The 2016 Zhuhai Airshow began with a splash, with the J-20 stealth fighter making its first public debut. Right after the August First aerobatics squadron performance, a pair of J-20s appeared for a minute. They first came in low over the Zhuhai runway, then climbed vertically before one J-20 departed. The second J-20 stayed a bit longer, making a few sharp turns before climbing away.
The public display points to China’s confidence in the system and its progress. With the prototype maiden flight in January 2011, the J-20 fifth generation fighter entered low rate initial production by mid 2016, so the first squadron of J-20s is likely to start flying next year. Already designed for air superiority, the J-20 is slated for further upgrades in 2019 and beyond to keep up with other fifth generation stealth fighters like the F-22, including most notably the supercruising WS-15 engine.
While the J-20 received the most international coverage, the airshow featured far more when it came to Chinese manned jets. Another Zhuhai debut was the multirole J-10B medium fighter, airframe number “0117” (painted number 10537). A development of the fourth generation J-10 fighter, the J-10B’s improvements include an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, a diverterless supersonic intake, and improved avionics such as electronic warfare equipment. “0117” was surrounded by long range munitions that included satellite-guided bombs and stealth cruise missiles, a sophisticated electro-optical pod for striking ground targets, and PL-12 medium/long range missiles on dual rail launchers. The J-10B’s high tech combat power against enemy surface targets and aircraft will make it a key platform for projecting Chinese air power for decades to come.
The PAF also flew in a JF-17 for display purposes at Zhuhai 2016. In contrast with the uncertain future its stealthy cousin the J-31 faces, the Sino-Pakistani JF-17 fighter (already in service with the Pakistani Air Force and reported for export sales to Nigeria) is receiving plenty of new upgrades. A model of the JF-17B dual seater was show with a refueling probe, pointing to an upgrade for longer range and thus greater utility for strike missions. More importantly, a new KLJ-7A AESA radar (170km range against a target of several square meters RCS) is planned for Block III builds of the JF-17; making it more lethal against air and ground, especially stealth, targets. The JF-17’s high performance radar and wide options of long range ground attack missiles would make it an export match for other light-medium late fourth generation fighters, like the Saab Gripen.
The PLAAF also displayed a H-6K bomber, airframe number “11098”. This bomber is an updated version of the Soviet Tu-16 bombers, with digital avionics, airframe improvements and engines that increases its combat radius and payload to 3,500km and 12-15 tons. While older H-6 bombers were exported to Egypt and Iraq in the 1980s, China is unlikely to export such a strategic platform. Displayed around “11098” were multiple air launched CJ-20 cruise missiles, with a range of 2,000-3,000km, though “11098” had two older KJ-63H cruise missiles mounted to its wings. In addition to hunting enemy ships with supersonic cruise missiles like the YJ-12A and its massive radar, the H-6K can strike ground bases beyond the Second Island Chain of Guam and the Japanese volcanic islands.
Finally, a trio of combat helicopters were displayed. Making its public debut was the Z-10K attack helicopter. Its upgrades over the Z-10 include more powerful engines, additional cockpit armor, a new 23mm cannon and larger (19-rocket) 70mm rocket pods. The Z-19E light attack helicopter, a past Zhuhai attendee, was displayed with an impressive armament option of 8 HJ-10 anti-tank missiles (roughly equivalent to the U.S. Hellfire missile), along with light anti-ship missiles.
However, it was the little, single engine Z-11WB scout helicopter that packed the biggest punch. While weighing only 2.2 tons, the Z-11WB was surrounded by multiple payloads, including HJ-9 and HJ-10 anti-tank missiles, rocket pods, a gun pod, a mast-mounted radar, FT-9 laser guided bombs and a KG-600 jamming pod. Most interesting though, was a small drone, the SW-6, which was folded up and attached to the Z-11’s inner right pylon, meaning the helicopter would carry its own drone into action. The SW-6 can be deployed in flight by the Z-11WB to scout ahead and around for threats, especially enemy air defenses; presumably larger helicopters could carry multiple SW-6s to achieve swarming effects in an ‘manned-unmanned’ formation.
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