China showcased its best at the 10th Zhuhai Air Show 2014
AVM Manmohan Bahadur (retd)
An international air show is a nation’s way of announcing to the world that it is a serious contender in the arms business. However, when it comes to China, there is also a subtle aim of letting the world know that through its economic and technological advancements it is a rightful claimant to a power nibbling at the unrivalled super power status of America.
The recently concluded 10th Zhuhai Air Show (11-16 November 2014) was no different in its aim than its earlier versions, and China attempted to announce to the world that it is making rapid progress in R&D and manufacturing of aircraft and air armament. Though a large number of platforms were showcased, this article deals with the implications for India of three important pieces of equipment, viz., the J-31 stealth aircraft, development of transport aircraft and the CX-1 supersonic missile.
J-31 Stealth Aircraft
The 2012 Zhuhai edition had highlighted unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and helicopters but the 2014 air show was all about the J-31 stealth aircraft. The aircraft was unveiled at the air show, even as President Obama was meeting President Xi Jinping of China in Beijing. The political messaging was akin to the unveiling of the J-20 on 12 January 2011, when a similar upstaging was done with the unveiling coinciding with the meeting of the US defence secretary Robert Gates and Chinese President Hu Jintao.
There is a stark similarity of the J-31’s aerodynamic surfaces and overall design with that of the American F-35 and F-20 Raptor, showing that the Chinese have spared no effort at industrial espionage. The Chinese, as was expected, attempted to hardsell the J-31 to their friends and allies at the air show. It would be an interesting thought if they could do a reverse and offer the design to the Russians in lieu of engine technology but given the threat this would pose to Russian exports, it is doubtful that this would happen.
Before the unveiling of the J-31, the initial reaction of some western observers to the development of the J-31 had been that it could prove to be a potent weapon platform that could favourably match fourth generation Western aircraft at a much lower price tag. From the subsequent media reports it has become clear that the J-31 still has many hurdles to cross before it can finish its flight tests and become ready for operational flying; thus, the assessments were a bit premature.
The main pointer to this is the fact that only three out of the required eight prototypes are flying (as per their own statements) which means that a large amount of the flight envelope is yet to be investigated and cleared for flying operations. Additionally, the very benign manoeuvres that were demonstrated during the air show buttress this deduction.
What is further intriguing is the fact that there was no static display of the J-31 (only a scale model was displayed), implying that the Chinese are perhaps not too confident of the stealth features being evaluated at close quarters by foreign experts; this will certainly cause a loss of credibility in their claim. It was also a dead giveaway that something was meant to be hidden so as not to undercut the hype being made of the product.
It could also be that the final product would/could be different from the one that was shown flying. An indication to that is that the scale model displayed had different sweep back of its vertical stabilisers and presence of chevron edged exhaust nozzles. A major point of interest was the power plant of the fighter. The J-31 is being developed with the Russian RD-93 engine.
In the air show, a Rosoboronexport official stated that Russia would provide engines for export of the J-31. Therefore, though this means that China would not have an impediment in its export drive, it is also a pointer to, and an indication of, lack of progress in the indigenous WS-20 fighter engine programme of China. Another interesting observation is that the J-31 is a private development of the Shenyang Corporation, with no orders at present from the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), unlike the Chengdu developed J-20.
The much larger J-20 has not been officially displayed till now giving rise to the analysis that it has been made purely for the PLAAF. The fact that it is much larger and appears to have better capability, implies that it would be costlier, which would make it difficult to be exported (if permitted at a later date).
Hence, it is conjectured that Shenyang Corporation took this opportunity to tap into the aspirations of developing nations like Pakistan and Brazil, who may otherwise make their choices to equip their air forces with cheap but modern aviation assets. Pakistan has shown an interest in buying 30-40 J-31s as per an article in the Jane’s Defence website; if this deal fructifies then it would greatly enhance the capability of the Pakistani Air Force (PAF). However, what is really intriguing is that other than praise from officers of PAF there have been no statements from any other country praising Zhuhai 2014 or the aircraft and equipment that were displayed there!
