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Sunday, April 7, 2013

A Word About Chinese Military Research

Image 1: Shenyang J-15 undergoing carrier flight testing. 

Authors Note: While conducting researching the China's anti-access series of articles, I was constantly reminded of how bad much of the existing source material is. The primary objective of this article is to aid those who wish to learn more about the Chinese military from reliable sources. A list of reliable research resources will be provided after the examination of why such a large extent of publicly available online resources on the Chinese military are unreliable. 

Many experienced analysts who routinely research military topics often encounter an assortment of difficulties while researching topics pertaining to the Chinese military

"American military attaches assigned to the country are taught that 'China's first line of strategic defense is the Chinese language.' It takes about a decade to become reasonably proficient in Chinese—all too often an impractical quest—but on top of that, many Chinese will admit that the vocabularies of the military and related sciences approach a separate language, unknown to most.” - Richard D. Fisher, 2012

To make matters worse, the Chinese Government is not a credible source in regards to military related information as it routinely commits acts of disinformation (e.g. providing false defense budget figures). Many English written articles on the Chinese military are often both poorly written and biased to the extent of qualifying as an outright fabrication. Articles about Chinese military systems on Wikipedia are a classic example of this phenomenon*. 

*NOTE: I do not use Wikipedia articles directly for research nor would I recommend it to anyone. However, I've found that examining the source material utilized in a well written Wikipedia article can be a good initial starting point for one's own research into a topic if conventional methods do not provide much useful information.

Many of the topics written on Chinese military systems on Wikipedia are beyond redemption and cite bogus source material. This is an excerpt from a particularly poor written Wikipedia article about the J-15 as of 4/5/2013. (Image 2) 

Nearly every claim made by the author(s) during the first three fourths of this paragraph are either demonstrably wrong or highly suspicious.   
  1. "likely exceeds or matches the aerodynamic capabilities of virtually all fighter aircraft currently operated by regional militaries, with the exception of the U.S. F-22 Raptor." Its hard to take these types of statements seriously as they are not grounded in reality to any extent. The J-15 is the product of China's reverse engineering efforts of Ukrainian Su-33 aircraft obtained between 2001 and 2005 (Source 4). While the original Soviet Su-33 airframe provides some decent maneuverability characteristics when compared to some legacy 4th generation aircraft, it is inferior to high performance fighter aircraft employed by other regional air forces such as the Su-30MIK, Su-30MKM, F-15SG, and F-15K. The J-15 will not even be as maneuverable as the original base Su-33 design if Shenyang cannot secure reliable high thrust engines. China's current domestically produced WS-10A engines are not very capable. In short, given that even basic quality control measures remain a major issue for Shenyang, any claim that compares the J-15 to the most lethal air superiority fighter in the world should be met with intense scrutiny. 
  2. In regards to 4.5 generation technological features mentioned: To the article's credit, it does mention the remarks made by Sun Cong, chief designer of the Shenyang J-15, in the subsequent paragraph. Sun Cong's full statement: "In an interview with Chinese state news agency Xinhua, Chinese aircraft designer Sun Cong said that the J-15 is 'generally close to the US F/A-18, reaching world class standards.'" (Source 6). However, Sun Cong's statements and the information provided in the paragraph above (image 2) are mutually exclusive. As capable as the original McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A Hornet is, the original F/A-18 Hornet did not feature AESA radar, RAM coatings, supermaneuverability, etc. The original Hornet would not even be in the same league of performance as an aircraft which features the aforementioned traits. If the J-15 really included the listed traits, its performance would be closer to that of an advanced 4.5 generation fighter design such as the Eurofighter Typhoon not the original 4th generation legacy Hornet. The technology incorporated within the J-15 design is reminiscent of 4th generation aircraft qualities as the J-15 does not quality for the 4.5 generation aircraft designation. Its also worth keeping in mind by the time the J-15 starts to enter service, the original Hornet will be transitioning out of service in the US Navy. The original Hornet will be replaced by the much more capable 5th generation F-35C which will serve alongside the 4.5 generation F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.  
  3. In regards to the AESA claims: No credible source has confirmed the incorporation of an AESA radar into the J-15 design. If previous domestically produced Chinese radars are any indication, China's current domestically produced fighter radars are comparable to late 1980s to early 1990s US fighter radars in terms of both detection power and tracking performance. The pulse doppler radar utilized in the J-11B as of 2006 was capable of tracking six to eight targets and engaging four of them simultaneously (Source 1).  The domestically produced J-10A's radar, based on the Israeli EL/M-2035 can track twenty targets and engage up to four simultaneously (Source 2). The  APG-71 radar developed for the F-14D Super Tomcat in the late 1980s and fielded in 1991 could track 24 targets and simultaneously engage six of them (Source 3). Radar systems aren't developed overnight. Considering the scheduled deployment date for the J-15 is 2016 (Source 12), its reasonable to assume the radar system utilized by the J-15 is currently being developed. Given the relative level of technological maturity featured in 2006 indigenous radars mentioned earlier, it is highly improbable that within a period of just seven years (2006-2013) Chinese radar technology advanced enough to build a capable fighter AESA radar system. Russian firms took a considerably longer period of time to gain the ability to produce an AESA fighter radar on par with US AESA systems. Russia's first AESA fighter radar, the Phazotron Zhuk AE/ASE, was publicly announced only a relatively short while ago in 2007. European firms also took a considerable period of time to develop their own AESA radar systems. Thales recently delivered the first European built fighter AESA radar sets to Dassault in 2012. However, it should be noted that Chinese firms will advance their radar technology faster than Russian firms did relative to US firms due to China's extensive cyber espionage efforts. In summary, no credible source has verified the inclusion of an AESA radar in the J-15 and the current state of Chinese domestic radar technology would make the development an AESA radar (or at least a competent AESA radar system) incredibly difficult for Chinese engineers. Its possible the J-15 could have a very basic AESA by 2016 but its unlikely. 
The J-15 Wikipedia article is representative of how inaccurate many online resources are that relate to the Chinese military. There are also an innumerable number of Chinese military blogs that post false information which in turn Wikipedia authors will use for their own articles.

