Officers of China's People Liberation Army (PLA) watch planes performing Nov. 13 during the ninth China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai. (Philippe Lopez / AFP)
ZHUHAI, China — Those who bought a Chinese tank or ship or plane in the 1960s or 1970s were most likely putting their troops in double jeopardy — facing an enemy with equipment that was, at best, cheap imitation Soviet junk not even trusted by Russian troops.
This is not the case today, as the ninth biennial Airshow China proved to attendees here last week. Russian imitations of aircraft, radar, missiles and other equipment are being supplanted by high-quality made-in-China replacements. Granted, much of the equipment has Russian or Ukrainian roots, but Chinese engineers and manufacturers have learned just about as much as can be learned from them. China’s military industrial revolution has come of age.
No more evidence is needed after last week’s Zhuhai airshow — the biggest, best organized and friendliest to date. Much of this can be attributed to a growing sense of pride among the Chinese in their emerging role in the world’s geostrategic balance.
One U.S. defense analyst, a longtime Zhuhai attendee, said there was a “boatload of new stuff, including a lot of new weapons we have never seen before. It is going to be like drinking from a fire hose.”
Overall, the 2012 Zhuhai show has expanded on a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) weapons trend discernible since 2004: the increased funding of multiple redundant air and missile weapon systems to foster internal competition, faster development cycles and inundation of foreign weapon markets. The PLA may purchase this burgeoning selection of weapons, but it will likely offer most of them for sale.
China is also attempting to take a leading role as mentor for other countries. France, Germany, Pakistan, Russia and Tanzania participated in the second Military Flight Training Conference (MFTC 2012), held here Nov. 11-12.
The conference was sponsored by PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC). The PLAAF deputy commander, Lt. Gen. He Weirong, and AVIC Vice President Li Yuhai spoke at the event.
The Dark Side
There was a dark side to the international element at Zhuhai, as there has been in the past. U.S. government officials confirmed that a Sudanese delegation was at the show shopping for weapons. Over the past 10 years, China has been funneling weapons to some African countries in an effort to secure oil rights, ignoring international uproar over human rights violations by Sudan and other countries in Africa.
Sudan — which has 20 Nanchang Q-5/A-5C (MiG-19) Fantan ground attack aircraft and six Hongdu JL-8/K-8 advanced trainer/ground attack aircraft — reportedly is interested in procuring 12 Chengdu FC-1 Xiaolong/JF-17 Thunder fighters.
“The problem that the Chinese face with aircraft platforms is that most of their stuff isn’t that spectacular,” said Richard Bitinger, a former CIA analyst. “It’s functional and, I suppose, relatively cheap, but the market is awash in reasonably priced competitors — used F-16s and the Gripen, for example. Also, most countries will refuse to buy Chinese fighters because they can probably afford something better, and those who cannot afford to buy better are unlikely to buy anything rather than buy Chinese fighters.”
But many African states will settle for something even cheaper and simpler to operate. Here is where China has been its most successful: selling the K-8 trainer/light attack jet.
“Most of the countries can’t afford or [aren’t] able to operate anything more complicated, probably don’t really need it (considering their strategic environment), and the light K-8 fulfills their needs for a jet-powered air force,” Bitzinger said. “Chinese fighters, in my opinion, still fall between two stools: too much plane for the really poor countries, and too inferior for the developing nations that prefer a Western system.”
The show’s flight line was typical of past shows, including the H-6 medium-range bomber, Z-8 and Z-9 helicopters, Shaanxi KJ-200, Y-8 Balance Beam airborne early warning and control aircraft, and the JF-17/FC-1 and Chengdu J-10 Vigorous Dragon fighters.
But there were some surprises. For the first time, AVIC displayed a model of the new Shenyang J-31 Falcon Eagle stealth fighter.
The AVIC Wing Loong unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) was on view for the first time. With four hard points, the UCAV looks similar to the U.S.-made MQ-9 Reaper. The static display included four types of munitions not seen before: YZ-102A precision-guided bomb, semi-active laser-guided BA-7 air-to-ground missile, LS-6/50-kilogram miniature guided bomb and the YZ-121 laser-guided bomb. Local Chinese news reports stated the Wing Loong was available for the international defense market for $1 million — a pittance of the Reaper’s $37 million price tag.
China has been experimenting with UCAVs for some time, including the CH-4 model on display by China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC). The medium-altitude, long-endurance CH-4 has four hard points and can carry the AR-1 short-range air-to-ground laser-guided bomb. One CASC official said the CH-4 has a range of 3,500 kilometers, altitude ceiling of eight kilometers and can remain airborne for 30 hours.
Among the strange items at the show were models and artist renderings of conceptual manned aircraft, such as AVIC’s futuristic Platypus, Avant Courieri and the Bateleur. No additional information was made available.
