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Friday, January 9, 2015

The Technological Maturity of Chinese AESA Technology & Strategic Impacts


Image 1: APG-63(V)2 radar installed on an F-15C. The APG-63(V)2 was the first fighter mounted AESA radar to enter service worldwide. The first American F-15C unit to receive the new radars were stationed at Elmendorf in 2000. In comparison, the first European AESA entered operational service in 2012 and the first Russian AESA equipped fighters (Mig-35) will not enter service until 2016. The initial US technological lead in AESA technology is attributable to substantial investments made in the late stages of the Cold War. 

Author's Note: During the research process on the J-31’s avionics (for the upcoming Threat Analysis of Foreign Stealth Fighters:J-31 Part II), it became apparent that very few credible, verifiable, and non-speculative English based source materials existed on the subject of PLA fighter radars. Basic information, such the proper name or designation of a radar system is utilized by a particular fighter often varies between sources; performance figures associated with domestically produced radars is even harder to verify. This article's intent was to compile a wide variety of information on expected future developments in Chinese actively scanned electronic array (AESA) radars. Furthermore, the current “Threat Analysis of Foreign Stealth Fighters: Part I Chengdu J-20” is largely dated with respect to developments with the J-20’s avionics suite and this article subsequently provides more up-to-date information on the J-20’s AESA.  

AESA radars represent a significant increase in detection power, reliability, and electronic warfare capabilities when compared to older electronically scanned arrays (ESA) and mechanically scanned arrays (MSA). This article largely focus on more technical aspects of AESAs but the basics of AESAs are cogently detailed by Karlo Kopp in "Active Electronically Steered Arrays A Maturing Technology".

Three main determinants dictate the maximum number of transmit receiver modules a fighter radar can accommodate: the volume of the aircraft’s nose, the technological maturity of the firm/country’s T/R module packaging technology, and the effectiveness of the radar's thermal management system(s). The volume of the nose is a fairly intuitive constraint, the larger an aircraft’s nose is, the larger the radar can be. For example, the F-15C’s nose cone is able to accommodate the much larger 1,500 T/R element APG-63V(3) radar vs. the F-16C Block 60 with its comparatively smaller nose cone and its 1,000 T/R element APG-80 AESA. Packaging technology refers to how many individual T/R modules can be installed within the finite space usually accomplished by reductions in size of the individual T/R modules. The more technologically advanced a firm’s T/R packaging technology is, the smaller the individual T/R modules will be resulting in an increase density of the layout of T/R modules within the array. Thus, advancements in packaging technology enable engineers to accommodate more T/R modules within the fixed volume of the aircraft's nose. 

Image 2: US early production quad packed transmit receiver modules. The United States no longer produces quad channel T/R modules and has since produced single T/R module designs. Less advanced AESAs such as the Zhuk-AE utilize multi-T/R channel designs, it is possible China's first generation of AESAs also utilize a multi-T/R channel design. 

Lastly, thermal management systems are instrumental for the operation of high power AESA radars. Unlike MSA systems, air cooling systems are insufficient to prevent heat related system failures and frequent maintenance issues:

“Due to the behavior of microwave transistor amplifiers, the power efficiency of a TR module transmitter is typically less than 45%. As a result, an AESA will dissipate a lot of heat which must be extracted to prevent the transmitter chips becoming molten pools of Gallium Arsenide - reliability of GaAs MMIC chips improves the cooler they are run. Traditional air cooling used in most established avionic hardware is ill suited to the high packaging density of an AESA, as a result of which modern AESAs are liquid cooled.US designs employ a polyalphaolefin (PAO) coolant similar to a synthetic hydraulic fluid. A typical liquid cooling system will use pumps to drive the coolant through channels in the antenna, and then route it to a heat exchanger. That might be an air cooled core (radiator style) or an immersed heat exchanger in a fuel tank - with a second liquid cooling loop to dump heat from the fuel tank. In comparison with a conventional air cooled fighter radar, the AESA will be more reliable but will require more electrical power and more cooling, and typically can produce much higher transmit power if needed for greater target detection range performance (increasing transmitted power has the drawback of increasing the footprint over which a hostile ESM or RWR can detect the radar” – Kopp, 2014

Chinese AESAs 

Image 3:The image which allegedly describes the number of TR modules within the J-10B, J-16, and J-20 has been posted on numerous defense forums since at least December of 2013. 

Chinese defense forums have posted copies of the image above which claim to cite the J-20’s AESA T/R module count at 1,856, the J-16’s at 1,760, and the J-10B at 1,200 T/R modules. It is likely the J-10B is the first Chinese fighter aircraft to feature an AESA; J-10B units achieved initial operational capability (IOC) in October of 2014. The volume of the J-10s nose cone is not substantially different from that of the F-16 or the Israeli Lavi from which the J-10 is partially based. Therefore, if one were to assume China had reached parity with the United States in packaging technology, the 1,200 T/R module figure would be plausible but slightly high. For comparison, the APG-80 AESA for the F-16C/D Block 60 has 1,000 T/R modules (DSB, 2001). However, it is unlikely that China has been able to reach parity with the United States in terms of packaging technology on their first generation AESA design. Neither Russia nor Israel was able to field 1,000 T/R element arrays within their first generation fighter mounted AESAs for similar nose volumes as the F-16 with the Mig-35 and Israeli F-16 respectively. 

Russia’s first fighter mounted AESA radar, the Zhuk-AE, contained 652 T/R modules and was unveiled in 2007. The Israeli ­­­ ELM-2052 AESA radar, which has been marketed for both the F-16 and the FA-50 – a joint Korean Aerospace Industry and Lockheed Martin F-16 derivative, has roughly 512 T/R modules (Trimble, 2014). ­­­­­­The only firm outside of the United States that was able to produce a 1,000 T/R element within one generation was the French avionics firm Thales with its RB2E radar (Avionics Today, 2009). ­While the relative technological maturity of European, Israeli, and Russian AESAs is not directly indicative of the relative technological maturity of China’s packaging technology, it is an indicator that the first generation AESA produced by China is likely not on par with the US which is generally recognized as having the most technological mature T/R packaging technology (Kopp, 2014).

