Home' Defence Technology Review : DTR MAY 2015 Contents 45
DEFENCE TECHNOLOGY REVIEW | ISSUE 09 | MAY 2015
similar capability to the Song, Yuan and Shang classes.
China also continues to modernise its nuclear-powered attack
submarine force, although it continues to be a relatively small
percentage of the total number of submarines. The Shang-
class SSN’s initial production run stopped after only two hulls
that were launched in 2002 and 2003. After nearly 10 years,
China is continuing production with four additional hulls of
an improved variant, the first of which was launched in 2012.
These six submarines will replace the aging Han-class SSN on
nearly a one-for-one basis over the next several years. Following
the completion of the improved Shang-class, the PLAN will
progress to the Type 095 SSN, which may provide a generational
improvement in many areas such as quieting and weapons
Perhaps the most anticipated development in China’s
submarine force is the expected operational deployment of the
Jin-class SSBN, which will mark China’s first credible at-sea
second-strike nuclear capability. The JL-2 submarine-launched
ballistic missile (SLBM), has nearly three times the range of the
Xia-class SSBN’s JL-1 SLBM, which was only able to range targets
in the immediate vicinity of China. The JL-2 SLBM underwent
successful testing in 2012 and is likely ready to enter the force.
Once deployed, the Jin-class/JL-2 weapon system will provide
China with a capability to strike targets on the continental
United States. To maintain a continuous peacetime presence, the
PLAN would likely require a minimum of five Jin-class; four are
currently in service.
The plan operates three main helicopter variants: the Z-9, the Z-8
and the Helix. The primary helicopter operated by the PLAN is
the Z-9C, based on the Eurocopter AS 365 Dauphin II.
The Z-9C is capable of operating from any helicopter-capable
PLAN combatant. The Z-9C can be fitted with the KLC-1 search
radar, dipping sonar and is usually observed with a single,
lightweight torpedo. A new roof-mounted electro-optical (EO)
turret, unguided rockets and 12.7mm heavy machine gun
pods have been seen on several Z-9Cs during counter-piracy
deployments. The PLAN has approximately 20 operational Z-9Cs
in its inventory. An upgraded naval version, designated the Z-9D,
has been observed carrying ASCMs.
The Z-8 medium-lift maritime support helicopter is also a
Chinese-produced helicopter based on a French design. Although
the Z-8’s size provides a greater cargo capacity compared to other
PLAN helicopters, it also limits its ability to deploy from most
PLAN combatants. The Z-8 and a Z-8 AEW variant, possibly
called the Z-18, have been observed operating with the Liaoning
Variants of the Ka-27PS/Ka-28Helix are the only imported
helicopters operated by the PLAN, with all 17 aircraft thought
to be operational. Like the Russian Ka-27, the exported Ka-28s
can be used for several mission sets but are usually used for
ASW, while the Ka-27PS is optimised for search and rescue and
logistical support missions.
In 2010, China purchased nine Ka-31 AEW helicopters and the
E-801 radar system. The radar antenna is mounted underneath
the main body of the aircraft, and when the antenna is deployed
in flight, the helicopter’s landing gear retracts to allow the
antenna to rotate 360 degrees.
To keep pace with the rest of the PLAN and meet growing
demand for embarked helicopters, the helicopter fleet will
probably experience continued growth in the foreseeable future.
During the past two decades, the PLANAF has made great
strides in moving beyond its humble origins. Antiquated fixed-
wing aircraft such as the Nanchang Q-5 Fantan and the Harbin
H-5 Beagle have given way to an array of relatively high-quality
aircraft. This force is equipped for a wide range of missions
including offshore air defence, maritime strike, maritime patrol,
ASW and, in the not too distant future, carrier-based operations.
Just a decade ago, this air modernisation relied very heavily
on Russian imports. Following in the footsteps of the People’s
Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), the PLAN has recently
begun benefitting from domestic combat aircraft production.
The PLAN’s first major air capability upgrade came with the
Su-30MK2 Flanker. While the PLAAF had received numerous
Flanker variants from Russia between 1992 and 2002, the PLAN
did not acquire its initial aircraft until very late in that process.
In 2002, China purchased 24 Su-30MK2, making it the first 4th
generation fighter aircraft fielded with the PLAN. These aircraft
feature both an extended range and maritime radar systems. This
allows the Su-30MK2 to strike enemy ships at long ranges, while
maintaining a robust air-to-air capability. Several years later,
the PLAN began replacing its older Shenyang J-8B/D Finback
fighters with the newer J-8F variant. The J-8F featured improved
armament such as the PL-12 radar-guided air-to-air missile,
upgraded avionics and an improved engine with higher thrust.
Today, the PLAN is taking deliveries of modern domestically-
produced 4th generation fighter aircraft such as the J-10A
Firebird and the J-11B Flanker. Equipped with modern radars,
glass cockpits and armed with PL-8 and PL-12 air-to-air missiles
(AAM), PLAN J-10A and J-11B aircraft are among the most
modern in China’s inventory.
For maritime strike, the PLAN has relied on the H-6 Badger
medium jet bomber for decades. The H-6 is a license-built copy
of the ex-Soviet Tu-16 Badger, maritime versions of which can
employ advanced ASCMs against surface targets. Despite the age
of the design, the Chinese H-6 continues to receive electronics
and payload upgrades, which keep the aircraft viable. We
think as many as 30 of these aircraft remain in service. Noted
improvements for the upgraded Badger include the ability to
carry a maximum of four ASCMs, rather than the two previously
seen on earlier H-6D variants. Some H-6s have also been
modified as tankers, increasing the PLAN’s flexibility and range.
