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China’s Copycat Air Force and the Planes That 'Inspired' It

As China’s world influence expands, so is its military. An increasingly capable Navy, large investments in weapons tech, and its first overseas military base speak to President Xi Jinping’s goal to make China a global superpower.

But to match that ambition, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has turned to other countries for “inspiration” when it comes to outfitting its armed forces. Although buying or stealing foreign military technology could be seen as a strategic weakness, China skips expensive and time-consuming R&D.

And nowhere is fast-and-loose weapons adoption (and its inherent shortcomings) more apparent than in China’s Air Force. Like the U.S, China deploys aircraft with a broad range of capabilities, but unlike the U.S. most of China’s planes are based on plans purchased or stolen from its adversaries. Here are seven of them.

Chengdu J-10 and U.S. F-16 ::

In the 1980s, the U.S. partnered with Israel to develop a new combat aircraft based on the General Dynamics F-16. But as costs rose, the U.S. pulled out of the deal, leaving Israel’s “Lavi” fighter unfinished. Years later American officials discovered that Israel sold the Lavi’s development plans to China, granting them unprecedented access to technologies first developed for the F-16.

The J-10 shared more than a striking visual resemblance with the F-16. The technology sourced through Israel allowed China to advance significantly over the 1960s era fighters they were fielding at the time. This would not be the last Chinese fighter to incorporate elements of the F-16, but it's the most direct.

An updated version of the J-10 entered into service last year with an advanced fire control radar array, an increased use of composite materials to reduce weight, and a number of other domestically developed updates that aim to keep the J-10 capable for decades to come.

Shenyang J-11/16 and Russian Sukhoi Su-27 ::

As the Soviet Union neared collapse in 1989, China seized the opportunity to secure the production line for the Sukhoi Su-27, an air superiority fighter developed to counter American jets like the T-14 Tomcat. The Soviets, keen to sell China a new MiG design instead, were left with little choice in the face of looming economic ruin.China quickly set about producing their own Su-27s, and then improving upon the design to develop what would become the J-11.

Unlike other fighters China employed at the time, the Su-27 brought advanced avionics systems and fly-by-wire technology that China was also able to incorporate into later platforms.

In 2000, Russia sold China a number of advancements they’d made to their own Su-27 platform, and China’s subsequent effort to incorporate them alongside domestically developed technologies has since resulted in the the J-16—a modified and updated Su-27.

Shenyang J-15 and Russian Sukhoi Su-33 ::

China’s J-15 serves as their primary carrier based aircraft, and if China had gotten their way, it would have been produced originally by simply purchasing the production line for the Su-33 (which is Russia’s carrier-capable version of the Su-27).

When the Soviets refused to part with their Su-33 design secrets, China purchased an Su-33 prototype aircraft from Ukraine, dubbed the T-10K-3, and quickly set about reverse engineering it.

The result is a carrier-based fighter that shares the Su-33’s folding wing design and overall appearance coupled with a few Chinese improvements like incorporating more composite materials to reduce overall weight.

Technically speaking, the J-15 could be considered the superior fighter to America’s long serving (and fastest) intercept fighter, the F-15—at least on paper. With a faster top speed, greater maximum G-load, and slightly higher operational ceiling, China has been happy to contend that a dog fight between the two jets would undoubtedly result in a Chinese victory;

But the J-15 is severely hindered by its launch apparatus. China’s dated Liaoning carrier’s inferior catapult and ramp system to launch fighters severely limits the maximum operational weight of the J-15, reducing the total ordnance it can take into fight. New carriers under development promise to offer an electromagnetic catapult similar to those used on America’s new Ford class carriers, but the J-15 may not live to see service on such a ship.

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