Five Planes of the Chinese Air Force You Really Ought To Know About
Without these support aircraft, China’s new jet fighters are clueless and out of gas
The People’s Liberation Army Air Force has undergone sweeping changes in the last 20 years. Like the Chinese Navy, the PLAAF changed its name to simply “Chinese Air Force.” The introduction of fourth-generation fighters, bombers, unmanned aircraft and advanced cruise missiles has transformed the air arm from a primarily defensive force to one that can be used to project Chinese power throughout Asia.
At the same time, China has begun pressing old, previously dormant territorial claims in the South and East China Seas. The two events are not unrelated, as the Chinese government is clearly relying on the military to give its assertions teeth. The Chinese Air Force has already flown several high profile patrols through the two disputed areas, some of which would not have been possible two decades ago.
There’s an understandable preoccupation with the sexy side of the Chinese Air Force: the new fighters and fighter bombers are good-looking, capable aircraft. But behind them are five other aircraft that the new air arm can’t live without.
KongJing-2000 radar plane
The KongJing-2000 is China’s first operational airborne early warning and control aircraft. Similar to the American E-3 Sentry, the KJ-2000 is an Il-76 cargo plane adapted to carry a disc-shaped radar dome. The sensor can detect hostile aircraft more than 300 miles away.
Aircraft such as the KJ-2000 are considered force multipliers whose abilities enhance other aircraft. For example, a KJ-2000 could operate in the open, radar on, detecting enemy aircraft in all directions. Nearby Chinese fighters could fly with their radars off and rely on the KJ-2000's sensor instead, making the fighters harder to detect.
Chinese Air Force pilots are known for relying heavily on ground controllers for instructions. As China’s air operations move farther from shore and away from ground radar stations, aircraft such as the KJ-2000 will be necessary to provide direction.
Complicating matters is the inherent lack of mid-air refueling capability. Unlike the American E-3, the KJ-2000 cannot remain on station for long periods of time. In April, a drill involving three KJ-2000s achieved 24 hours of continuous radar coverage, but that involved three of China’s five existing KJ-2000s. With aerial refueling, a single Sentry could stay aloft for 22 hours.
The lack of AEW&C aircraft seriously limits China’s ability to sustain air operations over the South and East China Seas. If the CAF wants to be able to conduct large-scale, high-tempo operations for prolonged periods— something like a war—it will need many more of these aircraft. Until it has them, don’t expect China to be even remotely interested in an actual air war.
It’s worth noting that KJ-2000s have helped patrol China’s new Air Defense Identification Zone near the disputed Senkaku Islands.
Xian H-6 bomber
The H-6 is modern China’s first—and so far only—heavy bomber. First licensed from the Soviet Union in the late 1950s, the H-6 has been continually updated over the years.
Originally designed to drop nuclear bombs, the H-6 has grown into other roles, including conventional bomber, missile carrier and even aerial refueling tanker. The Chinese Air Force is thought to have roughly 80 H-6s in the role of nuclear bomber and cruise missile carrier, and 10 as aerial refuelers.
The latest version of the H-6 bomber, the H-6K, carries up to seven CJ-10 long-range cruise missiles. The H-6/CJ-10 combination is designed to provide China with a long-range, precision strike capability against targets on the ground.
This capability is apparently aimed at what China calls the First Island Chain, consisting of Taiwan, Okinawa, Japan and the Kuril islands. Inside the First Island Chain is China’s inner defense zone, an area that China feels it must keep clear of enemy forces in wartime in order to protect the homeland.
The H-6 has not seen combat with China, but two years ago the bombers helped break up ice floes in the Yellow River. Three H-6s dropped 24 1,000-pound bombs in an attempt to get the river flowing.
China has a long history of relying on the Soviet Union and then Russia for military cargo aircraft. China operates several dozen Il-76 airlifters purchased from Russia: 30 outfitted as cargo planes, five as KJ-2000s and four as Il-78 aerial tankers.
