This Swedish-Designed Fighter Proved That China’s Air Force Is Far From Invincible
A 2015 war game shows where China must improve.
Here's What You Need to Know: Beijing knows its pilots need better training.
A 2015 war game in Thailand underscored the enduring flaws in Chinese aerial-warfare tactics. Despite flying a modern fighter type, Chinese fighter pilots in Thailand were vulnerable to long-range attacks and slow to react to aggressive tactics.
Exercise Falcon Strike 2015, which ran at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base for two weeks in mid-November 2015, was the first-ever joint exercise between the Chinese and Thai air forces.
The Chinese brought J-11 fighters to the war game. The Thai air force operates F-16s from Korat, but the for the war game the Thai air arm sent Gripen fighters from Surat Thani Air Force Base.
The Thai air force operates 12 JAS-39C/D Gripens.
For seven days straight the J-11s tangled with the Gripens. The J-11, which is a Chinese variant of the Russian Su-27, proved to be the superior dogfighter, a Chinese participant in the exercise explained in a presentation at China’s Northwestern Polytechnical University on Dec. 9, 2019. But in Thai hands the Gripen was a better long-range shooter.
Aviation website Alert 5 was the first to report on the presentation.
During the first day of mock combat, the J-11s and Gripens fought visual-range battles. The result was a lopsided victory for the Chinese air force. The powerful, twin-engine J-11s with their internal cannons and infrared-guided short-range missiles -- possibly PL-8s -- “shot down” 16 Gripens for zero losses.
In Thai service, the single-engine Gripen for close-range combat is armed with AIM-9 infrared-guided missiles and an internal cannon. It’s worth noting that the Gripen has a relatively poor thrust-to-weight ratio compared to many other fighter types. That limits its maneuverability in dogfights.
The Chinese pilots scored nine kills for one loss on day two. But as the war game continued, the Chinese pilots struggled to repeat their early successes.
The exercise shifted to beyond-visual-range engagements, where the Gripen armed with AIM-120 medium-range missiles proved to be the better fighter than the J-11 with its own medium-range missiles, possibly PL-12s.
On day three, the Thai pilots “shot down” 19 J-11s for a loss of three Gripens. Over the final three days of the war game, the Thais killed 22 Chinese jets and lost three of their own. The final tally for the exercise favored the Thai air force. The Gripens shot down 42 J-11s while the J-11s shot down just 34 Gripens.
Overall, 88 percent of the Thais’ kills occurred at a range of at least 19 miles, while the Chinese scored just 14 percent of their kills at the same range. The Gripens scored 10 kills at a distance of more than 31 miles. The J-11s scored no kills at this range.
“The Chinese pilots had poor situational awareness,” Alert 5 reported, citing the presentation. “Too much focus was on front of the aircraft rather than all around.” In phases of the war game where J-11s escorted other planes, there was a “lack of coordination.”
Chinese pilots “were not experienced in avoiding missile shots,” Alert 5 continued. “Their responses were too mechanical and [they] could not judge correctly the evasive techniques for missiles with different ranges.”
Beijing knows its pilots need better training. Around 2005 the Chinese air force began organizing realistic aerial war games in the vein of the U.S. Air Force’s Red Flag exercises. But these training events have yet to produce skilled pilots who are capable of fully exploiting the best Chinese-made warplanes.
"Numerous professional articles and speeches by high-ranking Chinese officers indicate the [Chinese air force] does not believe that its past training practices prepared its pilots and other personnel for actual combat,” the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency explained in its January 2019 report on the Chinese military. “Unrealistic training manifested itself in multiple ways that hindered the [Chinese air arm]’s air-combat capabilities."
The Chinese military "recognizes that a gap exists between the skills of its pilots and those in the air forces of powerful nations," the DIA continued in its report. "To address training weaknesses, [a former air force] commander said that when the [air force] trains, it must 'train for battle' instead of 'doing things for show…[or] going through the motions.'"
David Axe served as Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels War Fix, War Is Boring and Machete Squad.
This article first appeared in January 2020.