As we come to the close of 2012 it is worth reviewing China’s aerospace developments for the year. The accomplishments are numerous and impressive for a rising military and aviation power.

The intensity of new developments may not immediately translate into operational capabilities in the short term. However, it shows that rapid progress and important breakthroughs are being made. It also indicates that significant investments in the indigenous aerospace industry are paying off.

China is building confidence in designing, manufacturing and exporting its own modern military aircraft, avionics and munitions. It has made progress in breaking its dependence on foreign systems, including engines. Meanwhile the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and Naval Aviation (PLANAF) continue to take significant steps towards integrating modern systems, developing new doctrine and enhancing combat readiness. More sophisticated defensive and offensive air capabilities will undoubtedly have implications for the wider region.

From top to bottom: Y-20 prototype, J-15 carrier-borne fighter, J-16 strike fighter, J-31 prototype, J-20 prototype and J-10B pre-production.

From top to bottom: Y-20 prototype, J-15 carrier-borne fighter, J-16 strike fighter, J-21 prototype, J-20 prototype and J-10B pre-production.

Below is a summary of Chinese aerospace developments in 2012.

  • Images of the first prototype of the Xi’an Aircraft Industrial Corporation (XAC) Y-20 four-engined strategic transport emerged in late December. The prototype appears to be powered by four Russian D-30K engines. The Y-20 is expected to be in the same class as the Ilyushin Il-76.
  • The Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC) J-21 stealth fighter, also known as the Advanced Multi-Role Fighter (AMF), completed its maiden flight in October 2012. Meanwhile, flight testing of the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group (CAC) J-20 stealth fighter continues, with a third prototype expected to be ready.
  • The SAC J-15 ‘Flying Shark’ carrier-borne fighter has completed a series of successful flight tests onboard China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. The tests involve several prototypes taking off and landing on the carrier. A two-seat version of the J-15 has also conducted its first flight.
  • At least two prototypes of the SAC J-16, a two-seat multirole strike variant of the J-11B, which in turn is based on the Sukhoi Su-27, are undergoing flight tests. This would constitute an aircraft in the same class as the Boeing F-15E  Strike Eagle and Sukhoi Su-30. The J-16 is expected to be armed with a variety of indigenously designed precision guided munitions, and will have superior capabilities and performance compared to the XAC JH-7A, a two-seat strike aircraft which is currently in service with both the PLAAF and PLANAF.
  • The CAC J-10B, an advanced variant of the J-10 featuring AESA radar, IRST, improved ECM, and reduced RCS, is entering the pre-production phase. Following extensive flight testing of several prototypes it is expected that at least four pre-production units will be delivered to the PLAAF. The J-10B will eventually replace the current J-10A in batch production.
  • The Shaanxi Aircraft Company Y-9 medium transport entered service with the PLAAF this year, which is expected to enhance the air force’s strategic and tactical airlift.
  • The PLAAF held at least two large scale exercises this year, each one involving near to one hundred aircraft. The exercises are expected to enhance the air force’s ability to coordinate large-scale combat deployments of multiple aircraft types.
  • The 2012 Zhuhai Air Show showcased a number of military and civilian projects, including advancements in unmanned aerial vehicle development.
  • Both the Z-10 and Z-19 attack helicopters have entered series production since late last year and are being rolled out to more army units. The Changhe Aircraft Industry Corporation Z-10 is China’s first dedicated modern attack helicopter, which first flew in 2003 and is roughly comparable to Western designs such as the Agusta A129 Mangusta. The Harbin Aircraft Industry Group Z-19 is a lighter attack helicopter compared to the Z-10, with its first flight in 2010. The Z-19 is designed from the Z-9 series multipurpose helicopter, which in turn is derived from the French AS365 Dauphin.
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Wilson's publication, "Examining China's Participation in Bilateral and Multilateral Military Exercises", Security Challenges Journal 7, no. 3 (2011), won first prize in the Australia Defence Business Review's 2011 Young Strategic Writers' Competition (article is available for download at www.securitychallenges.org.au). Wilson completed a conjoint degree in LLB (Hons) and BA (Hons) at the University of Auckland. He was a summer research scholar at the Australian National University's Centre for Strategic and Defence Studies and interned with the Lowy Institute of International Policy. His area of expertise includes the South China Sea, China-India relations, and China's military modernisation.
Wilson Chau has 11 post(s) on Asia Security Watch