Image 4: T/R module count of US AESAs based upon the 2001 Defense Science Board report "Future DoD Airborne High-Frequency Radar Needs/Resources"(link provided in Source 1 citation, refer to page 6). Image Credit: Air Power Australia, 2008. 

The prospect of China’s TR packaging technology being on par with US firms within a single generation of radars is even more dubious when one examines the preference for an incremental technological development within the Chinese aerospace industry. Several Chinese aviation authors have hypothesized that the J-10B serves as a “technological stepping stone” with respect to the development of the more advanced J-20.  For example, Feng Cao argues the J-10B and the J-16 AESAs were likely used to test technology related to the J-20’s AESA which would be a second generation Chinese design. By virtue of the larger nose volumes in the J-16 and J-20 airframes, it is highly probable the two aircraft will feature radars with more T/R modules than the J-10B’s radar. 

The J-16 utilizes the Su-27BS airframe which has room for a 0.9-1.1 meter aperture in the nose which is on par with the F-15 and F-22 in terms of volume (Kopp, 2012). The 1,500 element N036 Tikhomirov NIIP AESA has a similar aperture size to the electronically scanned array (ESA) Irbis-E radar featured in the Su-35 series of fighters which shares the base Su-27 airframe. If the 1,760 T/R figure is correct it would indicate the Chinese aerospace industry has eclipsed Russian T/R module packaging technology as the N036 is arguably the most advanced Russian fighter mounted AESA. Similarly, the most advanced US fighter mounted AESAs such as the APG-77(V)2 and APG-82(V)1 contain 1,500 T/R modules*. While the prospect of Chinese avionics firms reaching parity with US and Russian firms is more plausible within two generations of designs, the author is skeptical the 1,760 figure is correct given the unsubstantiated nature of the image and the fairly substantial 260 T/R discrepancy between the J-16 radar figure compared to the most advanced US and Russian AESA designs. Therefore, the author speculates it would be more reasonable to assume a figure between 1,200 and 1,500 TR modules for the J-16 rather than the 1,760 figure.  

Image 5: The sixth and most recent (as of January 2015) unveiled J-20 testing aircraft model "2015". 

The tentative designation for the J-20's AESA is the Type 1475. While the nose volume of the J-20 is certainly large, the jet overall is longer and heavier than the F-22, no credible figures for nose volume were available at the time of this publication. As with the J-16 T/R figure, the J-20 figure is substantially greater than that of the most advanced US and Russian designs. Even if the Nanjing Research Institute of Electronics Technology (NRIET) or the China Leihua Electronic Technology Research Institute (607 Institute) was able to develop sufficient packaging technology that would enable 1,856 T/R modules within the J-20's nose, the density of the T/R modules would create significant cooling problems. For example, Phazotron's single greatest difficulty in designing the Zuk-AE was the AESA's thermal management system (Kopp, 2008). Without an effective cooling system, the Type 1475 would not be reliable at peak power output and would cause significant maintenance issues. Furthermore, with such a high number of T/R modules, the Type 1475 would be vulnerable to radar warning receiver (RWR) systems such as the ALR-94 without a very capable low probability intercept (LPI) mode. 

Many discussions with respect to the "relative stealthiness" of fighter aircraft are limited to merely comparing radar cross section estimates while entirely neglecting alternate means of detecting aircraft such as RWRs or other emission locator systems. David Axe succinctly compares the process of how RWRs function to how a flash light carried by another person is easily visible in a dark room. AESAs emit a substantial amount of energy, especially designs with a greater number of T/R modules, which enables passive emission locator systems to detect an AESA. The addition of an LPI software for AESAs mitigates the risk of RWR detection.  

"The radar's signals are managed in intensity, duration and space to maintain the pilot's situational awareness while minimizing the chance that its signals will be intercepted.More distant targets get less radar attention; as they get closer to the F-22, they will be identified and prioritized; and when they are close enough to be engaged or avoided, they are continuously tracked" - Bill Sweetman, 2001 

Image 6: Engagement boundaries for the AN/APG-77. Targets automatically receive higher tracking accuracy as they enter engagement boundaries in proximity to the F-22. The boundary concept facilitates automated sensor tasking and efficient sensor usage which contributes towards increased situational awareness and fewer emissions by the array (Ronald W. Brower, 2001). Image Credit: Ronald W. Brower & USAF, 2001.  

However, LPI software is not foolproof as demonstrated between tests involving F-22s and a CATbird avionics testbed equipped with the F-35's avionics package*. The F-35's avionics were able to jam and track multiple F-22 and F-15 radars during the exercise (Fulghum, Sweetman, Perrett & Wall, 2011).


Graphic 1: The data present in graphic 1 are assembled from numerous sources which are cited below. The formula: "(km known) * (new rcs/rcs known)^(0.25) = detection range of new rcs" was used to calculate many of the figures. T;E = maximum number of targets tracked & maximum number of targets engaged simultaneously. 

In summary, the high T/R module counts detailed in image 3 are likely too high to be considered legitimate. This is not to marginalize the significant advancements made by the Chinese aerospace industry in avionics, but the level of misinformation and disinformation prevalent within publications detailing Chinese military systems necessitates a strict research approach. The figures cited in image three are not consistent with what one could reasonably assume given the technological development of fighter mounted AESAs within other countries such as Russia, Israel, and the United States. Ultimately, determining the exact T/R module count for various Chinese AESAs is of little consequence when compared to the underlying trend that Chinese avionics firms have made staggering advancements over the past decade.