CX-1 Supersonic Missile
A pride of place was reserved for the display of the CX-1 supersonic missile. There is an uncanny similarity in appearance of the CX-1 with the Indo-Russian BrahMos supersonic missile (including performance details as claimed in the open press and displayed at Zhuhai)! There can be two explanations for this. Firstly, the missile has been developed through technical and industrial espionage which the Chinese are very adept at or, secondly, it could also be that details have been shared by the Russians in lieu for financial considerations as it is well known that the Russian armament industry is cash starved at present. However, what is of great importance for India is that as the Indian Air Force (IAF) adapts the carriage and firing of the BrahMos from the Su-30MkI (which will give an asymmetrical advantage to India), it is vital that it safeguards the trial information of the adaptation lest the Chinese steal it and adapt the CX-1 to their Su-27s and J-15s.
Civil aviation: China has a huge demand of transport aircraft. Xinhua news agency reported that as per Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), China will need 5,483 new civil aircraft in the next 20 years to cope with rising demand. The estimate includes 4,491 large jets and 992 regional aircraft. By the end of 2033, there is expected to be a requirement of 6,785 civil aircraft.
The huge demand for civil aviation sector would continue to drive world aircraft majors to China. Knowing China’s propensity to drive hard bargains, it can only be expected that they would demand cutting edge Western technology as a quid pro quo for placing orders. China’s indigenous civil aircraft industry has been quite successful in bagging orders from developing countries. China’s first passenger aircraft was the 90-seat ARJ21-700 while the large one (170 seater) is C919, for which the number of orders varies from 278 aircraft to 430. China will soon be venturing into the 300-seater long-haul aircraft sector.
However, the fact remains that the civil aviation sector, like its military counterpart, is heavily dependent on Western technology for engine and electronic equipment. While there may not be any impediments in selling these aircraft in the domestic sector, there may be technical, regulatory and even political challenges for their sale by the Chinese in Western markets. Regulatory clearances and approvals from western certification agencies like FAA and EASA are extremely expensive and very time-consuming and may constitute stumbling blocks.
Y-20 Military Transport Aircraft: On the military transport aircraft front, however, the Chinese have progressed with their Y-20, which was put through a flying and static display. Though flying with Russian engines, the progress of the Chinese in making a large transport aircraft is creditable and diversification into commercial large body airliners would be the next possible venture. The Chinese have developed the Y-20 as a hybrid between the Russian Il-76 and the American C-17. The Y-20 fuselage is broader than the Il-76, permitting it to transport bulker military loads. This would be a significant advantage for the Chinese armed forces and it has been reported in the Chinese press that the development staff affectionately likes to call it ‘Fat Girl’ in private due to its bulky appearance.
An element of interest was the Bayi Aerobatic Team, whose six aircraft flying displays on the J-10s were highlights of the air show and represented pride in the indigenous capability of the Chinese. Most world famous aerobatic display teams like the Indian Surya Kirans and UK’s British Red Arrows have nine aircraft display routines, implying that the Chinese aerobatic team has still some distance to go.
Additionally, the Chinese showcased four female pilots as members of the aerobatic team. While it was a fact the female pilots occupied the second seat of the twin cockpit J-10, it was more a PR exercise and an effort to send out a political message. Each female pilot had just 750 flying hours, as per the Chinese. This is absolutely meagre when considered with respect to the yardsticks of other famed aerobatic groups (both the Indian Surya Kiran aerobatic team and the Royal Air Force (RAF) Red Arrows have fully operational pilots who are flying instructors also).
However, this initial showcasing can, and the way the Chinese operate, may, translate into more meaningful involvement of female aircrew in their flying teams in times to come. An interesting highlight of the flying display segment was the withdrawal of the South Korean Aerobatic Team (after having confirmed their participation) which has been attributed to pressure from the US as they did not want the Chinese to closely study the K-50 aircraft which has been a joint collaboration of the Americans with South Korea.
Zhuhai 2014 would be remembered for the appearance of the J-31 on the world scene as a cheap stealth alternative to the F-35 for developing countries. The aircraft is still far from ready for operational service but has got observers interested. The CX-1 supersonic missile would surely be a subject of much attention as would be the Y-20 transport aircraft. Aviation analysts have sufficient on their plate to keep them busy.
(The author is a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi)