How China Rode the Military-Tech Wave

Espionage, ingenuity, ambition & economics together wrangled it a seat at the high table

Prasun K. Sengupta

In its quest to overcome technological obsolescence, especially in the domains of mission avionics and Precision-Guided Munitions (PGMs), China piggy-backed on the military-industrial complexes of many countries—including Israel, Ukraine, South Africa and Italy. Over the past four decades, this approach drastically closed the military-technological gap that China once had with its adversaries.

HD-1A ASCM on Mirage-2000 scale-model


Airborne Radars

Israeli Partnerships: In 1976, China zeroed in on Israel to upgrade its Nanchang Q-5 ground-attack aircraft and Chengdu J-7 light multi-role combat aircraft (L-MRCA). Israel Aerospace Industries’ ELTA Systems Division supplied its X-band EL/M-2001B range-only, solid-state, multi-mode radar (MMR) to the PLA Air Force (PLAAF).

The EL/M-2001B comprises six line-replaceable units (LRU)—combining within them a transmitter, receiver, power supplier, RF exciter, data transfer unit, servo unit, gearbox, a travelling-wave tube and a roll & pitch stabilised, inverted Cassegrain antenna. Weighing 60kg and having a volume of 0.04 cubic metres, this radar could work up to an altitude of 18,000 metres, move its antenna +/-30 degrees in azimuth, search out to 30km and track from 26km onwards. It also had a mean-time-between-failures (MTBF) of 100 hours.

In the late 1980s, Pakistan wanted to upgrade its F-7P ‘Skybolt’ aircraft—export variants of the Chinese J7s. With the dragon’s blessings, Pakistan chose the SELEX Galileo (then called FIAR) Grifo-7 multi-mode radar (MMR). The Grifo-7 had a scanning coverage of +/- 10 degrees both in azimuth and elevation. A decade later, Pakistan picked the Grifo-7PG, an improved version, with scanning coverage of +/- 30 degrees and using a medium Pulse Repetition Frequency (PRF) waveform. Both the above mentioned multi-mode radars (MMRs) weighed less than 55kg and had a mean-time-between-failures (MTBF) of more than 150 hours.

Back in the Forbidden Kingdom, Israeli EL/M-2021 MMRs were fitted in 1983, on the Xian JH-7A medium bomber and Chengdu J-10 medium MRCA. ELTA Systems also showed China how to manufacture this MMR’s 12 line-replaceable units (LRUs). This included its planar-array antenna that could scan through +/-45 degrees in azimuth and +/-5 degrees in elevation, changing in close combat to +/-10 degrees in azimuth and +60 degrees/-20 degrees in elevation. When operating in tracking mode, the antenna moved through +/-70 degrees in azimuth and +80 degrees and -40 degrees in elevation. MTBF was 200 hours. Since the mid-1990s, this device has been produced by the Nanjing-based, state-owned, China Electronic Technology Corp (CETC) as the Type 1473 (KLJ-3). It can be used for air interception, close-in combat, air-to-ground bombing and gunnery. Interestingly though, the terrain-following & avoidance, terrain-mapping, Doppler beam-sharpening and ground moving target indication features were not made available by ELTA.

That’s why when Pakistan in the early 1990s, wanted to upgrade the mission avionics suite of its Dassault Mirage-IIIEP and Mirage-VP M-MRCAs, it chose FIAR’s X-band Grifo-M3 (with a circular antenna of 59cm diameter) and the Grifo-M5 (with 51cm diameter circular antenna). Their operational modes included range-while-scan (RWS), single-target tracking (STT), track-while-scan (TWS), and a selection of air-combat modes (ACMs) including vertical scan, slewable ACM, head-up display (HUD) ACM, and boresight target detection. Detection range in look-up mode was 55nm (102km), dependent on the size of the aircraft platform. For the air-to-ground mode, both multi-mode radars (MMRs) offered high-resolution mapping (in the synthetic aperture radar or SAR mode), real beam-sharpening (RBS), Doppler beam-sharpening (DBS), air-to-ground ranging, and sea search, but no terrain-avoidance mode. For the look-down/shoot-down mode, radar range was 45nm (83km).

For its fleet of JF-17 Thunder aircraft, Pakistan picked SELEX Galileo’s X-band Grifo-S7 MMR (with 60cm antenna diameter). Instead of the KLJ-7 (Type-1478) MMR developed by China Electronic Technology Corp’s (CETC) 14th Research Institute. This institute is sometimes called the Nanjing Research Institute of Electronic Technology, (NRIET).

Unlike the KLJ-7, the Grifo-S7 had more than 30 different operational modes offered to support air-to-air and air-to-surface missions, and navigation. Utilising low, medium and high Pulse Repetition Frequency (PRF) for optimal target detection in any clutter condition, this air-cooled MMR also incorporates adaptive pulse compression technology. It has a scanning coverage +/-60 degrees in both azimuth and elevation, weighs less than 120 kg and has a MTBF in excess of 220 hours. Look-up detection range is 150km, while look-down range is 100km. Up to 10 targets can be tracked in TWS mode. In contrast, the KLJ-7’s look-up detection range is 105km and look-down range is 85km, and it offers only 14 modes of operation.


South African Partnerships: For developing its own family of radar warning receivers, missile approach warning systems (MAWS), chaff/flare countermeasures dispensers, passive and active missile seekers, China’s Wuxi-based AVIC Leihua Electronic Technology Research Institute (607 Institute) and the Luoyang-based China Aviation Optical-Electric Technology Co teamed up in the early 1990s with South Africa’s Grintek Avitronics.

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