With at least five regiments fielded across the three fleets, the
JH-7 Flounder augments the H-6 for maritime strike. The JH-7 is
a domestically-produced tandem-seat fighter/bomber, developed
as a replacement for obsolete Q-5 Fantan light attack aircraft
and H-5 Beagle bombers. Updated versions of the JH-7 feature a
more capable radar and additional weapons capacity, enhancing
its maritime strike capabilities. The JH-7 can carry up to four
ASCMs and two PL-5 or PL-8 short-range AAM, providing
considerable payload for maritime strike missions.
In addition to combat aircraft, the PLAN is expanding its
inventory of fixed-wing maritime patrol aircraft, AEW and
surveillance aircraft. China has achieved significant new
capabilities by modifying several existing airframes. The Y-8, a
Chinese license-produced version of the ex-Soviet An-12 Cub,
forms the basic airframe for several PLAN special mission
All of these aircraft play a key role in providing a clear picture
of surface and air contacts in the maritime environment. As the
PLAN pushes farther from the coast, long-range aircraft capable
of extended on-station times to act as the eyes and ears of the fleet
become increasingly important.
Internet photos from 2012 indicated the development of a Y-9
naval variant that is equipped with a MAD (magnetic anomaly
detector) boom, typical of ASW aircraft. This Y-9 ASW variant
features a large surface search radar mounted under the nose
as well as multiple blade antennae on the fuselage for probable
Also present is a small electro-optics/infrared turret just aft
of the nose wheel and an internal weapons bay forward of the
main landing gear. The fact that this aircraft appeared in a primer
yellow paint scheme indicates that it was under development and
probably has not yet entered service.
Finally, and perhaps most notably, with the landing of the first
J-15 carrier-based fighter aboard Liaoning in November 2012, the
PLAN took its first major step toward a carrier-based aviation
CHINA’S AIRCRAFT CARRIER PROGRAM
With spectacular ceromony in September 2012, China
commissioned the Admiral Kuznetsov-class Liaoning, joining the
small group of countries that possess an aircraft carrier. Since that
time, the PLAN has continued the long and dangerous path of
learning to operate fixed-wing aircraft from a carrier.
The first launches and recoveries of the J-15 aircraft occurred
in November 2012, with additional testing and training in early
July 2013. With the first landing complete, China became only
the fifth country in the world to possess conventional take-off
and landing fighters aboard an aircraft carrier. Nonetheless, it
will take several years before Chinese carrier-based air regiments
are operational. Full integration of a carrier air regiment remains
several years in the future, but remarkable progress has been
made already. Chinese officials acknowledge plans to build
additional carriers but they have not publicly indicated whether
the next carrier will incorporate catapults or which aircraft they
plan to embark.
The 60,000 tonne, 305m long Liaoning is quite different from
the US Navy’s Nimitz-class carriers. First, since Liaoning is
smaller, it will carry far fewer aircraft in comparison to a US-
style carrier air wing. Additionally, the Liaoning’s ski-jump
configuration significantly restricts aircraft fuel and ordnance
loads. Consequently, the aircraft it launches have more a limited
flight radius and combat power. Finally, China does not yet
possess specialised supporting aircraft such as the E-2C Hawkeye
Unlike a US carrier, Liaoning is not well equipped to conduct
long-range power projection. It is better suited to fleet air defence
missions, where it could extend a protective envelope over a
fleet operating in blue water. Although it possesses a full suite
of weapons and combat systems, Liaoning will likely offer its
greatest value as a long-term training investment. This ‘starter
carrier’ will enable the PLAN to train its first groups of pilots and
deck crews in areas critical to conducting carrier aviation. China’s
follow-on carriers will inevitably offer platform improvements,
eventually including a catapult launching system.
China’s first carrier air regiment will consist of the Shenyang
J-15 Flying Shark, as it is known in China, which is externally
similar to the Russian Su-33 Flanker D. However, in a pattern
typical of Chinese military systems indigenisation, the aircraft is
thought to possess many of the domestic avionics and armament
capabilities of the Chinese J-11B Flanker. Notable external
differences between the J-15 and J-11B include folding wings,
strengthened landing gear, a tail hook under a shortened tail
stinger, two-piece slotted flaps, canards and a retractable in-flight
refuelling probe on the left side of the nose.
Likely armament for the J-15 will include PL-8 and PL-12
AAM similar to the J-11B and modern ASCMs similar to those
carried by the JH-7. Six J-15 prototypes are currently involved in
testing, and at least one two-seat J-15S operational trainer had
begun flight testing as of November 2012. Production J-15 aircraft
are now rolling off the assembly line as China begins training its
first regiment of carrier pilots.
This is an edited ex tract of ‘The PLA Navy – New Capabilities and Missions
for the 21st Century’ report released by the US Navy’s Office of Naval
Intelligence in April 2015. The full report can be accessed here.
The 20,000 tonne Yuzhao-class LPD has a two-spot helicopter
flight deck and stern well dock.
As of 2013, at least eight Yuan-class diesel-electric submarines
were in PLAN service. According to some sources, up to 20 Yuan-
class may be built.
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