April 4, 2024

The PLAAF: From legacy aircraft to fifth-generation fighters


Similarly to the PLAGF, the PLAAF also entered the Post-Cold War Era possessing a fleet largely composed of legacy equipment, such as the Shenyang J-6 and Chengdu J-7 fighters, license produced variants of the Soviet MiG-19 and MiG-21 respectively. While numerically superior, the PLAAF had to undergo significant reforms in its arsenal of platforms to become capable in a 21st century warfighting context.

The first step in this direction was the PLAAF’s procurement of Sukhoi Su-27 and Su-30 fighters from Russia during the 1990s. These platforms allowed for fourth generation capabilities to be introduced into the PLAAF, while serving as technological infusions to the PRC’s aerospace industry and R&D ecosystem. On these grounds, the PLAAF continued receiving platforms both from indigenous designs, further Russian import, as well as Chinese derivatives of Russian platforms.

The indigenous Chengdu J-10 ‘Vigorous Dragon’ entered service in 2005, representing a major step for the PLAAF. Designed as a multirole fighter, the J-10 featured advanced fourth-generation avionics, improved radar systems, and enhanced agility. This marked the PLAAF’s first step towards developing a technologically advanced and domestically produced fighter jet, reducing dependence on foreign procurement. The J-10’s capabilities not only elevated the PLAAF’s operational effectiveness but also signaled the PRC’s growing prowess in aerospace technology. The development of the platform did not go without controversy, however. Russian sources as well as the J-10 program’s lead engineer and high ranking PLAAF officers all confirmed clandestine technology exchange with the Israeli IAI corporation. Today the PLAAF operates approximately 600 J-10 fighters across four variants. The PLAAF J-10 fleet allowed for the J-7 production line to be shut down by the early 2010s, with only around 300 of them still in active service and the J-6 having been phased out by the mid-1990s.

Meanwhile, Chinese development of Russian fighter jet derivatives followed in increments. The Shenyang J-11, a derivative of the Su-27 entered service in 1998, and has been in production since then, with the PLAAF having received over 400 of the platform, currently operating 220+. In the mid-2010s the PLAAF also procured the highly advanced Russian Su-35 heavy fighter, albeit in limited numbers relative to the PLAAF overall hardware parc. Two more derivatives of the J-11 followed, influenced by technology from the Su-30s procured in 1999. The Shenyang J-16 ‘Hidden Dragon’ – as well as its navalized variant the J-15 ‘Flying Shark’, operated by the PLA Naval Air Force (PLANAF) – introduced in the 2010s, added another layer to the PLAAF’s capabilities.

As a multi-role fighter, the J-16 demonstrated versatility by seamlessly transitioning between air superiority and ground attack missions. This platform augmented the PLAAF’s operational flexibility, allowing it to adapt to a diverse range of combat scenarios. The J-16’s incorporation into the PLAAF’s fleet underscored the PRC’s commitment to developing a comprehensive and adaptable aerial combat force. As a report by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) details, the newest variants of the J-16 are described as more capable than their Russian predecessors, more compatible with the PLA’s domestically designed missiles, lighter due to a composite material airframe, and having a more advanced suite of avionics along with a fully digitalized cockpit and better radar. What is more, the J-16 has an electronic warfare (EW) variant uniquely suited for undertaking suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD), thereby allowing for destruction of enemy air defenses (DEAD) missions. To date, there are about 300-350 J-16s in operation by the PLAAF across all variants.

The domestic pursuit of fifth-generation capabilities materialized with the unveiling of the Chengdu J-20 ‘Mighty Dragon’ in 2011. As the PLAAF’s first stealth fighter, the J-20 incorporates cutting-edge technologies, including advanced avionics, radar-absorbing materials, and supersonic cruising speed. It entered service in 2018 and the PLAAF introduced up to 200 J-20s to its ranks as of 2024. The J-20 not only symbolized the PRC’s ambition to rival advanced western platforms but also positioned the PLAAF at the forefront of modern aerial warfare. The integration of the J-20 into the PLAAF’s fleet marked a significant milestone, often compared to the Lockheed Martin F-35 ‘Lightning II’. In direct comparison, the J-20 is larger, less stealthy, and slower than its US counterpart. While open source data on the platform’s specifications are sparse, its size is said to lead to a larger radar footprint.

In itself this poses an exploitable vulnerability for Allied forces, although mitigated by the context of the hypothetical operational environment. The J-20 would be flying alongside hundreds of non-stealthy targets and in a heavily saturated EW airspace. Furthermore, the J-20’s larger weapons bay allows for the deployment of larger and more capable air-to-air missiles without impeding the platform’s stealth capability. These include the PL-15 and PL-17, with ranges of 300 and 400 km respectively – next generation missiles with significantly larger range than the US Air Force’s air-to-air missile arsenal, including the latest variants of the AIM-120 AMRAAM at 160 km. The comparative shortcomings of the J-20 are said to be further mitigated by the Shenyang FC-31 ‘Gyrfalcon’, currently in development. The Gyrfalcon will be the PLAAF’s second fifth-generation platform, a more maneuverable medium-size multirole fighter, capable of air superiority missions in a role more comparable to Lockheed Martin’s F-22 ‘Raptor’. While little is known about the program, the Chengdu Aerospace Corporation also claims to be working on the development of sixth-generation capabilities.

Halting the PLAAF’s development is the dependence of the domestic aerospace industry on foreign resources and components, even for fully indigenous designs. For example, the J-20’s powerful twinjet engine, the Lyulka-Saturn AL-31 – produced by the Russian contractor Salyut – has been replaced by the indigenous Shenyang WS-10 Taihang to mitigate these supply chain dependencies. However, the subsystem’s production still relies on western components to some extent.

The PLAAF’s developmental trajectory over the past three decades has been astounding and is much closer to achieving peer competitor status to the US than either the PLAGF or arguably even the PLAN. Exploitable gaps in capability consist in a superior number of fifth-generation fighters within the air forces of the US and Allies, a lack of current-generation strategic bombing capability for long-range power-projection, the inferiority of the S-400 Russian air defense system made by Almaz-Antey to the US’ Patriot and AEGIS destroyers, as well as a lack of institutional memory. These are narrowing, however, with J-20 production expanding, the Xi’an H-20 bomber being developed to replace the limited range legacy H-6 strategic bomber, and PLAAF pilots receiving more and more flight hours. With more practice at formation flying, training squadrons simulating red team exercises, and increasing PLAAF training at red flag exercises, the above-mentioned RAND report already positioned the PLAAF at 70% of the US Air Force’s strength in terms of preparedness.


Global A&D

Adam Meszaros
Analyst London
Craig Belanger
Senior Partner & Co-Founder Boston
Joe Giandomenico
Principal Boston
Anirudh Suneel
Principal London
Ben Osterholtz
Manager Boston
Robyn Pirie
Manager Boston
Mark Kipphut
Senior Advisor Dallas
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