kopp of the Air Power Australia think tank has tried to raise.
"Chinese technology is a mix of reverse-engineered Western and Russian designs, and some often very good indigenous ideas," he said. The danger this poses is clear.
"As the Chinese advance and proliferate these products, they are increasingly narrowing the range of environments in which Western air forces and navies can operate," Kopp said.
"Today, only the U.S. F-22A [stealth fighter] and B-2A [stealth bomber] can penetrate Chinese airspace with impunity," he said. "All other Western designs, including the intended F-35 [Joint Strike Fighter] and existing F/A-18E, would suffer prohibitive loss rates" to surface-to-air missiles, he said.
Kopp's opinion of the F-35 is perhaps surprising, but he said he believes China's investment in more maneuverable aircraft will expose severe weaknesses.
"The notion that having a good AESA [radar] can overcome kinematic performance limitations in a design is predicated on the idea that your missiles are 100 percent effective in long-range combat," he said. "The evidence shows otherwise for the AIM-120 AMRAAM."
The approach that says "let the missiles do the turning," rather than the aircraft, "is a mantra in the F-35 and F/A-18 camps," Kopp said. "Unfortunately, it is wishful thinking by folks promoting obsolete designs. The mathematics and physics of aerial combat do not support this proposition."
Therefore, the strategic impact of China's advances will be substantial and exacerbated by poor long-term decision-making by the U.S., Kopp said.
"As China wholly recapitalizes its fleets, and exports these products, there will be an inevitable strategic impact, as the U.S. has been reluctant to export the F-22, has chopped F-22 production funds, and has no new products in the pipeline capable of robustly surviving against top-end Chinese products in combat," he said.
Kopp also blames the reluctance by Washington to share high-technology weaponry with allies that could check China's advance.
He singles out Defense Secretary Robert Gates for making decisions that will produce "a dangerous long-term strategic environment in Asia as China introduces and proliferates advanced technology, and the U.S. chooses for ideological reasons to no longer invest in advanced air power."