The vast majority of fighter aircraft currently deployed by the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) use Soviet designed MSAs such as the N010 and N001 series. Even the most capable of China's MSAs, the N0001VEP equipped on the Su-30MKK, can only track ten targets while engaging two simultaneously. Originally, the J-11 could only track ten targets and engage one before being upgraded to engage two targets simultaneously after 2003 (Global Security, 2014). The addition of even a comparatively primitive AESA would significantly increase the lethality of China's fourth and fifth generation fighter forces. One of the main constraints of China's existing fighter force detailed in graphic one is the limited detection range, tracking, and engagement numbers of the MSAs relative to Russian ESAs and American AESAs.

In a 2008 RAND report, Air Combat Past, Present and Future, John Stillion and Scott Perdue state the PLAAF has at least a three to one numerical superiority over the United States in a conflict over the Taiwanese strait around 2020. As part of the Russian method of fighter employment, each Flanker is equipped with between eight and twelve beyond visual range (bvr) air-to-air missiles in which multiple missiles are fired against each target to increase the probability of a kill (pk). In a modern digital radio frequency memory jamming environment, even capable radar guided missile such as the AIM-120 will likely have lower than a 0.50 pk (RAND, 2008). Hence the Russian bvr doctrine of launching at least two missiles against a single target as the pk increases as the number of missiles fired increases.

Image 7: Pk vs. missile salvo size. The AIM-120 has a pk. of 0.46 in combat against non-jamming targets. Image Credit: Air Power Australia, 2008.

The addition of fighter mounted AESA radars would enable Chinese pilots to launch missiles against a larger number of targets in the opening salvo of an air-to-air engagement as well as providing increased situational awareness for Chinese pilots when compared to current MSAs. The ability to engage more targets at beyond visual range effectively complements the PLAAF's numerical superiority by allowing each aircraft to make full use of their comparatively larger payload of air-to-air missiles. It is worth noting that the United States will continue to deploy large numbers of fourth generation aircraft such as the F-15C, F-16C/D, and F/A-18E/F into the late 2020s to 2030s; these aircraft will be especially put at risk as a result of improvements in Chinese avionics with respect to improved PLAAF bvr capabilities.

The enhancement of situational awareness gained by the deployment of AESAs is especially important given the shift within the PLA from Soviet and Russian inspired doctrines towards embracing an increasing number of American combat doctrines such as network centric warfare:

"Almost all of the PLA’s 2013 exercises focused on operating in 'informationized' conditions by emphasizing system-of-systems operations, a concept that can be viewed as the Chinese corollary to U.S. network-centric warfare. This concept requires enhancing systems and weapons with information capabilities and linking geographically dispersed forces and capabilities into an integrated system capable of unified action. These operational training reforms are a result of the Outline of Military Training and Evaluation (OMTE), which was last published in mid-2008 and became standard across the PLA on January 1, 2009. Since that time, the PLA has pushed to achieve OMTE objectives by emphasizing realistic training conditions, training in complex electromagnetic and joint environments, and integrating new technologies into the PLA force structure." - Department of Defense, 2014

Image 8: PLAAF Su-30MKK aggressor unit. Image retrieved via Sinodefense.

PLAAF pilots continue to improve their skills as a result of realistic large scale exercises such as Red Sword/Blue Sword and accumulate higher numbers of practice flight hours per year. PLAAF pilots accumulate 200 flight hours per year compared to pre-sequestration US fighter pilots accumulating 250 to 300 flight hours per year in their aircraft. The combination of new AESAs, adoption of new fighter employment doctrines, and improved pilot training will make the PLAAF an increasingly formidable fighting force and a near peer competitor to the USAF. While the PLAAF is unlikely to reach parity with the USAF in the near future, the advancements made by the PLAAF are substantial enough to pose a significant threat to US forces in the region given the PLAAF's in theatre numerical superiority. A USAF official interviewed by the National Interest astutely summarized the PLAAF's ongoing modernization program:

"I think we can probably keep a slight advantage for quite some time, but a slight advantage means significant losses and less of a deterrent...Lets pretend the F-22 confronts current air-to-air threats outside of a SAM [surface-to-air missile] environment and has a 30 to one kill ratio today versus a [Sukhoi] Su-30 or [Shenyang] J-11. When the J-20 and J-31 come around, even a three to one kill ratio advantage becomes costly...Our competitors know the current reality and are working very hard to avoid the wide gap we have created by investing in those planes,they represent their attempt and creating parity in the skies."


*AN/APG-77 – the 1,500 T/R figure comes directly from a Defense Science Board report published by the Office of the Secretary of Defense in 2001. The author judged credibility of direct source material to be more authentic than the commonly cited 2,000 or 1,994 T/R figure. The latter of the three figures was determined by counting the T/R modules visually by members of the forums. Neither the APG-77(V)1 nor the APG-77(V)2 upgrades include added T/R modules. Rather, the version one upgrade adds surface aperture radar mode and (V)2 adds commonality with the APG-81 with respect to maintenance purposes.

*The F-22 is likely able to overcome the limitations of LPI in an actual combat with the assistance of the ALR-94, sensor fusion, and tactics described by Bill Sweetman in article "The Next Generation" published in the Journal of Electronic Defense in 2000 (An online copy of the article is available in the source 41 citation courtesy of

Graphic 1 Related Notes

*EL/M-2035 - figures are from the EL/M-2032 of which the EL/M-2035 is a derivative. Also the figure provided is the maximum detection range of the radar in an air-to-air and does not give a corresponding rcs target

*Type 1493 - the name and tracking numbers provided by Sinodefense "PLAAF Su-27/J-11 Flanker". Kopp states the J-11B radar strongly resembles the Zhuk-27 (N010) radar, the J-8II is equipped with a N010 derivative, the Zhuk-811. Numerous Chinese internet sources claim the J-11B is equipped with an AESA radar but these claims are baseless and unsubstantiated. An official SAC image (below) clearly show a mechanically scanned array within the nose of the aircraft (available on Air Power Australia website). Similarly, many Chinese internet sources claim the J-11B incorporates stealth coatings and a reduced radar cross section along with an AESA. David Shalpak, The Chinese Air Force: Evolving Concepts, Roles, and Capabilities, dismisses the reduced rcs claims (pg. 196). Clearly a great deal of misinformation exists with respect to the J-11B. 

