By: Nick Impson
Photo Credit: Associated Press
The November 6th opening of China’s biennial airshow, the China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition, promises – by design – to be a showcase of the country’s newest aircraft, weaponry, and technical achievements.[i] Under the eye of visiting military delegations, previous editions of “Airshow China” have been used for the first public showings of China’s ever-improving aircraft capabilities. These have included the 2006 debut of the multi-role FC-1 Xiaolong,[ii] a model of then-developing J-31 stealth fighter in 2012,[iii] and the J-20 stealth fighter in 2016.[iv] Those who have watched China’s rise for decades have taken notice of these improving aircraft and the expanding role of airpower in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Once relegated to a supporting act for PLA ground troops, aviators in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) are now an integral part of China’s increasingly-global military posture.
This rise in stature has not been without challenges: pivoting from reliance on purchasing Russian-made hardware to domestic production that has been hampered by technical problems. Playing catch-up as an aspirational military power also meant China lacked key components necessary for their off-shore aspirations, such as a fleet of aerial refueling aircraft.[v] Appropriate training for modern combat situations has likewise lagged behind premier services such the United States Air Force and Navy. As the twelfth edition of Airshow China opens however, evidence abounds that China has been working to rectify these shortcomings and continue its path of airpower and PLA modernization.
Prior to the 2016 reorganization of the country’s military structure, the PLA Army’s importance to the country’s military at large was displayed through the PLA’s regional command structure. Army generals held the top posts in each of the seven former military regions, and following the 2016 reforms, initially maintained their service’s hegemony over the newly-created five geographic theaters.[vi] This tradition changed in 2017 when the PLAN and PLAAF were elevated to theater command leadership for the first time. First came the January appointment of PLAN Vice Admiral Yuan Yubai to head the Southern Theater Command,[vii] followed in August by General Yi Xiaoguang’s elevation to lead the Central Theater Command.[viii] With the purview of the South China Sea and Beijing falling under each command respectively, these leadership roles are hardly nominal appointments.
The PLA’s reformation has also included a rethinking of both the hardware used by the PLAN and PLAAF, and expanding the conditions under which it can be used. China’s 2015 white paper on the country’s military strategy noted a transition was underway from solely focusing on “offshore waters defense” to also include “open seas protection”.[ix] This implication of wanting a global presence is that the PLA will require aircraft to travel longer distances and be capable of performing in situations previously unknown to Chinese pilots. The “rapidly progressing” Y-20 aerial refueling program will modernize Chinese aviation by extending the range of nuclear-capable bombers such as the H-6K, a powerful tool for future force projection.[x] PLAN pilots are also adding to their service’s capabilities for expanded roles in future missions; pilots flying the J-15 fighter in September exercises successfully completed nighttime takeoff and landing drills from the Liaoning carrier for the first time.[xi]
The focal point of this year’s airshow may well be the J-20 stealth fighter, China’s answer to the US Air Force’s F-22 Raptor. Previous comparisons between the two aircraft were met with skepticism by aviation experts due to the J-20’s inferior stealth capabilities and maneuverability issues. These issues were due to China’s inability to domestically mass-produce a turbofan engine, leaving the J-20 with only outdated Chinese or Russian engine options.[xii] However this problem is supposedly being rectified as reports suggest the new W-15 engine – after a battery of test trials – will be ready for “widespread installation” into the waiting J-20s by the end of 2018.[xiii]
Analyzing these different facets of China’s airpower reformation all point to a unifying goal of the PLA becoming a more coordinated, technologically-advanced, and self-sufficient military force. Observers may not have to wait long to see if progress is made in this goal, as advanced domestic hardware production – already on display with the J-20, J-31, and W-15 engine – may soon have more achievements. China has claimed to have made “great progress” on its replacement for the aforementioned Russian-made H-6K bomber, as a long-range stealth bomber called the H-20 may be ready to reveal in 2019.[xiv] A second aircraft carrier, a critical component for a more joint military structure, open-seas air operations, and power projection, completed sea trials in August.[xv] Airshow China 2018 may not have yet begun, but planning for what will showcase future editions of the show certainly has.
[i] “China’s Biennial Air Show to Open on Nov. 6,” Xinhua, September 13, 2018, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-09/13/c_137465006.htm
[ii] “Advanced fighter jet set for public debut in Zhuhai,” South China Morning Post, July 28, 2006, https://www.scmp.com/article/558257/advanced-fighter-jet-set-public-debut-zhuhai
[iv] Minnie Chan, “Zhuhai Air Show Opens with J-20 Stealth Fighter’s Public Debut Likely to Steal the Limelight”, South China Morning Post, November 1, 2016, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2041912/zhuhai-air-show-opens-j-20-stealth-fighter-likely-steal
[v] David Barr, “This Piece of Chinese Military Hardware Could Change the Balance of Power in Asia,” The National Interest, November 6, 2017, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/piece-chinese-military-hardware-could-change-the-balance-23070?page=0%2C1
[vi] Shannon Tiezzi, “It’s Official: China’s Military Has 5 New Theater Commands,” The Diplomat, February 2, 2016, https://thediplomat.com/2016/02/its-official-chinas-military-has-5-new-theater-commands/
[vii] Choi Chi-yuk, “Admiral Named to Head PLA’s New Southern Theatre Command,” South China Morning Post, January 19, 2017, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/2063649/admiral-named-head-plas-southern-theatre-command
[viii] Ying Yu Lin, “The Early Returns of China’s Military Reforms,” The Diplomat, January 13, 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2018/01/the-early-returns-of-chinas-military-reforms/
[ix] “Full Text: China’s Military Strategy,” Xinhua, May 26, 2015, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2015-05/26/c_134271001.htm
[x] David Barr, “This Piece of Chinese Military Hardware Could Change the Balance of Power in Asia,” The National Interest, November 6, 2017, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/piece-chinese-military-hardware-could-change-the-balance-23070?page=0%2C1
[xi] Huang Panyue, “Aircraft carrier-based fighter jet officially capable of night combat,” China Military, September 14, 2018, http://english.chinamil.com.cn/view/2018-09/14/content_9282126.htm
[xii] Liu Zhen, “J-20 vs F-22: How China’s Chengdu J-20 ‘Powerful Dragon’ Compares with US’ Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor,” South China Morning Post, August 30, 2018, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2157275/powerful-dragon-v-raptor-how-chinas-j-20-stealth
[xiii] Minnie Chan, “China ‘Nearing Mass Production’ of J-20 Stealth Fighter After Engine Problems Ironed Out,” South China Morning Post, September 5, 2018, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/2162765/china-nearing-mass-production-j-20-stealth-fighter-after-engine
[xiv] Kristin Huang, “Why the New H-20 Subsonic Stealth Bomber Could be a Game Changer for China,” South China Morning Post, October 21, 2018, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/2169472/why-new-h-20-subsonic-stealth-bomber-could-be-game-changer-china
[xv] “Sea Trials of China’s Second Aircraft Carrier Safe, Smooth: Spokesperson,” Xinhua, August 30, 2018, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-08/30/c_137431395.htm