Reliable and Easily Accessible Sources on the Chinese Military

There are a few good online resources about the Chinese military that I've found of the years. The list below are the main websites I use when researching the Chinese military. Assuming you do not purchase a subscription to based resource such as Jane's Defense & Security Intelligence & Analysis, these are among the best online resources on the Chinese military.

Global Security:

  • Global Security provides an extensive series of thousands of articles that encompass nearly every major weapon systems employed by militaries worldwide. Global Security is technically a subscription based resource. However, the site provides 7 free article a month. Global Security is an excellent resource and is certainly a worthwhile investment to individuals who desire a reliable comprehensive resource on military equipment. 
  • Site introduction: " is the leading source of background information and developing news stories in the fields of defense, space, intelligence, WMD, and homeland security. Launched in 2000, is the most comprehensive and authoritative online destination for those in need of both reliable background information and breaking news., is well-respected, trusted and often-referenced in the media, both domestically and internationally."

US Department of Defense Publications:

  • The US Defense Department publishes an annual report to Congress concerning Chinese military capabilities. These reports contain a huge volume of information and provide a good introductory resource on the Chinese military. Specific weapon systems are usually mentioned briefly but these reports provide an invaluable perspective on aggregate Chinese military capabilities.  

Air Power Australia:
  • Air Power Australia (APA) is an interesting resource which has published some of the most comprehensive analyses of Russian and Chinese weapon systems to date. However, Dr. Karlo Kopp's criticisms on the F-35 is largely unfounded. The main reason why APA appears on this list is much of the information published on the site cannot be found elsewhere. For example, some of the detailed performance figures of Russian fighter radars are simply not available anywhere else except in Russian whitepapers written in Russian.  
  • Site introduction: "The  Air Power Australia website was established in October, 2004, with the aim of  promoting air power; stimulating public and parliamentary debate on air power topics; educating the community; and, publishing and archiving papers and articles on air power topics. The website covers a wide range of air,  land and sea warfare topics, especially where these are related to the integration and synergy of air, land and sea warfighting capabilities."

  • The RAND corporation is a think tank that routinely publishes some of the most comprehensive national security analysis available to the public. Although the RAND website and its analysis contains a lot of useful information, finding a specific paper or topic can be difficult due to the sheer volume of reports. 
  • Site introduction: "The RAND Corporation is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis.  RAND focuses on the issues that matter most such as health, education, national security, international affairs, law and business, the environment, and more. With a research staff consisting of some of the world's preeminent minds, RAND has been expanding the boundaries of human knowledge for more than 60 years.  As a nonpartisan organization, RAND is widely respected for operating independent of political and commercial pressures.  Through our dedication to high-quality and objective research and analysis and with sophisticated analytical tools developed over many years, RAND engages clients to create knowledge, insight, information, options, and solutions that will be both effective and enduring."
If you have any questions, feel free to ask. Discerning the credibility of a resource can be pretty difficult.