Dennis Blasko, author of the book “The Chinese Army Today,” said it’s easy to put a model on display — but that says nothing about the actual production status of an item.
“Is it ready for sale now, and if so, how many have been sold and to whom?” he said. “They probably won’t answer such questions, but otherwise, all they are showing is a concept, not a reality.”
New Engines, Drones
During the Nov. 14 AVIC Cup-International UAV Innovation Grand Prix ceremony — a contest among industry professionals — a video was shown of the futuristic Blue Shark UCAV diving for an attack on the Indian Navy aircraft carrier Vikramaditya. Many of the contestant submissions were of near-space UCAVs and hovering ground-attack heavy UAVs.
Despite improvements in airframes and quantum leaps in aviation manufacturing techniques, China’s military aviation industry is still dependent on Russian and Ukrainian engines, said Vasiliy Kashin, a Russian defense researcher attending the show. His study, “Shooting Star: China’s Military Modernization in the 21st Century,” released this year, gives a detailed account of the Russian-Chinese defense arms relationship and its gradual decline. The last remaining piece that Chinese aviation industry manufacturers must master is high-performance jet engines.
There are signs of change in that quarter, however. During Zhuhai, AVIC officials announced plans to build the Minshan, a twin-spool turbofan engine, to replace the Ukrainian AI-22K-25 engine, built by Motor Sich, that powers the Hongdu L-15 Hunting Eagle advanced jet trainer.
“It has the distinction of being the first AVIC combat aircraft turbofan to be promoted with a brochure,” said Richard Fisher, senior Asian military affairs specialist at the International Assessment and Strategy Center. “Models or full-scale mock-ups have appeared of the Taihang and new 9.5-ton thrust turbofans, but they have yet to be promoted with a detailed brochure. This is a possible indication of AVIC’s confidence in the Minshan program, which will likely allow Hongdu to market a fully indigenous version of the L-15 not reliant on its Ukrainian turbofan.”
AVIC officials also revealed plans to modify the L-15 into a highly maneuverable target drone called the Blue Fox. Powered with two miniature turbo jet engines, it will be “based on the L-15 aircraft aerodynamic configuration and contour, designed through adaptive modifications to the fuselage, air intake and vertical tail after contraction ratio so that it has superior aerodynamic characteristics,” according to a brochure.
The L-15 was based on the Russian Yak-130, which had a UAV variant that did not progress to the production stage. Fisher believes the Blue Fox might be more of a UAV than a simple target drone.
“It may be developed for electronic or kinetic combat missions,” he said. The PLAAF already has hundreds of retired J-6 and J-7 fighters to turn into target drones, he said.
New Missiles and More
Among the show’s biggest surprises were displays of new missiles and rockets. Most were modifications that transformed air-to-air missiles into surface-to-air or anti-radiation missiles.
The 60-kilometer-range AVIC LD-10 air-to-surface, anti-radiation missile was one example. Based on the SD-10A advanced medium-range, air-to-air missile, the LD-10 can be outfitted on the JF-17, the brochure indicates. It is unclear why it specified the JF-17 only, but the plane is one of China’s top exportable fighters.
The SD-10A surface-to-air missile does not look anything like the SD-10A or the LD-10. In fact, it looks more like the Raytheon-built Standard Missile.
“The Luoyang SD-10A is a much larger version of the SD-10/PL-12 AAM [air-to-air missile], offered as part of the Sky Dragon [surface-to-air missile] system first seen at the 2012 Eurosatory arms show,” Fisher said. “Though the SD-10A is offered as a surface-to-air missile, it begs the question of whether it also represents a new longer-range version of the PL-12 AAM.”
Fisher believes that the PL-12 has a 100-kilometer range, and it is possible that a potential AAM version of the SD-10A may exceed 140 kilometers in range.
“As [with] such a range, it has to be considered that AVIC/Luoyang may be developing an air-launched anti-satellite version of this missile,” Fisher said.
One of the highlights of this Zhuhai show was the expansion from two to four Chinese companies that offer precision attack munitions for Chinese aircraft.
The North Industries (NORINCO) and South Industries weapon conglomerates have joined AVIC’s Luoyang and the China Aerospace Industries Co. in offering families of precision bombs. Both NORINCO and South Industries offer gliding modular munition dispensers similar to the Raytheon AGM-154 Joint Stand-Off Weapon.
NORINCO has revealed its Tiange-1000, a 1,050-kilogram laser-guided, deep-penetration bomb similar in shape but half the weight of the 2,132-kilogram U.S. GBU-28 deep-penetration bomb. But this also represents a rapid development of a new capability that will challenge the U.S. and its Asian allies to consider new measures to harden bases.