*Type 1473 - The maximum detection range figures listed for the Type 1473 are from the EL/M-2032 which is arguably its closest analogue with published performance data (the Israelis supplied EL/M-2032s to China in the early 1990s which was developed into the Type 1473). The tracking and engagement figures for the Type 1473 are provided by Sinodefense.  

*AN/APG-81 - 2015 service date refers to the scheduled first F-35B deployment by the USMC


  1. Future DoD Airborne High-Frequency Radar Needs/Resources, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense For Acquisition and Technology, 2001. 
  2. Analysis: End of year surge for Chengdu J-20 fighter programme, Richard D Fisher Jr, 2015. 
  3. Sukhoi Flankers The Shifting Balance of Regional Air Power, Karlo Kopp, 2014. 
  4. Chinese naval J-11s spotted in the open, Ted Parsons, 2010. 
  5. The Naval Institute Guide to World Naval Weapon Systems, Norman Friedman, 2006. 
  6. The Naval Institute Guide to World Naval Weapons Systems, Norman Friedman, 1997 version.
  7. Serious Squall, Jean-Michel Guhl, 2009. 
  8. "Vigorous Dragon” Fighter Jets are a Full Set, Soon to be a Regiment, hJeffrey Lin and P.W. Singer, 2014.                                                                                                                         
  9. Fourth known J-20 prototype makes first flight, Richard D Fisher Jr, 2014.
  10. PLA-AF and PLA-N Flanker Variants, Karlo Kopp, 2014.                                                 
  11. Phazotron Zhuk AE/ASE Assessing Russia's First Fighter AESA, Karlo Kopp, 2014.
  12. Active Electronically Steered Arrays A Maturing Technology, Karlo Kopp, 2014.
  13. Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) Fire Control Radars, Northrup Grumman.
  14. Raytheon AESA Research: Past, Present and Future, Mike Sarcione, Porter Hull, Colin Whelan, Doug Tonomura, Thomas V. Sikina, Jim Wilson and Robert E. Desrochers II, 2014. 
  15. Airshow China 2014: Russia to supply China with more RD-93 turbofans, Nikolai Novichkov, 2014.                                                                                                                                        
  16. Raytheon (Hughes) AIM-120 AMRAAM, Andreas Parsch, 2007.                                       
  17. PLAAF SU-27 / J-11 ‘FLANKER’, Sinodefense, 2014.                                                        
  18. Fighters (Cont.), jetfight2000.                                                                                               
  19. Flanker Radars in Beyond Visual Range Air Combat, Karlo Kopp, 2014.
  20. ISRAEL & IN FOCUS: AESA radar emerges from US export shadow, Stephen Trimble, 2014. 
  21. EL/M-2052, IAI.                                                                                                                    
  22. Indonesia Air Force Handbook, USA International Business Publications 2007,                 
  23. Chinese Military Aviation, Hui Tong, accessed 2015.                                                         
  24. Chinese Airborne Radars, Paul Martell-Mead, 2013.,19984.0/prev_next,prev.html#new 
  25. First Typhoon Flight With AESA Could Open Door to Exports, Tom Kington, 2014. 
  26. 6th J-20 Stealth Fighter Rolls Out, More to Soon Follow, Jeffrey Lin and P.W. Singer, 2014.
  27. Stealth Radar Tests On Passenger Jet, Jeffrey Lin and P.W. Singer, 2014.
  28. AESA’s Advantages, Ed McKenna, 2008.                                                                           
  29. Stretching the ‘16, Frank Colucci, 2014.
  30. Northrop Grumman Completes Demonstrations of SABR for F-16s, Avionics Today, 2013.
  31. Radar Refits: F-15s Looking for the AESA Edge, Defense Industry Daily, 2014.
  32. Aiming high: China's air ambitions, Craig Caffrey, 2013/
  33. China Unveils More Capable Stealth Fighter Prototype, Feng Cao, 2014.
  34. Flanker Radars in Beyond Visual Range Air Combat, Karlo Kopp, 2014.
  35. China’s Stealth Aircraft Program Will Face Advanced Defenses, David A. Fulghum, Bill Sweetman, Bradley Perrett and Robert Wall, 2011.                                                              
  36. Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2014, Department of Defense, 2014.                                                                                                
  37. FIGHTER EW., Bill Sweetman, 2000.                                                                                 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Blog Updates and Article Schedule

As frequent readers have noticed, the volume of articles being published in recent months has declined substantially. I have been in the process of applying for graduate schools and studying for the GRE exam. Thankfully, I will be able to resume posting articles as normal in about a week. The next article will be on the state of China's fighter radar technology.

During the research process on the J-31’s avionics, it became apparent that very few credible, verifiable, and non-speculative English based source materials existed on the subject of PLA fighter radars. Basic information, such the proper name or designation of a radar system is utilized by a particular fighter often varies between sources; performance figures associated with domestically produced radars is even harder to verify. This upcoming article's intent was to compile a wide variety of information on currently used PLA fighter radars in conjunction with expected future developments in Chinese actively scanned electronic array (AESA) radars. Furthermore, the current “Threat Analysis of Foreign Stealth Fighters: Part I Chengdu J-20” is largely dated with respect to developments with the J-20’s avionics suite and this article subsequently provides more up-to-date information on the J-20’s AESA.    