But the Il-76 has proved expensive, and now China is building its own heavy airlifter, the Y-20. Developed by Xian Aircraft Industry, the four-engine Y-20 appears similar in appearance to the American C-17 and Europe’s A400M.
According to China’s state media, the Y-20 is capable of transporting up to 66 tons of cargo a distance of 2,700 miles. The Y-20 will also be capable of mid-air refueling, stretching that range even farther. The Y-20 will be inferior in most ways to contemporary Western aircraft, but as a first attempt at an airlifter, it ain’t bad.
The Y-20 will be particularly useful in getting outsized cargo rapidly to China’s far western territories and offshore locations such as the southern Hainan Island. The Y-20 would also be a key player in any Taiwan invasion scenario hauling combat troops and vehicles including the Type 99 tank.
The Y-20 will also carry paratroopers, possibly as many as 90. But dozens of Y-20s would be needed to lift China’s airborne divisions and supply an invasion force. It’s not at all clear that Beijing has the will or the cash to acquire that many.
But the Y-20 is important for another reason. Once mated with a decent engine, the Y-20 could become the basis for a new generation of support planes including refueling tankers and airborne early warning aircraft.
Tu-154 special missions aircraft
In the lexicon of intelligence, “special missions” aircraft are those dedicated to collecting electronic data on the enemy. Aircraft such as the Tu-154 fly near ships and aircraft of foreign countries, photographing them and pulling in the electromagnetic signals they broadcast.
Outwardly, the Tu-154 SMA looks like a commercial passenger plane. But if a Tu-154 in CAF markings flies past, you can be sure the Chinese military knows quite a bit about you.
The special Tu-154 is equipped with the BM-KZ 800 electronic intelligence collection system, designed to collect data on land and ship based radar transmitters. The BM-KZ 800 equipped with sensitive receivers to pluck radar, radio and all manner of other signal data out of the air.
The raw data are then analyzed and cataloged for quick identification. If a radar can be uniquely associated with a certain type of ship, for example, that can help speed identification of those ships in the future. Signals information can also be used to jam enemy communications and radar systems.
Mounted underneath the aircraft is a synthetic aperture radar that produces radar-based images of objects including vehicles, installations, ships and aircraft—in daytime or at night, regardless of weather. Like an ultrasound of a fetus in the womb, but using radar waves.
Like the KJ-2000 radar planes, Tu-154s have flown over China’s new Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea.
Most fighters have a fairly short combat radius: the distance an armed fighter can fly to a designated point, drop bombs or fight other planes, and then return home. This is usually less than half the fighter’s advertised range—and it’s a big problem if you’re fighting a war at a distance.
For decades, China didn’t have to worry about distance because it expected any future conflict to take place over China. Now, as Beijing presses old territorial claims on its periphery, it has to start thinking about sending jet fighters greater distances.
That’s where the Il-78 aerial refueling tanker comes in.
The combat radius of the J-10 fighter is around 350 miles. The distance from China’s air bases on Hainan Island to the contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea is 670 miles. Other than an aircraft carrier, the only way China can even consider putting fighter patrols over Spratly Islands is with aerial refueling tankers like the Il-78.
The Il-78 is a Russian Il-76 cargo aircraft converted to carry fuel instead of cargo, and it carries enough fuel to fill the tanks of a J-10 no fewer than 20 times over. Trailing three long refueling hoses, the Il-78 can refuel three fighters at once.
Although it can refuel more aircraft at one time than the American KC-10, the Il-78 carries less fuel internally.
The problem is, China only has eight Il-78 tankers and is having trouble procuring more. It has signed deals for more Il-76 cargo aircraft, likely with an eye towards converting them to tankers, but production issues in Russia have meant only a handful of new Il-76s have been delivered.
Until China is able to get its hands on more aerial tankers, its air force will continue to have a short reach.