Key Point: No one can doubt the enormous progress of Chinese airpower, enabled by the formidable plus-up that Russian aircraft have provided over the last three decades.
Chinese air power these days is something to behold. In the course of just about thirty years, Beijing’s aerial inventory has gone from quite obsolete to cutting edge. It’s worth noting, moreover, that Chinese airpower is but one tool that Beijing can wield in the skies. If its massive missile forces perform as expected, destroying adversary runways, then there will be few enemy aircraft getting into the air to contest the supremacy of China’s fighters and bombers—or at least very few of them will be able to gain access to much of the western Pacific.
The Russia-China military cooperation has already fundamentally altered the balance in the Asia-Pacific region more than once. Moscow sold to Beijing four rather advanced destroyers and twelve extremely capable diesel submarines with all the related armament during the 1990s. This arms sale was facilitated by a relationship that existed between the two countries in the 1950s, which is when hundreds of vessels (and designs) were transferred from Russia to China. The same process has transformed Chinese airpower—perhaps even more so.
Russia has transferred more than five hundred aircraft to China since 1990. These included large military transports, early warning aircraft, refueling aircraft, attack jets and fighter interceptors. Notably, that list does not include heavy bombers. But in that case, it should not be forgotten that China’s current front-line H-6 (and newly refurbished models K and N) is derivative of the 1950s-era Tu-16 of the Soviet Air Force. Anyone who has any doubt that Soviet aircraft played a giant role in the development of modern Chinese airpower should visit the fully refurbished Beijing military museum [中国人民革命军事博物馆].
Even as China proudly turns to its own indigenously designed fighter, the J-20, it’s worth briefly reviewing the massive legacy of Russian aviation technology for the Middle Kingdom. According to one recent rendering in Modern Ships [现代舰船] in edition no. 16 of 2018 regarding that history, the very first two modern Russian fighters, Su-27UBK, arrived in China on May 30, 1992. These aircraft became the “prelude to the era of heavy-weight fighters for the Chinese Air Force.” The capabilities of these aircraft far outstripped the PLAAF’s then inventory of J-6 and J-7 lightweight fighters. That was especially true in terms of range and weaponry. Imported fighter aircraft from Russia during the next two decades, including the Su-27 and Su-30, “directly propelled the building and refinement of the Chinese Air Force’s combat system [直接推动了中国空军现代化作战体系的建立和完善].” The Flanker-era was truly inaugurated in Chinese military aviation with the delivery of the second batch of 24 Su-27s in December 1996, according to this Chinese survey.
It was at this time that Chinese aerospace engineers undertook to produce their own Flanker, the J-11, under a production licensing agreement with Moscow. Still, that new Chinese indigenous Su-27 would have imported Russian radar, engine, and also weapons. Yet, after producing about one hundred such aircraft, the Chinese complained that the “backward radar and avionics equipment . . . definitely could not meet the future requirements of the Chinese Air Force [落后的雷达航电设备…并不能满足中国空军的未来要求].” The author admits that some tension resulted as Russian contractors wanted to maintain control of the program in China. Yet, Beijing pressed ahead with its own upgraded Flanker design, the J-11B, which entered serial production in 2007. While it is claimed here that this aircraft was, in some respects, superior to Russian models of that time, this Chinese author also candidly admits that the J-11B still had many “technical defects,” not least lingering problems with the Chinese-made Taihang [太行] jet engines. Indeed, the Chinese purchase of the twin-seat Russian Su-30MK2, transferred in 2004, to the Chinese Navy seemed to illustrate a continuing interest in Russian combat aircraft.
On the other hand, a decade followed before Beijing would once more make a major purchase of Russian fighters. At the end of 2014, a contract was signed for 24 Su-35s at a price of US$2.5 billion. According to this Chinese analysis, Beijing assessed that the J-11 and J-10 aircraft were simply insufficient, and both the PLA Navy and Air Force concluded that the speed of military transformation was too slow. Chinese strategists particularly liked the impressive combat radius of the Russian fighters, which boast the “longest legs” in the Chinese inventory. Thus, it was believed in Beijing that additional Russian combat aviation help could “add flowers to the brocade [锦上添花].”
In late December 2016, the first batch of Su-35s arrived in China. According to this analysis, these jets first patrolled the South China Sea in February 2018. A few months later, on May 11, they joined other types of Chinese fighters in a “bidirectional encircle beautiful Taiwan island sovereignty flight exercise [围绕祖国的宝岛台湾开展双向绕非训练].” Such extended high-profile missions undoubtedly demonstrated a high level of confidence that the PLAAF put in the new aircraft imports from Russia. Still, the latest round of imported Russian aircraft seems to have got some Chinese strategists hot under the collar. After all, China now has not only its own fifth-generation stealth fighter, the J-20, but also wields the relatively new J-11D, not to mention the much-heralded J-16 strike aircraft. One rather skeptical appraisal appeared in the Chinese defense magazine Ordnance Science and Technology [兵工科技], edition no. 19 of 2018. There, the author bemoaned China’s continuing willingness to “eat Soviet-era retreads,” and viewed the recent purchase as a simple “friendly advertisement for Russian weaponry.” Yet, that piece concedes the electronic suite is much improved, while the other assessment praised the Su-35’s enhanced metallurgy enabling even greater maneuverability, as well as higher reliability approaching Western standards.
Unquestionably, China and Russia stand at an interesting inflection point with respect to their military-industrial relationship. For decades, the flow of expertise and equipment generally went in one direction. Can a more equitable arrangement be found? Could these two Eurasian powers put national pride to the side and discover major new efficiencies by encouraging wide-ranging collaboration, augmented integration, and specialization that takes into account each of the twin great powers’ strengths and weaknesses? That’s a tall order, to be sure, and may be well beyond what either country’s leadership might be willing to contemplate in terms of the extant quasi-alliance.
And yet no one can really doubt the enormous progress of Chinese airpower, enabled by the formidable plus-up that Russian aircraft have provided over the last three decades, not to mention during the 1950s. Let’s not forget that was China’s first and rather successful injection of concentrated military aerospace power and knowledge. In the near future, the PLAAF could be ready to unveil two new bombers. But lest we forget China’s current front-line bomber, an article in Modern Ships, edition no. 20 of 2017, announced brazenly in its title that “China’s H-6N Is Capable of Deep Strike against America’s Alaska [中国轰-6N可对美国阿拉斯加实施纵深打击].” Welcome to the New Cold War. It seems as though we have successfully taught the Chinese (with ample Russian assistance) how to target the adversary’s homeland so that the rubble will bounce.
Lyle J. Goldstein is a research professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the United States Naval War College in Newport, RI. In addition to Chinese, he also speaks Russian and he is also an affiliate of the new Russia Maritime Studies Institute at the Naval War College. You can reach him at [email protected]. The opinions in his columns are entirely his own and do not reflect the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. government. This article first appeared earlier this year and is reprinted due to reader interest.