  1. PLA’s Flanker fighter family, DX, 2009:                                                                             
  2. Air Force Systems, Global Security, 2014.
  3. The Naval Institute Guide to World Naval Weapons Systems 1997-1998, Norman Friedman, 1997:
  4. J-15 Flying Shark (Jianjiji-15 Fighter aircraft 15) / F-15, Global Security, 2013: 
  5. Is China Buying Russia’s Su-35 Fighter?, Defense News, 2012:|head
  6. China fighter designer compares J-15 to F/A-18 Hornet, Greg Waldron, 2013: 
  8. Sukhoi Su-33 and Su-33UB Flanker D  Shenyang J-15 Flanker D, Dr. Carlo Kopp, 2008:
  9. China’s Testing Woes Remind That Developing Carrier Planes Is Hard, David Axe, 2013:
  10. China’s Defense Secrecy Still Robust, Richard D. Fisher, 2012:
  11. Engine Tech, Cyber-Espionage Key To China’s Progress, Bill Sweetman, 2012:
  12. New Pictures Of China's J-15 Suggest The Plane May Be Getting Ready For Carrier Takeoffs, Robert Johnson, 2012:
  13. Flanker Radars in Beyond Visual Range Air Combat, Dr. Karlo Kopp, 2008:


  1. Information on Chinese X-Band AESA radar, detailed specs, pictures, and even internal structure of modules, have been publicly available for a while, in Chinese.

    My observation is the tendency for western observers, when faced with inability to understand the Chinese language, is to convince themselves of what they want to believe, building on their previous erroneous assumptions. In term of AESA resarch, all Chinese AWACs are already AESA, as well as some of the world's largest naval AESAs on the 052D, it shouldn't be difficult to believe China has also been developing X-band AESA.

    Its one thing to live in denial, its another to go up against J-15 expecting 1980s radar, and get shot down by an LPI AESA equipped opponent, without even knowing what hit you.

  2. Actually, the "AESA" claim does have its grounds, considering that Lei Qiang, which was a senior official within the PLAN claimed so. A couple of sources here and there mention it as well. AESA technology is not new in China, since the first of such systems entered service in 2003 in the form of the KJ-2000. Since then, multiple corporations in China have been bidding to provide the PLAAF with AESA radars, and so far the confirmed fighter-based AESA applications are the J-10B, J-20, J-16, J-11B, and perhaps the J-31 if it gets adopted (sources here:'s%2BAESA%2BRadars%2BFor%2BJ-10B%2BJ-16%2Band%2BJ-20.jpg)

    There are a few hasty assumptions that you made and I'll try to point them out in your posts:

    1. It's really hard to believe that the J-15 would have the same maneuverability as the original Su-33. The J-15 is based on the J-11B, which had incredible composite material application, and the J-15 prototypes' green hue suggests this as well. Not only that, the 132 kN WS-10A engine offers far more thrust than any contemporary naval fighter other than the F-35C. That is bound to give the J-15 unprecedented maneuverability, especially when considering that all FBW systems have gone digital since the Su-33 era.

    2. I don't see how J-15 fails to meet the "4.5" gen requirements. Personally I don't believe in such a term, but since you mentioned it, here's how I would gauge it. The J-15 already has decent maneuverability due to its high power engines and weight saved by composites. The plane is based on the earlier J-11B, which already has RAM applied to its airframe, so it is unreasonable for the J-15 not to, especially when the prototypes flew five years apart.

    3. The J-15's AESA radar claim was first mentioned by a PLAAF official and now an air force insider has revealed that the upgrade has been delayed due to costs. But what is common is that the J-15 will eventually get an AESA (remember, Super Hornets did not get such fancy upgrades for the initial units). AESA technology is not new in China so even if they wanted a quick upgrade for older jets they could do it given the money. Your comparison between the J-10A's and F-14's radar is irrelevant. So what if the F-14 could track more? Such systems incorporate far more aspects in their operation, such as range, resolution, jamming and anti-ECM capability, etc. Unless we can get a detailed outline of Chinese and American radars, as well as their blueprints, it is pointless and unscientific to compare them. The J-15 has already entered production, so that "2016" date is definitely out the window.

    In summary, the J-15 probably does incorporate most of the features listed on Wikipedia (true, Wiki is never a reliable site, but the point still stands) since its predecessors are already upgraded with the mentioned technologies.

  3. Superficial analysis..

    Why J-15 with less weight and more engine thrust + digital FBW cannot be significantly more maneuverable than SU-33?

    Yes we dont know the maturity of ws-10A, but they know; so they are at the better position to make such a claim than us.