Warplanes: Another First For China

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January 24, 2022: China has finally gained its first export customer for jet fighters. After fifteen years of discussions and negotiations Pakistan has purchased some of the new Chinese J-10CE fighter-bombers. Technically the first Chinese made jet fighter to be exported was the JF-17, but that aircraft is not used by the Chinese air forces. Currently two jet fighters designed in China are offered for export; the J10 and the JF17, which is technically a Pakistani aircraft. The JF17 was designed as a joint effort with Pakistan, mainly so Pakistan could claim to have developed and manufactured a jet fighter on its own. Until 1989, when the U.S. imposed sanctions, an American aircraft firm was also involved. After 1989 China and Pakistan continued alone. While prototypes and most of the components for the JF17 were Chinese built, the main export customer was Pakistan and China never bought any, mainly because by the time the JF17 was in service (2007) the J10 was already in production and was considered a superior aircraft.

Technically the JF-17 is a Pakistani aircraft because most were eventually assembled there. Pakistan has exported some to Burma and Nigeria because Russia agreed to supply and support the RD-93 engines required. In return, Pakistan has been buying more Russian weapons. Pakistan was not interested in the J10 because it also had F-16s, and was very satisfied with the locally assembled JF-17. China had to offer a J10 of equal capability and lower price to get sales from Pakistan.

The Chinese solution was to develop a version of the J10 expressly for export and priced to sell. This led to the J10CE, and for the last few years China has conducted a major effort to sell this special version. The J-10CE is basically an export version of the Chinese Air Force J-10C. It was prominently featured at a November 2019 air show, along with eager sales reps looking for customers. There were some nibbles but nothing serious. The “E” designates an export model, with some advanced or highly-classified, items left out. The J-10CE appeared to have all its major new features and apparently the only items left out were Chinese IFF (Identify Friend or Foe) transponders and similar China-specific features of the communications or defensive systems. Sales reps touted the J-10CE as having the same capabilities as the latest version of the F-16; the F-16V. The salesmen pointed out that the J-10CE had all the advanced electronics in the F-16V as well as some stealth features like radar absorbing surfaces and stealthy air intakes. Every sales pitch ended with an emphasis on the fact the J-10CE cost only $40 million, half of what the F-16V was selling for. That was also a lot less than modern European jets like Eurofighter or Rafale as well as the latest Russian offerings like the MiG-35 or the latest Sukhoi models. India is now buying Rafales and already has a lot of upgraded SU-30s.

What the J-10 sales reps did not want to discuss was what most potential customers already knew; the F-16 had an exceptional service and combat record and was the most widely exported post-Cold War fighter. In contrast, the J-10 first flew in 1998 and entered service six years later. Less than 500 J-10s have been produced so far and none have been bought by export customers. The F-16 entered service in 1978, four years after the first flight and nearly 5,000 have been produced so far. Over a third of F-16s were purchased by export customers and sales are still brisk.

The reputation of the J-10 is less attractive. The J-10 is considered less safe to operate with at least ten of them crashing since 2014. The F-16 has a much better safety record. The Chinese J-10 sales force was also had to deal with the fact that the Middle East is full of satisfied F-16 customers, including Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Iraq and several Persian Gulf states. This satisfaction was expressed by repeat orders for F-16s and resistance to sale pitches from European and Chinese competitors.

The F-16V Block 70 is similar to the F-16E Block 60 “Desert Eagle” the UAE (United Arab Emirates) has been using since 2005. The Israeli version of the F-16 is in the same class as the Desert Eagle and uses a lot of Israeli developed tech. Since 2020 Israel and the UAE has established diplomatic and trading relationships, including the first UAE purchases of Israeli defense tech.

The Chinese are undeterred and keep seeking export customers for the J-10 while also improving it. China finally got the J10C into service in mid-2017, 13 years after the first J10s in 2004. This in itself was after a long (since 1988) effort to get an original modern Chinese fighter design operational. The J-10C version uses more composites in the airframe and has improved electronics. This includes a new AESA radar. J10s are the most widely used modern Chinese-designed jet fighter and it is still in production. More numerous are several different models of modern Russian jets, many of them legal and illegal clones produced in China. China does not try to export these clones. Russia was willing to tolerate China using its illegal copies of Russian aircraft, but not exporting them. A more practical reason for not exporting them is that makes them vulnerable to Russian lawsuits for tech theft.

By mid-2019 China finally formed its first J10C squadron. There were about 40 J-10Cs in service then and a full-strength fighter squadron has 24 aircraft. The J-10C began arriving at the new squadron in May 2019 and many were still being used for training and testing.

