Look Out, America: China Wants Its Own Vertical Takeoff Jets

Recent publications suggest an interest in both V/STOL and tilt-rotors.

Writing in China’s premier military journal China Military Science [中国军事科学] last year, People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) senior captain An Peng writes: “In the last few years, certain great powers have encircled and contained our country, mainly by pushing the ‘rebalance strategy’ . . .” He outlines a strategy to employ “asymmetric advantages” [不对称优势] in order to “break the enemy’s naval encirclement” [破敌海上围堵]. That’s all conventional wisdom among Chinese military officers, but he goes on to assert that “surveillance flights against us are increasing in frequency year after year.”

The article gets more interesting when he explains, “whoever seizes the aerial advantage will have an even greater strategic initiative in the naval military struggle. . .” In calling for a “mighty sea air military force” [强大的海空军事力量] An is not unique in Chinese military circles, to be sure, but for an air force captain to advocate in Beijing’s most prestigious military forum to focus on the “maritime direction” [海上方向] demonstrates an impressive unity of purpose.

In this Dragon Eye series, the issue of Beijing’s concept of “air-sea battle” has been addressed, in particular focusing on an array of new missiles (e.g. YJ-12) and land-based strike aircraft (e.g. J-16) that are already filling out China’s arsenal. This column will examine two additional aircraft that may join China’s air forces sometime after 2020, but that could impact the overall naval strategic balance. These platforms are the J-18, a prospective Vertical and/or Short Takeoff and Landing (V/STOL) aircraft, as well as a tilt-rotor transport, notionally identified as the “Blue Whale” [蓝鲸].

A few scattered reports have emerged in Western news outlets over the last couple of years regarding the J-18 V/STOL fighter, but newly available evidence lends additional weight to the theory that China has a third fourth generation fighter program (in addition to J-20 and J-31 that are well known already). The Chinese military press reported out in mid-2015 on the announcement of a contractual agreement between two major Chinese aviation industry entities to partner on the so-called “short takeoff project” [短垂项目]. There had been a Jane’s report a couple of years back that was related to an interesting Internet photo. And there may even have been some disappointment among PLA-watchers after the September military parade in Beijing, wherein the PLA declined to show off any new combat aircraft—though some Western defense media had predicted the J-18 might even be revealed. Unquestionably, there is now a surfeit of articles, both strategic and technical, concerning V/STOL aircraft now appearing in Chinese journals, such as the Journal of Propulsion Technology [推进技术].

To be sure, this tidal wave of current writing about V/STOL is, at least in part, related to the U.S. Marine Corps and its reasonably successful debut of the F-35B STOVL variant last year. However, the editor of the Chinese magazine Aerospace Knowledge [航空知识] saw fit to lead off a mid-2015 issue with some thoughts about a “Chinese STOVL” aircraft. He first discusses the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning’s relatively small fighter complement and suggests that future iterations will not exceed 50 fighters, but those numbers will not afford China the requisite firepower. He brings up the Falklands case, moreover, and notes that Great Britain’s force of Harriers prevailed even though the U.S. Navy allegedly predicted at the time that Royal Navy airpower was too weak. While professing no special knowledge about “whether the J-18 type [fighter] . . . exists or not,” he suggests that the urgency is high for Chinese naval aviation and the outlook bright for a Chinese STOVL fighter, concluding: “. . . perhaps in the near future, we will get some really good news. [I] hope that’s the case.”