In a surprise development, the J-11D “D1101” prototype flew its first flight on April 29, 2015. The J-11D is the latest in Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC)’s family fighters licensed and modified from the Russian Sukhoi Su-27 “Flanker.” SAC has built well over 200 Su-27 and J-11s, such as the licensed produced J-11A and indigenously upgraded J-11B, which had better engines and radar, and a lighter airframe. It is possible that improvements from other Chinese Flanker variants, like the J-15 carrier fighter and J-16 strike fighter, have been applied to the J-11D.
The J-11D’s most noticeable upgrade is an upwardly canted radar dome, which carries an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, as well as further use of composites and stealth coatings in the fuselage to reduce weight. The fighter’s Infrared Search and Tracking (IRST) pod has been relocated starboard of the cockpit, to accommodate a retractable inflight refueling (IFR) probe. The J-11D is also believed to have improved weapons hardpoints to carry the latest Chinese weapons, such as the PL-10 air to air missile, long range PL-21 missile and YJ-12 antiship missile.
The J-11D’s upgrades allow it to take full advantage of new PLAAF capabilities, and in turn, extend those capabilities further. For example, the IFR probe would enable aerial refueling from an Il-78 tanker, extending both the aerial patrol time and range of the fighter. The AESA radar offers key advantages over older, conventionally scanned radar; it’s more resistant against electronic jamming, offers higher resolution when targetting stealthy aircraft, and has greater range. The J-11D’s datalinks would enable it to share its radar data with other Chinese aircraft and ships. The J-11D’s greater weapons payload would include long range weapons that could then be guided by other systems with longer ranged sensors, like the KJ-500 airborne early warning radar plane.
The J-11D’s first flight is especially interesting given persistent rumors about impending Chinese purchases of the Su-35, the most modern Russian Flanker model. Ironically, the Su-35 uses a passive electronically scanned array (PESA) radar, which is an older and generally less flexible technology. Further flights like this indicate a shift is at hand, as advancing Chinese technology might be killing the Su-35’s China sale chances.
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