Once the Chinese fighter radar article has been published, I plan to begin work on an article which will list defense related proposals for Taiwan as well as Part II of the J-31 article. In the mean time, the articles below are worth reading. Feel free to let me know if you have any comments or suggestions and thank you for your patience. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Threat Analysis of Foreign Stealth Fighters: Shenyang J-31 Part I

Image 1: J-31 at Zhuhai airshow, 2014. Image Credit: Chen. 

The Shenyang J-31 made its official debut at the Zhuhai 2014 airshow earlier this month after images were first leaked of the aircraft in 2012. The combination of limited transparency of China's defense industry combined with frequent disinformation efforts by the Chinese Government makes obtaining verifiable information on the J-31 extremely difficult. This article's objective is to provide reliable information from reputable aerospace and defense publications on the potential domestic use, stealth characteristics, avionics, export prospects, and strategic ramifications of the Shenyang J-31. Any conjecture or educated guesses made by the author are noted. 

Domestic Prospects - PLAAF

The Chinese aerospace conglomerate, Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), maintains the J-31 is officially an export only aircraft and marketing materials at Zhuhai subsequently referred to the aircraft as the FC-31; fighter aircraft developed for the domestic market use the "J" designation in contrast to export aircraft which are assigned the "FC" designation such as the FC-1 fighter (Wong, 2014). However, given the limited transparency of the Chinese aerospace defense industry and the People's Liberation Army (PLA), its plausible that the aircraft could eventually enter service within the Chinese military. As Aviation Week observes, the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has consistently instituted a high-low mix fighter procurement strategy and either the 4.5 generation J-10B or the J-31 could hypothetically fulfill the low end spectrum with the J-20 serving as the high-end aircraft. The author is inclined to believe AVIC's remarks are legitimate given the separate public treatment between the J-31 and J-20. Under the assumption that the J-31 is an export only aircraft, the PLAAF must have a reason for choosing not to procure the J-31:
"What looks like a thoroughly modern stealth fighter is apparently not good enough to serve as China's next medium-weight combat aircraft...The J-20 was revealed in late 2010 and appears to have made its first flight in January 2011. It was not promoted at Zhuhai. And therein lies a key piece of evidence of the status of the J-31. The J-20 was not at Zhuhai because it is not for sale and because China does not want to reveal too much about it. It is intended for the Chinese air force. Conversely, because the J-31 was exhibited at Zhuhai and is promoted as an export product, the Chinese air force obviously does not want it."- Perrett, Hewson, Johnson, & Sweetman, 2014 
One possibility is that the PLAAF's existing 4th generation fighter force of hundreds of Su-27SK, J-10A, J-11B, and J-10B aircraft will be operational well into the late 2020s and likely 2030s; China is still replacing its hundreds of third generation fighters such as the J-7. Therefore, the PLAAF does not have an immediate need for a low end replacement fighter aircraft in the near future and might be more concerned with the development of the high end J-20. Feng from the China Air and Naval Power blog discusses the possibility that the current J-31 design may not meet PLA requirements and it is possible the design could undergo major changes before eventually entering PLAAF service several years from now. 

Domestic Prospects - PLANAF

The only operational J-31 demonstrator's nose landing gear features two side by side wheels, a common feature of carrier operated aircraft (Axe, 2014). Furthermore, a model J-31 was photographed on a Liaoning mock up in 2014. The combination of the nose wheels and the carrier mock up photographs has lead to speculation that the J-31 is being developed for the People's Liberation Army Navy Air Force (PLANAF).  

Image 2: J-31 model on Liaoning mock up flight deck, 2014. 

Given the current design of the J-31 demonstrator, the nose landing gear along with photographs of a model J-31 on a Liaoning mock up are insufficient to prove future PLANAF service. Carrier aircraft often feature a host of other design changes necessary for operating on a carrier deck such as foldable wings, arresting gear (tail hook), additional structural support to address the increased stress of carrier landings and take offs, protective salt water corrosion coatings, etc. Furthermore, given China's ongoing difficulty in the development of its first carrier operated fighter, the J-15 "flying shark", the concurrent development of a much more technologically demanding carrier based stealth fighter would be a poor management of risk. 

As part of China's broader effort to reduce US influence in the Western Pacific and implement an anti-access area denial strategy, its future carrier air wings do not have to be as large or powerful as their American counterparts. Bryan McGrath and Seth Cropsey both observe that the purpose of China's carriers would be to weaken the US network of alliances in the Asia-Pacific rather than take on the US Pacific Fleet:   
"China is building the capability to project power from the sea in order to build its strength relative to its neighbors, primarily those with whom it has ongoing territorial seas claims (including Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan). China does not need to build a navy as large or as powerful as the U.S. Navy in order to create fear and uncertainty among its neighbors. It only needs to build a navy with the credible means to project power over those neighbors’ shores.'...the strategic target of the PLAN in building a carrier force is not the U.S. Navy, but the network of alliances that longstanding U.S. economic and security interests in the region aim to preserve. Creating uncertainty and doubt in the minds of regional governments that the United States can continue to assure their security is at the heart of China’s desire to see the U.S. diminished in the region." - Bryan McGrath & Seth Cropsey, 2014 

Image 3: Chinese carrier group in January of 2014 consisting of 12 ships including: Type 051C destroyers, Type 052C destroyers, one Type 071 LPD, Type 054A frigates, Type 093 SSN and a Type 094 SSBN. Note the lack of fleet replenishment oilers or logistics ships. 

