China's purported 5th-generation stealth fighter, two J-20s in flight, not much is known of the key characteristics and capabilities of these stealth jets as the program is clouded in super secrecy

Hong Kong: On 1 October 2019, China's authoritarian communist regime will put on yet another impressive military parade, this time to commemorate the modern nation's 70th anniversary. While most of the focus will be heavy armoured vehicles, ballistic missiles and the like rolling through Tiananmen Square, the parade will conclude with a massive flyover of aircraft, including around half a dozen J-20 fighters.

Firstly, the fighter quantities involved? Flight International in its latest annual report on global air force inventories lists in the PLAAF some 388 examples of the old J-7, 96 units of the J-8, a total of 235 J-10s, 346 units of the combined J-11/J-16/Su-27/Su-30/Su-35 family and just ten J-20s. Turning to fighter-bombers, it lists 70 examples of the JH-7/JH-7A, and 118 aged Q-5 ground attack aircraft.

However, when the China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI) based in the USA recently published the 2nd Edition of its "PLA Aerospace Power: A Primer on Trends in China's Military Air, Space and Missile Forces", it claimed that just 47% of the PLAAF's combat aircraft are modern and 53% are legacy models. It noted the PLAAF has retired nearly 3,500 obsolete fighter-interceptors since 1995.

Nevertheless, the CASI report added: "Though numerically impressive, only approximately one-third of the PLAAF's total aircraft, and only 20% of its fighter aircraft, today are considered fully modern by Western standards. The PLAAF, however, has embarked on an ambitious effort to systematically replace obsolescent second- and third-generation fighter-interceptors that lack beyond-visual-range capability, advanced radars and electronic warfare with fourth- and 4.5-generation multi-role fighters and fighter-bombers."

Second- and third-generation fighters include the J-7 (a MiG-21 copy) and J-8, which are obsolete by US standards, even though China has progressively upgraded their avionics, radars and weapons. The Q-5 based on the MiG-19 is only a second-generation platform, and it is questionable how many remain in frontline service.

On the other hand, the J-10 and J-11 form the modern backbone of the PLAAF fighter fleet. Entering service in 2003, the former is China's first indigenous modern fighter design and it is now in its latest J-10C configuration that adds an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar and the ability to carry PL-10 and PL-15 air-to-air missiles. The 72nd Air Brigade located in the Central Theater Command has now been fully equipped with the J-10C, for instance. Meanwhile, the 2nd Air Brigade based at Chifeng of the Northern Theatre Command is in the process of converting from the J-10A to the latest J-10C variant.

However, the single-engine J-10 multi-role fighter family is still powered by imported AL-31FN engines. Chengdu Aircraft Corporation demonstrated the manoeuvrability of a J-10B with thrust vectoring control (TVC) at last November's Zhuhai Air Show. It employed a locally made WS10B3 engine with movable nozzle petals, and it can be expected that it will be only a matter of time before TVC finds its way onto PLAAF fighters.

Mike Yeo, Asia correspondent for Defence News and an aerospace expert, told ANI, "The J-11 is pretty much a known quantity because it's essentially a Russian Flanker with some of the later J-11Bs being aircraft with Chinese avionics on them. Probably they'd be on par with fourth-generation Western fighters in terms of avionics and weapons."

Referring to the J-10, Yeo likened the type to a "mid-block F-16, not the latest F-16D version but probably a Block 52 version".

Yeo agreed that developing reliable high-performance jet engines remains a critical stumbling block to China. "I think it seems to be a very big challenge for them to take that last step to really master that engine technology. They really seem to be struggling with it because it's been so many years already. Obviously, you have the locally built J-11Bs that have indigenous Chinese WS10 engines on them, and the same with the J-16s. But if you look at it, they seem reluctant to take two more steps that I think would tell us where China's engine development has got to."

The Australia-based expert said one of those steps would be putting the WS10 engine on a single-engine J-10, and the second step would be installing it on J-15 naval fighters. "Neither of these have the WS10 engine and I think that's quite telling. It still says that they're not confident enough to fit them onto a single-engine fighter type or a fighter for carrier-borne operations. And obviously, these two [conditions] are very demanding, as they have a smaller margin of error than a double-engine land-based type."

