China still wants the Russian-made Sukhoi Su-35 multirole fighter jet despite launching a new fighter jet last week.
As noted last week, China conducted the first test flight of the J-11D on April 29. The plane is an upgraded version of the J-11B fighter jets, which themselves are copies of the Russian-made Sukhoi Su-27. Perhaps most notable of the J11-D’s upgrades is that it reportedly incorporates the J-16’s advanced Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar.
As Jeffrey Lin and P.W. Singer have said of the AESA, “The AESA radar allows the J-16 to intercept enemy aircraft at longer ranges than either of its predecessors, and to attack multiple surface targets simultaneously. The AESA radar would also be datalinked to other Chinese platforms, including unmanned vehicles, to increase their situational awareness.”
As I mentioned in last week’s article, some analysts have been comparing the J-11D to Russia’s Su-35.
However, according to Want China Times, which cites an article in the Beijing-based Sina Military Network, China will still look to acquire Russia’s Su-35 even with the new J-11Ds.
“The Su-35 is necessary because it bridges the gap in the People's Liberation Army Air Force prior to the introduction of China's new fifth-generation fighter jets, the [Sina] report said, adding that without Su-35s China would need to figure out how it would go up against Japan's F-35s and India's Su-30MKI and T-50 aircraft,” Want China Times writes.
“Even if the manufacture of the J-11 can be increased to two a month, the numbers would still be insufficient, not to mention it remains unclear whether the J-11 is technically advanced to take on fifth-generation fighters,” the report added.
While based off of the Su-27, the Su-35 offers a number of significant improvements, leading many in Russia to term it a 4++ generation aircraft. Air Force Technology has said the Su-35 “has high manoeuvrability (+9g) with a high angle of attack, and is equipped with high-capability weapon systems that contribute to the new aircraft's exceptional dogfighting capability. The maximum level speed is 2,390km/h or Mach 2.25.”
Besides helping combat adversaries’ high-end aircraft, the Su-35’s high fuel capacity and long range would greatly enhance China’s ability to enforce its claims in the South China Sea. Specifically, Beijing has trouble maintaining a regular presence over the enormous waters, which are roughly 1.4 million square miles (2.25 million square kilometers).
As Peter Wood has written in The Diplomat:
Currently, land-based PLAAF fighters, can conduct limited patrols of the sea’s southern areas, but their fuel capacity severely restricts the time they can spend on patrol. Enforcing claims far from the mainland in times of crisis requires the type of range and speed that the Su-35 possesses. The Su-35 is likely meant to help enforce China’s territorial claims, further deter regional claimants, and provide additional layers of protection in the case of escalation.
Wood notes that the “key to this is fuel,” and the Su-35 offers a number of advantages over the Su-27 in this regard.
“One important improvement of the Su-35 over the Su-27/J-11B is the ability to carry external fuel tanks, be a major factor limiting the Su-27, which does not have aerial refueling capability. This is in addition to a 20 percent increase in fuel capacity over the Su-27 and air refueling capability. This later capability is another important part of China’s strategy of increasing loiter times and distances,” Wood wrote.
Indeed, the Want China Times report also notes that, “The Su-35 has an internal fuel capacity 11.5 tons compared to the J-11D's nine tons, meaning it would be more suited to surveillance missions in the South China Sea.”
Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest.
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