In the near term, Chinese carrier groups with the J-15 would be sufficient to pressure US allied or sympathetic countries in the Western Pacific. In the event of hostilities, Chinese naval forces would require substantial land based missile and air support to mitigate which would be available within the first and second island chains.  Furthermore, the addition of carrier based stealth fighters would not address the most significant threat to Chinese naval assets the Western Pacific, US attack submarines.  Thus, China's broader strategic goals do not require stealth carrier based aircraft in the near term and the developmental risks of the concurrent development of the J-15 with a much more technologically demanding J-31 naval variant would be exceedingly high. As with the PLAAF, there is a remote possibility that the J-31 design could be adapted or be used as the basis for a new design for a future aircraft that would serve on China's yet to be constructed super carriers several years from now, but the probability that an aircraft similar to the current design will enter PLANAF service a few years from now is slim. 

Stealth & Airframe Characteristics

Image 3: Frontal aspect of J-31 demonstrator, note the intense smoke generated from the Russian RD-93 engines. The RD-93 is a variant of the RD-33 which was originally developed for the Mig-29 in the 1970s. The smoke from the rear of Mig-29 made it easier to track in visual range combat exercises between between Polish, German, and US forces after the end of the Cold War. 

The J-31 design makes use of planform alignment, the orientation of flight surfaces at a common angle to reflect incoming radar waves away from the source, to lower its radar cross section (rcs). The angle of the diverterless supersonic inlets (DSI) matches the angle of its vertical canted tails. Similarly, the 35° wing angles  match those of the horizontal stabilizers. The use of planform alignment and DSI within the J-31 airframe strongly resembles rcs reduction techniques used on the Lockheed Martin F-35. The current J-31 demonstrator does not incorporate sawtooth engine nozzles or other forms of rcs reduction measures on the exposed RD-93 engines. Given that none of the four more technologically mature J-20 prototypes incorporate sawtooth engine nozzles or specially shaped thrust vectoring nozzles, as used by the F-22A, it is possible China does not value rear aspect stealth. Bill Sweetman explains the exposed engine nozzles for both the J-20 and Russian T-50: 

"The rear-aspect view of the aircraft is not as stealthy, a feature also seen on the Sukhoi T-50. This is clearly an intentional trade, eliminating the heavy 2D nozzles of the F-22. In this respect, both the T-50 and J-20 reflect the philosophy behind the pre-1986 Advanced Tactical Fighter studies that preceded the F-22, based on the theory that a fast, high-flying, agile aircraft is relatively immune from rear-quarter attacks." - Bill Sweetman, 2012

All aspect stealth is critical when disabling an enemy's surface to air missile (SAMs) systems within an integrated air defense system (IADS). If an aircraft with only a forward stealth capability turns after missile release, it exposes its less stealthy rear aspect to enemy radars and it subsequently becomes vulnerable to SAMs. Russia and China field the largest respective SAM forces in the world including the S-300, HQ-9 and S-400 systems as part of their anti-access area denial strategies. Conversely, with the exception of the Patriot PAC-2, the United States mostly relies upon its fighter force to defend air space. Therefore, rear aspect stealth could be of less value to China and Russia relative to the United States given the comparatively few number of US SAM systems. The FC-31 model displayed at Zhuhai does incorporate sawtooth engine nozzles among other slight airframe and design changes from the J-31 demonstrator: 

"The airframe and control surfaces of the two aircraft are similar, comprising the low aspect ratio design and chined fuselage, with forward-swept engine intakes, 35° sweptback trapezoidal planform wings, and similarly-shaped tailplanes. However, the outward-canted twin vertical fins and rudders have now been updated, terminating in tips that are diametrically angled compared with the current design's flushed tips." - Kelvin Wong, 2014

Image 4: Sawtooth engine nozzles on FC-31 display mock up at Zhuhai. Image Credit: Defense Update, 2014. 

As for estimates regarding the rcs of the J-31, no credible figures exist. Without the use of an identical J-31 mock up with rcs reduction treatments and a radar testing facility, its unlikely figures posted online can be verified. In the case of the PAK FA, patent documents filed by Sukhoi indicated the aircraft had a much larger rcs than previously estimated by numerous online sources at between 0.1m^2 and 1m^2; The 1m^2 figure likely refers to the rear of the aircraft and the 0.1m^2 the comparatively more stealthy frontal aspect. In comparison the F-22A has a frontal rcs of 0.0001m^2 or - 40 dBSM and the F-35 has a frontal rcs between 0.005m^2 and 0.001m^2 or - 30 dBSM (Global Security & Kopp, 2011). Given the relative secrecy of Shenyang, its unlikely that similar patent documents will be available within the public domain. However, there is good reason to be skeptical of assessments which assert the J-31 is as stealthy or stealthier than the F-35; Shenyang still has difficulty with basic quality control on its fourth generation production fighters. Low observability is notoriously hard to maintain as small manufacturing discrepancies that undermine planform alignment or the radar-absorbent material coatings can negate rcs reductions. 

"Quality control, in general, could undermine the J-31’s biggest apparent selling point: its ability to evade radar. 'The potential problem with Chinese- and Russian-construction stealth fighters is that if there’s a bolt out of place, it shows up on a radar signature...Russian and Chinese construction is typically much looser.'”- Robert Farley, 2014 

A US intelligence official reporting to Defense News indicated China's domestic built copy of Russia's Su-27SK fighter, the J-11B, has experienced numerous crashes due to manufacturing issues (Axe, 2013). Furthermore, China's efforts to illegally obtain US aviation grade carbon fiber also suggests the Chinese aerospace industry is experiencing ongoing difficulties in the production of high quality aircraft materials. 

