China Stole This Fighter From Russia—and It's Coming to the South China Sea
Does the Shenyang J-11 look familiar?
The Shenyang J-11 is a Chinese copy of the excellent Russian Sukhoi Su-27 “Flanker” multirole fighter. In fact, it was at first an authorized copy—but Chinese ambitions to adapt it with locally produced technology transformed it into a reverse-engineered headache for Russian industry. In successive variants, the J-11 and the Flanker-derived J-15 and J-16 have been at the forefront of Chinese efforts to produce long-range fourth-generation fighters that can contest the seas around China—if only Chinese engineers can work out the kinks in their domestically produced jet engines.
I’ve written before about the latest version of the Su-27, the Su-35, but let’s review the basics. The Flanker was a late Cold War design that in most respects served as a Russian counterpart to the F-15 Eagle: a “heavy,” but maneuverable, twin-engine multirole fighter that can fly at high speeds across long distances with a heavy missile or bomb load. The early Flanker can pull off even tighter maneuvers than the relatively agile F-15, and originally came with better short-range air-to-air missiles (the R-73); however, it lagged behind later F-15s in terms of sensors, though not nearly as much as its lighter stablemate, the MiG-29 Fulcrum.
All in all, this means the Su-27 was a top shelf fighter in the early nineties, when China became the first country outside of the former Soviet world to operate Flankers: thirty-eight Su-27SKs and forty Su-27UBK two-seat trainers acquired between 1992 and 2000, for between $30 and $40 million apiece. The Su-27SKs came with Russian R-27 and R-73 air-to-air missiles, but had little capability for advanced air-to-ground munitions—though China insisted the Flankers’ landing gear come strengthened so they could accommodate a heavier bomb load.
Post-Soviet Russia was then entering especially tough economic times—some of the Flanker payments were made in food in-kind!—and these sales were away to help keep the economy afloat. China, for its part, had recently lost access to the American and European defense markets following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
However, in 1995 the Chinese said they weren’t interested in buying more finished aircraft from Russia—but would pay for the license to assemble Su-27 kits in China. Russia agreed on the condition that the engines and avionics would still be made in Russia. The deal was struck: two hundred Chinese-made aircraft—now designated J-11s—for $2.5 billion. So far, so legal.
China already had a tradition of producing domestic copies of Soviet tanks and aircraft dating back to the late fifties, when a falling out with the Soviet Union cut it off from foreign arms supplier. Now Russia had figured out a way to get paid for the copies!
Then a funny thing happened: in 2004, having already assembled one hundred aircraft, the Chinese cancelled the remainder of the contract, claiming the Su-27 no longer met their needs—true, in that they wanted fighters with precision-guided munition capabilities.
However, three years later China revealed that Shenyang Aircraft Corporation was producing the J-11B—without any Russian involvement. Though 90 percent of the J-11’s components were indigenously made, the airframe was nearly identical. Beijing had ducked out of paying for the whole contract and and reverse-engineered the Flanker. The Russian arms industry was very upset, and growled about intellectual-copyright litigation for several years—but with China accounting for 40 percent of Russian military sales for the first eight years of the century, Russian manufacturers appear not to have retaliated in the end.
A Chinese-Style Flanker
In fact, many aspects of the J-11B are modernized and uniquely Chinese: the pilot displays and the “glass cockpit,” the on-board oxygenator (which helps keep the pilot conscious at high altitudes or while performing tight maneuvers), and the optical Missile Approach Warning System are all new. The older Russian N001E radar was replaced with a Chinese Type 1493 pulse-Doppler, which can reportedly detect fighters at a range of over ninety miles and surface warships at over two hundred. The airframe itself is made with lighter composite materials.
The J-11B is also adapted to fire Chinese missiles and munitions—namely, the short-range PL-8 infrared guided missile (a knock-off of the Israeli Python 3) and the long-range PL-12 radar-guided missile (the so-called Chinese AMARAM, with a range of up to one hundred kilometers). A wide range of Chinese-made air-to-ground munitions, including antiradar missiles, laser-guided bombs and glide bombs, are supported. The Russian GSh-30 thirty-millimeter cannon is retained, however.
However, the J-11B has been encumbered by a major weakness: its domestically produced WS-10A Taihang turbofan engines. There is disagreement over the WS-10A is an attempted clone of the AL-31F, or an indigenous design incorporating elements of the American CFM56 engine acquired during the eighties. At one point the WS-10As were reportedly requiring overhauls every thirty hours of flight time, compared to four hundred hours for the original Russian AL-31F engines in the Su-27. The J-11B fleet had to be grounded and refitted with AL-31Fs.
The most egregious problems have reportedly been addressed, but the WS-10A still has a poor reputation. Production has lagged far behind demand, and quality control remains a big issue with more engines returned to plant than actually produced! Reports also suggest that WS-10A can’t generate quite as much thrust as the AL-31F, nor raise it as quickly. Either way, the WS-10A’s reliability and thrust remain major problems not just for J-11s, but for China’s stealth fighter program as well. The actual performance of the J-11B remains obscure too, as public sources simply repeat the statistics for the original Su-27SK.