The J-11 is copied from the Russian Su-27 air superiority fighter (of which China purchased some Su-27SK/UBK types in the early 1990s), while the carrier-borne J-15 is a blatant copy of the Su-33. The updated J-11B entered service in around 2007, and it offers the PLAAF a ground-attack capacity.

The tandem-seat J-16 is a newer indigenous strike fighter for the PLAAF, and it was inspired by the Su-30MKK that China bought from Russia. This means the J-16 has a strong Russian lineage too, as with many aircraft in the Chinese fleet. The PLAAF reportedly received its first operational J-16 in 2014, and it was demonstrated in public for the first time in 2017. It is not known how many have been produced so far.

Referring to this Chinese penchant for copying, or "reverse engineering" if a euphemism is required, Yeo said: "I think it will still form quite an important part of what China does, particularly in some of the more modern technologies such as electronically scanned array radars, and obviously modern engine technology. These will still be very important to China; they still want to make that kind of leap in this area, especially in engine technology where they haven't been able to master it."

Thus it is no surprise that the PLAAF recently acquired 24 modern Su-35s from Russia after signing a deal in 2015. Yeo pointed out: "They might not strictly copy the Su-35, but they might have a look at what the Russians have done to see where they're at. I'm not sure how much better the Russian avionics and engines are than the Chinese ones. I mean it's been rumoured that the Chinese are developing AESA radars for fighters, but it doesn't seem to be in widespread service yet. We've seen it on developmental aircraft, company prototypes, but it doesn't seem to have filtered down to PLAAF units yet."

The blue-ribbon fighter for China is undoubtedly the J-20, although its introduction into service and adoption by PLAAF combat units has been somewhat pedestrian. Last month it was observed that J-20s had been assigned to the 9th Air Brigade at Wuhu Air Force Base, this representing the first time they had been allocated to a frontline combat brigade rather than just test and evaluation outfits (e.g. 176th and 172nd Brigades). Wuhu is located just west of Shanghai, so it is relatively close to Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan, which goes some way to explaining why they were first stationed there.

Indeed, the Taiwan issue is the key strategic imperative for the PLA as a whole, and this has had a major influence on the design of the J-20 fighter as well as the deployment of modern fighters in areas near the island nation. The high price of the J-20 (estimated by Shephard Media to be around USD110 million each) will of necessity restrict its widespread deployment, and it will likely remain a high-end asset in much the same way as the F-22 Raptor is for the US Air Force.

Yeo added, "From what I've seen, air-to-air and long-range intercepts appear to be the role for the J-20. In terms of the weapon bay, it doesn't appear to be big enough to hold long-range cruise missiles; at least on current J-20s, they don't look long enough. It can fit six beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles and two more short-range missiles in the side bays, but it doesn't appear to be large enough to hold long-range missiles that are in PLA service at the moment."

Historically the PLAAF had 50 air divisions, each of which typically had two operational regiments and one training regiment until the latter was removed in the 1980s. However, by 2015 the air force had reduced to just 25 air divisions, comprising 14 fighters, three bomber, three ground attack/fighter-bomber, three special mission, and three transport divisions. However, CASI recorded that, by mid-2018, the numbers had declined even further to just nine divisions in total - three bomber, three transport, and three special mission.

The reason that fighter divisions no longer exist is that the PLAAF moved to a brigade structure, a process that kicked off in December 2011. By May 2017, all fighter, ground attack, and fighter-bomber divisions had disappeared and their subordinate units re-established as brigades or abolished altogether.

CASI elaborated: "Depending on the type of airframe, each brigade, which has more than 30 airframes, has from three to five subordinate flight groups, of which one or two are transition training flight groups. Each flight group, in turn, has two to three subordinate flight squadrons with about 3-5 airframes each." Each brigade is subordinate to a base, which itself is under the command of a theatre command air force headquarters.

Yeo pointed out that the new brigade structure is more modular. "Individual brigades can perhaps form up to perform mixed-mission units," he suggested.

Of course, the PLAN has its own air arm too, and this adds significantly more fighter numbers to what the PLAAF possesses.