This is not to say the J-31 or FC-31 is not a low observable aircraft, but one should be skeptical of extraordinarily low J-31 rcs estimates. As a caveat, its also worth noting that the J-31 does not need to match US 5th generation low observability qualities to be a significant threat to US or allied forces. US fourth generation aircraft, specifically the legacy hornet and F-16C (after the cancellation of the CAPES upgrade program) would likely have significant difficulties in detecting the J-31 from the frontal aspect. Furthermore, as Part II will discuss, many of the countries interested in potentially acquiring the FC-31 would be satisfied with a moderately reduced rcs aircraft. Part II will also discuss the avionics and strategic ramifications of the Shenyang J-31

Related Articles 


  1. Avic Promotes J-31 As An Export Fighter, Perrett, Hewson, Johnson, & Sweetman, 2014
  2. With a Stealth Fighter, China Tries to Gain Attention, Christina Larsonnov, 2014.
  3. Taking Off: Implications of China’s Second Stealth Fighter Test Flight, Andrew Erickson, 2012.
  4. China vs. America in the Sky: A Stealth-Fighter Showdown Is Brewing, Dave Majumdar, 2014
  5. Airshow China 2014: AVIC unveils FC-31 export fighter concept, Kelvin Wong, 2014.
  6. China shows off new stealth fighter, AFP, 0214.
  7. With J-31 Flight, China Makes a Statement, Wendell Minnick, 2014.
  8. What does J-31 tell us about China, Feng, 2012.
  9. Zhuhai airshow and other PLAAF news, Feng, 2014.                                                  
  10. New Chinese Stealth Fighter Relies on Russian Jet Engine, Dave Majumdar, 2014
  11. U.S. Pilots Say New Chinese Stealth Fighter Could Become Equal of F-22, F-35, Dave Majumdar, 2014                                                                                                                     
  12. What We Know So Far About The J-20, Jen DiMascio and Bill Sweetman, 2014.
  13. China Plans To Export J-31 Stealth Fighter, Wendell Minnick, 2014.
  14. Airshow China 2014: Pakistan in talks to buy '30-40 FC-31s', Farhan Bokhari, 2014.
  15. China Airshow Will Unveil J-31, Wendell Minnick, 2014.
  16. China's Selling the J-31, But Who's Buying?, Robert Farley, 2014.
  17. Pakistan & China’s JF-17 Fighter Program, Defense Industry Daily, 2014.
  18. Pakistan Rolls Out 50th JF-17, Block II Production To Commence, Usman Ansari, 2014.
  19. Thunder Resonates as Modernization Inches Forward in Pakistan, Usman Ansari, 2014.
  20. Chinese Airborne Radars, 2014.                                                                                            
  21. JF-17 Thunder Avionics, 2014.                                                                                             
  22. China's J-31 Stealth Fighter: Then And Now, Jeffrey Lin and P.W. Singer, 2014.
  23. The Chinese Air Force Evolving Concepts, Roles, and Capabilities, Edited by Richard P. Hallion, Roger Cliff, And Phillip C. Saunders, 2012.
  24. Air Combat Tactics among the Fourth Generation Fighters Rong Yang, 2014.
  25. AVIC unveils J-31 Stealth Fighter Jet, Defense Update, 2014.                                             
  26. Which Fighter Plane is the No:1 in the Indian Subcontinent in the BVR(Beyond Visual Range) arena?, fighter planes tk, 2012.
  27. Air Force Systems, Global Security, 2014.
  28. The Naval Institute Guide to World Naval Weapons Systems, 1997-1998, Norman Friedman, 1997.
  29. Dose Chinese J-10 Fighter use Russia Zhuk Radar?, 2012.                                                 
  30. First Block 2 JF-17s under construction in Pakistan, Alan Warnes, 2014.
  31. Israeli Technology Transfers to China and India: A Short Assessment, Frost & Sullivan, 2003.,-india.html
  32. EL/M-2032, 2014.                                                                                                                 
  33. Flanker Radars in Beyond Visual Range Air Combat, Carlo Kopp, 2012.
  34. Is China Buying Russia’s Su-35 Fighter?, Wendell Minnick, 2012.|head
  35. F-22 Raptor News New F-22 Raptor performance statistics released, Lieven Dewitte, 2009.
  36. The Real Reason China Wants Aircraft Carriers, Bryan McGrath & Seth Cropsey, 2014.
  37. Just how good is China's new 'stealth' fighter?, Reuben F. Johnson, 2014. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Resurgent Russia - Part III: The US Response in Context

BLOG UPDATE, UPCOMING ARTICLE: "Threat Analysis of Foreign Stealth Fighters Part III: Shenyang J-31" will be published shortly, thank you for your patience. 

Image 1: M1A2SEP main battle tanks participating in the Combined Resolve II exercises in Germany. Image Credit: US Army, 2014. 

Part I and Part II discussed Russian objectives in Eurasia and the methods it has used to meet its two main objectives: achieving nuclear parity with the United States and establishing Russian hegemony in the near abroad. Upcoming articles will make a series of military, diplomatic, and economic recommendations to the Obama Administration and the Congress with the goal of  safeguarding American interests in Europe. In order to put the recommendations in context, a brief overview of the US grand strategy in foreign policy will be provided.  

The grand strategy of the United States has been to to maintain hegemony in the Western hemisphere by ensuring no great power rivals form within its periphery while simultaneously preventing other powers from attaining hegemony in their own geographic region. 

"The underlying rationale behind this policy is straightforward: As long as Eurasia is divided among many major powers, these states tend to worry most about each other and cannot concentrate their capabilities or their attention on the United States. Nor can they do much to interfere in the Western hemisphere. This situation maximizes U.S. security and makes it possible for the United States to intervene in far-flung regions without having to worry very much about defending its own soil." - Stephen Walt, 2014 

For example, the United States contested the Soviet Union's dominance in Eurasia throughout the Cold War which subsequently forced the Soviet Union to commit the bulk of its forces in Eastern Europe. America's grand strategy is greatly augmented by the unique geopolitical state of North America. Otto von Bismark observed, "The Americans are truly a lucky people. They are bordered to the north and south by weak neighbors and to the east and west by fish". The relative stability of North America is in sharp contrast with the geo-political realities of both Russia and China who are bordered by much more demanding neighbors (from a security perspective). Thus, United States is uncontested in the Western hemisphere and its homeland is secure from nearby state actors which allows the United States to intervene in other regions of the world - namely to contest the hegemony of other powers - by maintaining a robust overseas presence when compared to other states.

