Warplanes: MiG-21 Still in Production


October 3, 2006: Although the Chinese air force is accelerating its modernization program, it is still building the MiG-21 (called the J7). Last year, the Chinese air force took the J6 (a copy of the Russian 1950s MiG-19) from service. This makes the J7 the oldest fighter in Chinese service. This is a small aircraft, nine tons max, but has been greatly upgraded over the last two decades. Most of the older J-7B models are gone, replaced by J-7E and J-7G models. These models have better engines, maneuverability and electronics. With modern air-to-air missiles, these J-7s can be quite lethal. However, the small J-7s cannot carry much fuel or many missiles (usually only two are carried). This means that you pay a very high price, to train competent pilots, to fly a short range aircraft without much firepower. There are over 600 J7s in service, and new ones are still being built. This makes China the last country to be building this 1950s era design. Apparently, China plans to keep the J7 in service until at least 2020.
China also has a major variant of the Mig-21. The 17 ton J-8 is a redesign of the MiG-21, giving it two engines and a slightly different shape. This did not work out as well as the Chinese expected. The aircraft entered service in the 1980s and has been upgraded with better electronics. It's basically a J-7 with longer range, larger payload and more resistant to damage (from being larger and having two engines.) J-8s can be used for bombing, although it can only carry about two tons of weapons. There are over 400 J-8s in service, and some are still being built.
Meanwhile, most fighter production is devoted to the J10 (a Chinese design using Israeli and American technology) and the J11 (licensed copy of the Russian Su-27/30.) In the next few years, China appears headed for a fighter force of 600 late model J-7s, 500 J-8s, a hundred or so J-10s and 300 or more J-11s. One reason for Chinese pressure on the European Union to drop the arms embargo is so the J-7s and J-8s can be equipped with the most modern European electronics.


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