Nonetheless, Beijing is determined to develop an aeronautics industry that won’t rely on foreign nations in the future—as it currently still does rely on Russian jet engines. Rocky projects like the WS-10A are considered an acceptable cost towards that end. The long-term investment in developing domestic engines will ultimately ensure the profits are earned by Chinese businesses and Chinese access to high-end military equipment won’t be vulnerable to shifting political winds.
The original J-11 was purely an Su-27 manufactured in China, while the J-11B actually introduced Chinese hardware. Sub-variants include the J-11BS (a combat-capable two-seat trainer version) and the J-11BH (used by the Naval Air Force). Around 120 J-11Bs of all types were estimated to be in service in 2015.
There are also two additional Chinese Flankers. The J-15 “Flying Shark” is derived from the Su-33, a navalized variant of the Su-27 for carrier operations with folding wings, strengthened landing gear and an arresting hook. After an attempt to buy two Su-33s from Russia for $100 million was refused in 2006, China instead relied on a prototype purchased from Ukraine in 2001. By 2009, the first J-15 had been produced, and in 2012 two J-15s performed their first landing on the carrier Liaoning. Twenty-four Flying Sharks now serve on board the Chinese carrier.
The J-15 is intended to be in a similar league as the FA-18E/F Hornet, but the insufficient thrust of the WS-10A engines apparently limits the J-15 from using the “ski-jump” ramps on China’s aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, while carrying a full weapons load. Atypically, a Chinese publication criticized the fighter’s inability to take off from the carrier when carrying more than twenty-four thousand pounds of ordnance—or if carrying a full fuel load, only four thousand pounds of munitions.
The J-16 “Red Eagle” is a copy of the two-seat Su-30MKK Flanker—modernized and reconfigured to handle Chinese weapons, making it a specialist strike plane comparable to the F-15E Strike Eagle. China had earlier received seventy-three Su-30MKKs between 2000 and 2003, as well as twenty-four further improved Su-30MKK2 in 2004 specialized for anti-shipping attacks, now operated by the Naval Air Force. Reportedly, a single regiment of J-16s (around twenty-four aircraft) was in service by 2014, and up to one hundred will be produced by 2020.
In December 2015, an electronic-warfare variant, the J-16D was spotted with jamming pods on its wing tips—apparently intended to perform a similar role as the EA-18 Growler in disrupting enemy air defense ahead of strike packages.
Both the J-15 and J-16 are equipped with Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars which improve not only their air-to-air abilities but also allows them to target multiple precision guided munitions at the same time. AESAs are considered the state of the art in aerial radar technology. They also incorporate radar-absorbent materials to reduce radar signature.
In 2015, China surprised observers by revealing it had developed a prototype the J-11D a high-tech, but somewhat lower-rent competitor for Russia’s new Su-35. The J-11D incorporates the AESA radar and radar-absorbent materials of the J-15 and J-16, and has a retractable in-flight refueling probe. It also sports two additional underwing hardpoints upgraded to equip new PL-10, PL-15 and PL-21 air-to-air missiles and YJ-12 antiship missiles. (The long-range capabilities of the PL-15 have caused considerable concern in the West.) Most intriguingly, the J-16D incorporates datalinks to enable it to share sensor coverage with friendly aircraft and ships.
However, the J-11D lacks the engineering upgrades of the Su-35; the Russian fighter is more maneuverable, and capable of flying longer ranges with heavier weapons loads.
Flankers over the Pacific
Unlike earlier Chinese copies of Russian aircraft such as the A-5 and J-7,the J-11 series has not been exported—which must provide some minor consolation to Russia. Nor has it ever been used in combat.
One was involved in an incident on August 19, 2014, when a J-11 intercepted a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon near Hainan Island and made repeated passes at distances as short as twenty feet, prompting an exchange of complaints. This April, the deployment of sixteen J-11Bs to Woody Island in the South China Sea has also evoked a diplomatic protest from Vietnam.
On the whole the J-11B appears to be an adequate F-15–equivalent fighter—with later models possessing arguably more advanced electronics to their Russian equivalents. In fact, the J-11D and J-16 suggest that China is embracing U.S.-style networked warfare, emphasizing high-endurance platforms using beyond-visual-range missiles. However, a big question mark remains over the performance of China’s domestically produced engines.
Speaking of which—China had approached Russia about purchasing a small number of its hot new Su-35s. Mindful of what happened the last time, Russia initially declined to sell them in small numbers. In January 2016 China and Russia finally agreed to a larger order of twenty-four Su-35s for $2 billion. Many observers believe China’s principal motivation for the buy is to reverse-engineer the technology behind the Su-35’s new advanced AL-41FS vector-thrust turbofan engines.
One way or another, China will eventually develop high-performance jet engines. In the short term, the Russian aviation industry will do what it can to at least receive payment for its designs.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.
Image: Sukhoi Su-27P. Wikimedia Commons/Alex Beltyukov.