China produced a lot of J10s because, well, they were a Chinese, not Russian, design. That meant it took longer to get the J10 into service and China used the J10 to advertise its new aircraft development capabilities. Chinese developed electronics includes a “glass cockpit”, helmets with built-in HUD (head-up display), “look and shoot” capabilities and AESA radar. J10s got the first Chinese fire control systems that handled smart bombs (satellite or laser-guided). The J10 was the first to receive targeting pods, ECM (electronic countermeasures) pods and improved fly-by-wire systems. The J10 was also the first Chinese jet fighter to switch to Chinese-made engines rather than ones bought from Russia. Until 2019 the J10 still depended on the more reliable Russian made AL-31 engines. That has now changed with the WS10 standard on all newly built J-10s and for those in need of an engine replacement.

Partly because of the Russian engine, China has not been able to get any export orders for the J-10. China has to get Russian permission for the AL-31 engines used in exported J-10s and the Russians would not automatically cooperate. Before the J10 entered service China began buying the most modern Russian fighters (Su-27/30) in the 1990s and were able to buy and steal a lot of Russian aircraft tech during the 1990s because Russia was broke and the only thing keeping the Russian military aviation producers in business was export sales. China and India were the biggest customers and China, unlike India, had more advanced aircraft production capabilities and fewer scruples when it came to stealing foreign technology. Before the 1990s ended China had created an illegal copy of the Su-27, calling it the “Chinese developed” J11. Russia knew better and despite China continuing to claim the J11 design is Chinese, and that it just happens to resemble the Su-27, China has not tried to sell the J11 to export customers.

The J10 looks something like the American F-16 and weighs about the same (19 tons). Like the F-16 the J10 has only one engine and the aircraft is longer than the F-16 to accommodate the larger Russian/Chinese engines. It's no accident that the J10 resembles the F-16 because Israel sold China the technology for their Lavi jet fighter, a "super-F-16" design that Israel abandoned in 1987 because it was too expensive. China always insisted the J10 was an original Chinese design but after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 a lot of Russian engineers and scientists who assisted China in developing the J10 revealed details about how the Chinese had access to the Lavi design data and used it extensively. Israel won’t comment because the U.S. cracked down on Israeli sales of military technology to China during the 1990s.

Despite the J10 being the first Chinese-designed modern fighter and the most produced model, China has purchased more legal and illegal versions of the Su-27/30. Russia is still selling China improved versions of the Su-30 design with an understanding, part of it in writing, that any tech stolen from these aircraft will not be offered for export. The understanding is that if China tried to export the stolen tech, Russia would make a fuss, sue and make China look bad.

China has gone on to develop several stealth fighter designs that are sufficiently “Chinese” (and not obviously stolen foreign tech) to be offered for export. Not many takers, not yet anyway. China appears to feel their new stealth designs are not ready for active service or export customers. Getting all the new tech working together, as well as developing a powerful enough engine, were major obstacles. Until recently a Russian engine, or a less powerful Chinese engine was being used temporarily. While China declared its J-20 stealth fighter ready for service in 2019, the reality was it was still in development. China finally put the J20 into service during 2021 with the arrival of a mass-produced Chinese engine that could equal the performance of the best Russian engines. While J20s are now actively used by Chinese pilots, the availability of an exportable J20 will have to overcome some of the same problems that delayed the J-10 from becoming the salable J-10 CE.

Despite the help from Israel and Russia, the J10 turned out to perform poorly in air-to-air combat. In response, the Chinese concentrated on reconfiguring the design to operate as fighter-bombers (the J-10B). This version carries over five tons of bombs and missiles and has been equipped with a fire control system for delivering missiles and smart bombs. The J10B didn’t enter service until 2014 and did not get its solid-state AESA radar until the J10C, basically, an upgraded J10B, appeared and was declared as capable as late-model F-16s. That was not true and potential export customers knew what they were talking about, so Chinese salesmen had no suitable response until the J10CE came along. China will eventually find export more customers, besides Pakistan, for its jet fighters. The flawed J-10 has been a hard sell but China is persistent and upgrading the aircraft to J10CE standards and then offering it at half the price of a J-16 equivalent gave it a chance. Meanwhile China is concentrating on new UAV models and weapons systems designed for them. China already has many satisfied export customers for its large armed UAVs. These are similar in performance to the American Predator and Reaper but a lot cheaper. China is poised to move past the Americans in terms of UAV capabilities and China always has an edge in sales tactics; they will sell to anyone who can pay.

 


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