China Stole This Fighter From Russia—and It's Coming to the South China Sea

Sukhoi Su-27P. Wikimedia Commons/Alex Beltyukov

Does the Shenyang J-11 look familiar?

The Shenyang J-11 is a Chinese copy of the excellent Russian Sukhoi Su-27 “Flanker” multirole fighter. In fact, it was at first an authorized copy—but Chinese ambitions to adapt it with locally produced technology transformed it into a reverse-engineered headache for Russian industry. In successive variants, the J-11 and the Flanker-derived J-15 and J-16 have been at the forefront of Chinese efforts to produce long-range fourth-generation fighters that can contest the seas around China—if only Chinese engineers can work out the kinks in their domestically produced jet engines.

Development

I’ve written before about the latest version of the Su-27, the Su-35, but let’s review the basics. The Flanker was a late Cold War design that in most respects served as a Russian counterpart to the F-15 Eagle: a “heavy,” but maneuverable, twin-engine multirole fighter that can fly at high speeds across long distances with a heavy missile or bomb load. The early Flanker can pull off even tighter maneuvers than the relatively agile F-15, and originally came with better short-range air-to-air missiles (the R-73); however, it lagged behind later F-15s in terms of sensors, though not nearly as much as its lighter stablemate, the MiG-29 Fulcrum.

All in all, this means the Su-27 was a top shelf fighter in the early nineties, when China became the first country outside of the former Soviet world to operate Flankers: thirty-eight Su-27SKs and forty Su-27UBK two-seat trainers acquired between 1992 and 2000, for between $30 and $40 million apiece. The Su-27SKs came with Russian R-27 and R-73 air-to-air missiles, but had little capability for advanced air-to-ground munitions—though China insisted the Flankers’ landing gear come strengthened so they could accommodate a heavier bomb load.

Post-Soviet Russia was then entering especially tough economic times—some of the Flanker payments were made in food in-kind!—and these sales were away to help keep the economy afloat. China, for its part, had recently lost access to the American and European defense markets following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

However, in 1995 the Chinese said they weren’t interested in buying more finished aircraft from Russia—but would pay for the license to assemble Su-27 kits in China. Russia agreed on the condition that the engines and avionics would still be made in Russia. The deal was struck: two hundred Chinese-made aircraft—now designated J-11s—for $2.5 billion. So far, so legal.

China already had a tradition of producing domestic copies of Soviet tanks and aircraft dating back to the late fifties, when a falling out with the Soviet Union cut it off from foreign arms supplier. Now Russia had figured out a way to get paid for the copies!

Then a funny thing happened: in 2004, having already assembled one hundred aircraft, the Chinese cancelled the remainder of the contract, claiming the Su-27 no longer met their needs—true, in that they wanted fighters with precision-guided munition capabilities.

However, three years later China revealed that Shenyang Aircraft Corporation was producing the J-11B—without any Russian involvement. Though 90 percent of the J-11’s components were indigenously made, the airframe was nearly identical. Beijing had ducked out of paying for the whole contract and and reverse-engineered the Flanker. The Russian arms industry was very upset, and growled about intellectual-copyright litigation for several years—but with China accounting for 40 percent of Russian military sales for the first eight years of the century, Russian manufacturers appear not to have retaliated in the end.

A Chinese-Style Flanker

In fact, many aspects of the J-11B are modernized and uniquely Chinese: the pilot displays and the “glass cockpit,” the on-board oxygenator (which helps keep the pilot conscious at high altitudes or while performing tight maneuvers), and the optical Missile Approach Warning System are all new. The older Russian N001E radar was replaced with a Chinese Type 1493 pulse-Doppler, which can reportedly detect fighters at a range of over ninety miles and surface warships at over two hundred. The airframe itself is made with lighter composite materials.

The J-11B is also adapted to fire Chinese missiles and munitions—namely, the short-range PL-8 infrared guided missile (a knock-off of the Israeli Python 3) and the long-range PL-12 radar-guided missile (the so-called Chinese AMARAM, with a range of up to one hundred kilometers). A wide range of Chinese-made air-to-ground munitions, including antiradar missiles, laser-guided bombs and glide bombs, are supported. The Russian GSh-30 thirty-millimeter cannon is retained, however.

However, the J-11B has been encumbered by a major weakness: its domestically produced WS-10A Taihang turbofan engines. There is disagreement over the WS-10A is an attempted clone of the AL-31F, or an indigenous design incorporating elements of the American CFM56 engine acquired during the eighties. At one point the WS-10As were reportedly requiring overhauls every thirty hours of flight time, compared to four hundred hours for the original Russian AL-31F engines in the Su-27. The J-11B fleet had to be grounded and refitted with AL-31Fs.

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