Warplanes: China Gets No Respect


August 29, 2019: In mid-2019 China finally formed its first fighter squadron equipped with the relatively new J-10C version of the 15 year old J-10. There are about 40 J-10Cs in service and a full-strength fighter squadron has 24 aircraft. It is unclear if the first J-10C squadron is at full strength, many squadrons are not. The J-10C began arriving at the new squadron in May and many are still being used for training and testing.

China finally got the latest version of the J10 fighter, the J10C, into service in mid-2017, 13 years after the first J10s entered service in 2004. This in itself was after a long (since 1988) effort to get an original modern Chinese fighter design operational. This latest J-10 version uses more composites in the airframe and has improved electronics. This includes a new AESA radar. The J10 is the most widely used modern Chinese jet fighter, with over 400 in service. More numerous are several different models of modern Russian jets. Legal and illegal copies of the Russian Su-27/30 were obtained by the end of the 1990s.

China produced a lot of J10s because, well, they were a Chinese, not Russian, design. That meant it took longer to get the J10 into service and China has used the J10 to advertise its new aircraft development capabilities. This includes Chinese developed electronics, like a “glass cockpit”, helmets with built-in HUD (head-up display) and “look and shoot” capabilities and AESA radar. J10s got the first Chinese fire control systems that handled smart bombs (satellite or laser-guided). The J10 was the first to receive targeting pods, ECM (electronic countermeasures) pods and improved fly-by-wire systems. The J10 is supposed to be the first Chinese jet fighter to switch to Chinese made engines rather than ones bought from Russia, but this has not happened yet. China has tested the J-10 with the Chinese made WS10B engine but still depends on the more reliable Russian made AL-31 engines for J-10s in service.

Partly because of the Russian engine, China has not been able to get any export orders for the J-10. China has to get Russian permission for the AL-31 engines used in exported J-10s and the Russians are not cooperating in that area. Before the J10 entered service China began buying the most modern Russian fighters (Su-27/30) in the 1990s and were able to buy and steal a lot of Russian aircraft tech during the 1990s because Russia was broke and the only thing keeping the Russian military aviation producers in business was export sales. China and India were the biggest customers and China, unlike India, had more advanced aircraft production capabilities and fewer scruples when it came to stealing foreign technology. Before the 1990s ended China had created an illegal copy of the Su-27, calling it the “Chinese developed” J11. Russia knew better and despite China continuing to claim the J11 design is Chinese, and that it just happens to resemble the Su-27, China has not tried to sell the J11 to export customers.

China has offered older Russian designs for export, which Russia licensed China to produce, but only two Chinese jet fighters designed in China were offered for export; the J10 and the JF17. Only the JF17, designed as a joint effort by China, Pakistan and, until 1989 (when American sanctions against China arrived) an American aircraft firm (Grumman) was exported. While prototypes and most of the components for the JF17 were Chinese built, the main export customer was Pakistan and China never bought any, mainly because by the time the JF17 was in service (2007) the J10 was already in production and was considered a superior aircraft. Technically the JF-17 is a Pakistani aircraft because most are assembled there. Pakistan has exported some to Burma and Nigeria because Russia agreed to supply and support the RD-93 engines required. In return, Pakistan has been buying more Russian weapons.

The J10 looks something like the American F-16 and weighs about the same (19 tons). Like the F-16 the J10 has only one engine and the aircraft is longer than the F-16 to accommodate the larger Russian/Chinese engines. It's no accident that the J10 resembles the F-16 because Israel apparently sold China the technology for their Lavi jet fighter, a "super-F-16" design that Israel abandoned in 1987 because it was too expensive. China always insisted the J10 was an original Chinese design but after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 a lot of Russian engineers and scientists who assisted China in developing the J10 revealed details about how the Chinese had access to the Lavi design data. Israel won’t comment because the U.S. cracked down on Israeli sales of military technology to China during the 1990s.

The Chinese felt confident enough in the Chinese origins of the J10 design that they have offered the J10 to export customers but so far have not sold any. Partly this is due to the fact that after the Cold War ended in 1991 there were a lot of used F-16s available for sale and plenty of suppliers (including Israel) of upgrades and refurbishment services. The F-16 has a long and impressive combat record while the J10 had neither.

Despite the J10 being the first Chinese designed modern fighter and the most produced model, China has purchased more legal and illegal versions of the Su-27/30. Russia is still selling China improved versions of the Su-30 design with an understanding, part of it in writing, that any tech stolen from these aircraft will not be offered for export. The understanding is that if China tried the export the stolen tech Russia would make a fuss, sue and make China look bad

Until 2007 China would not even admit the J10 existed. After that, there was great interest in this new aircraft. In 2008 satellite photos showing the construction of what appeared to be a Chinese base for the fourth squadron of J-10 fighters. That would mean about 130 in service by the end of 2008. Each squadron has up to 28 J-10s. There are a few other aircraft assigned to training centers. More J-10 squadrons appeared over the last decade, as well as improved H-10 models.

China has gone on to develop several stealth fighter designs that are sufficiently “Chinese” (and not stolen foreign tech) to be offered for export. Not many takers, not yet anyway. The major export problem is that China has not yet been able to develop the capability to build jet fighter engines that are reliable enough for regular service. China has announced the imminent introduction of Chinese made engines, to replace the Russian ones it has been using. But each time the “imminent introduction” was quietly delayed indefinitely as testing of the Chinese engines in squadron aircraft revealed new reliability or performance problems.

Despite the help from Israel and Russia, the J10 turned out to perform poorly in air-to-air combat. In response, the Chinese concentrated on reconfiguring the design to operate as fighter-bombers (the J-10B). This version can carry over five tons of bombs and missiles and has been equipped with a fire control system for delivering missiles and smart bombs. The J10B didn’t enter service until 2014 and did not get its solid-state AESA radar until the J10C, basically, an upgraded J10B, appeared and was declared as capable as late-model F-16s. The problem is that all those used F-16s are still available and the F-16 design continues to get upgrades and continues in production because the demand, from export customers, is still there. There is little interest in a Chinese version of the F-16 no matter how Chinese in origin it is. China cannot buy the F-16 but still admires the design and continues to build its J10.




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