The US has been able to maintain hegemony in the Western hemisphere, in part, due to its extensive system of alliances spanning from Europe to the Asia-Pacific. The United States has been largely able to avoid the historical trend of many countries that have ascended to great power status: 

"The fundamental pattern of international relations is that as a country becomes powerful and asserts itself, others gang up to bring it down. That's what happened to the Habsburg Empire, Napoleonic France, Germany and the Soviet Union. There is one great exception to this rule in modern history: the United States. America has risen to global might, and yet it has not produced the kind of opposition that many would have predicted. In fact, today it is in the astonishing position of being the world's dominant power while many of the world's next most powerful nations--Britain, France, Germany, Japan--are all allied with it." - Fareed Zakaria, 2013 

Thus, frequently discussed factors such as the size of the US economy, technological advantages, size and quality of the US military, etc. cannot fully account for American hegemony. The robust network of US alliances has the dual effect of not only increasing the number of countries willing to assist the United States, but also the alliance system significantly decreases the number of states who seek to oppose the United States.

The common critique of the Obama Administration's foreign policy, which asserts the Administration lacks a grand strategy or an underlying organizational principle is largely unfounded. The Obama Administration is clearly continuing to enact the post-World War II US grand strategy of maintaining hegemony through a system of military and diplomatic alliances. The Pivot is among the best examples of the Administration's continuation of the aforementioned policies (Walt, 2014). Applying the US grand strategy within the Russian context will be crucial for protecting US interests in Europe. The following objectives are derived from promoting American hegemony as per the grand strategy within the context of dealing with Russia after the Ukraine crisis: 

(1) Protect existing US allies from both conventional and unconventional military forces from Russia
(2) Contest Russian economic, diplomatic, and military hegemony in Eurasia, principally within the post-Soviet states in the near abroad
(3) Do not facilitate further cooperation between the People's Republic of China and the Russian Federation 
(4) Establish a compartmentalized relationship with Russia such that critical issues to the United States which require Russian assistance (principally the enforcement of Iranian sanctions) can continue
(5) Do not commit to new major unilateral security commitments in Eastern Europe    
(6) Continue existing nuclear modernization programs 

Many of these objectives are inherently contradictory with one another to varying degrees which made formulating an appropriate foreign policy response difficult. However, a response which meets these objectives is possible and will be discussed later in the series; the US has a number of diplomatic, economic, and military tools to accomplish the objectives listed above. Part VI will discuss the role between the US and other NATO countries within the context of meeting US objectives. 

Author's Note: I apologize for the comparatively short article but the complexities of NATO merited an entirely separate article e.g. the disparity in political will to use force between NATO member nations, issues related to the level of aggregate member defense spending, the type of defense spending some NATO countries prioritize to the detriment of the force, etc. 


  1. U.S. Collective Defense Arrangements, Department of State, 2014. 
  2. What Has Asia Done for Uncle Sam Lately?, Stephen Walt, 2014.
  3. America the Isolated?, Fareed Zakaria, 2013.,9171,2143560,00.html 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

News and Updates October 2014

The American Innovation blog has undergone a few changes since the last update including: new additions to the blog articles by topic tab, corrected images which originally did not display properly for the "Should the US Sell Taiwan New F-16s?" article, and added new blogs I recommend to the reading list on the right side bar.

I apologize for the lack of articles in recent weeks. Midterms will be over soon and I will be able to resume publishing articles again shortly.

Upcoming Articles

Assisting Taiwan: How the US Can Realistically Improve Taiwan's Military Posture

The Chinese military's modernization since the 1990s has been nothing short of remarkable. In nearly every respect, from equipment to training, the disparity between the Chinese-Taiwan military balance has shifted in China's favor over the last decade. China's growing economic, political, and military influence in the Asia-Pacific region has triggered a strong US response via the Rebalance. The US has sought to expand ties with several countries nervous of China's growing territorial ambitions but Taiwan remains a difficult case. China opposes any and all US weapon sales and other forms of support to the island nation. China's growing lobbying efforts against the sale of new equipment to Taiwan is evident in the Obama Administration's decision to offer an upgrade package for Taiwan's existing F-16 Block 20 fleet as a compromise rather than granting their initial request for 66 new F-16 C/D Block 50/52+ aircraft. The author will discuss methods in which the United States can support Taiwan with reduced political backlash from China, and the extent in which the US should value military to military contacts with China given the apparent lack of change in Chinese behavior with respect to territorial issues.

Resurgent Russia Part III 

Despite the ceasefire in Ukraine, the US-Russia relationship will likely be marked by a new sense of animosity and rivalry for years to come. The United States must adapt to the strategic reality that the Russian Federation cannot be counted on as a "partner nation" or "responsible stakeholder" in the international system. However, Russia's new found confidence to assert itself in world affairs must be viewed in context in terms of other US strategic priorities. Frankly speaking, a purely hawkish approach to Russia will not be conducive to promoting global US interests. The United States sill requires Russian cooperation in enforcing international sanctions against Iran and intense US pressure on Russia will only drive Putin to expand military, political, and economic ties with China. While inherent geo-political factors make a formal alliance nearly impossible between Russia and China, the two countries still could expand cooperation in ways that would pose a significant challenge to the United States. At the same time, the US must prevent the formation of a Russian hegemony in Eastern Europe while many NATO member states continue to slide into strategic irrelevance.

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