No Tankers, No Reach: Why China's Air Force Has a Big Problem

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September 19, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: Politics Tags: Aircraft CarrierMilitaryTechnologyWorldA2/adStealth

No Tankers, No Reach: Why China's Air Force Has a Big Problem

Beijing would like to carry out longer range strike missions, but it needs more tankers.

At the same time, the 2014 Congressional report specifically cites a Defense Science Board finding that Chinese cyber attacks resulted in the theft of significant specs and technical details of a range of US weapons systems - to include the F-35. In fact, the Pentagon’s recent news story about the 2018 mentions that apparent similarities between the F-35 and Chinese J-20 could very well be a result of espionage.

Overall, the U.S. technological advantage in weaponry, air and naval platforms is rapidly decreasing, according to all the assessments. To illustrate this point, the Congressional review cites comments from an analyst who compared U.S.-Chinese fighter jets to one another roughly twenty years ago versus a similar comparison today.

The analyst said that in 1995 a high-tech U.S. F-15, F-16 or F/A-18 would be vastly superior to a Chinese J-6 aircraft. However today -- China’s J-10 and J-11 fighter jet aircraft would be roughly equivalent in capability to an upgraded U.S. F-15, the review states. For this reason, the Air Force is now moving aggressively on a range of upgrades to its fleet of F-15s, to include new computer technology, electronic warfare, radar and weapons systems. 

Alongside their J-10 and J-11 fighters, the Chinese also own Russian-built Su-27s and Su-30s and bought Su-35s from Russia as well.

“The Su-35 is a versatile, highly capable aircraft that would offer significantly improved range and fuel capacity over China’s current fighters. The aircraft thus would strengthen China’s ability to conduct air superiority missions in the Taiwan Strait, East China Sea, and South China Sea as well as provide China with the opportunity to reverse engineer the fighter’s component parts, including its advanced radar and engines, for integration into China’s current and future indigenous fighters,” the review writes.

In addition to stealth technology, high-tech fighter aircraft and improved avionics, the Chinese have massively increased their ability with air-to-air missiles over the last 15-years, the review finds.

“All of China’s fighters in 2000, with the potential exception of a few modified Su-27s, were limited to within-visual-range missiles. China over the last 15 years also has acquired a number of sophisticated short and medium-range air-to-air missiles; precision-guided munitions including all-weather, satellite-guided bombs, anti-radiation missiles, and laser-guided bombs; and long-range, advanced air-launched land-attack cruise missiles and anti-ship cruise missiles,” the review says.

The review also points to the Y-20 aircraft, a new strategic airlifter being developed by the Chinese which has three times the cargo-carrying capacity of the U.S. Air Force’s C-130. Some of these new planes could be configured into tanker aircraft, allowing the Chinese to massively increase their reach and ability to project air power over longer distances.

At the moment, the Chinese do not have a sizeable or modern fleet of tankers, and many of their current aircraft are not engineered for aerial refueling, a scenario which limits their reach.

“Until the PLA Navy’s first carrier-based aviation wing becomes operational, China must use air refueling tankers to enable air operations at these distances from China. However, China’s current fleet of air refueling aircraft, which consists of only about 12 1950s-era H–6U tankers, is too small to support sustained, large-scale, long-distance air combat,” the review states.

The Pentagon annual review also raises concerns about China’s acquisition of Russian-built S-400 surface to air missiles.

The S–400 more than doubles the range of China’s air defenses from approximately 125 to 250 miles, the previous Congressional review writes. This new range would create a weapons with enough reach to cover all of Taiwan, the Senkaku Islands, and parts of the South China Sea, the review says.

This first appeared in Warrior Maven here in 2018.

Image: Reuters