Two new stealth fighter prototypes. A new long-range airlifter. New drones, attack helicopters, radar planes and spy planes. The pace of Chinese air power advancements in the last three years far outstrips aerospace developments in other countries.
Now add to the list the J-16, a new twin-engine, twin-seat jet fighter-bomber based on the Russian Su-30MK. Big and powerful, with a heavy weapons load and a combat range of hundreds of miles, the J-16 could become a main front-line combatant of the Chinese Air Force and Navy, possibly bridging the gap between China’s older jets and whatever stealth models eventually enter service.
The apparent first photo allegedly showing a J-16 in flight was posted to the Chinese Internet in early January. That J-16 carries the nose number “1601,” indicating it is the first prototype.
The new warplane was a secret until two years ago. China-watchers strongly suspected that Beijing was working on a jet called the J-16, but no outsiders knew for sure what it was. Some speculated the J-16 might be a stealth fighter similar to the apparently radar-evading J-20 and J-31, which first appeared in 2010 and 2012, respectively.
An image circulated appearing to depict a stealthy version of China’s older JH-7 attack plane. Some observers believed that was the J-16, until a man admitted to creating the image in Photoshop for fun.
In May 2012, Chinese officials told a Hong Kong magazine the J-16 was in fact an unlicensed copy of the Russian-made Su-30. Beijing purchased a couple dozen Su-30s from Moscow in the early 2000s. Today they perform maritime strike missions for the Chinese Navy.
China has a long history of copying foreign-made warplanes—particularly Russian ones. The Chinese Air Force’s front-line J-10 and J-11 are clones of the Israeli Lavi and Russian Su-27, respectively. The Chinese Navy’s carrier-compatible J-15s are based on the Russian Su-33.
The Russian clones are unlicensed—in other words, illegal—and have caused a lot of hand-wringing inside the Kremlin, which is eager to sell its hardware and equally keen to prevent unauthorized copying. Russian-Chinese industrial relations have gone through cycles of chilling and thawing as Moscow weighs the short-term financial benefits of selling to Beijing against the long-term costs of getting copied.
Besides the diplomatic fall-out, cloning jet fighters has its downsides for Beijing. The J-11s, for one, have rolled out of the factory with massive defects that have reportedly caused several crashes.
And the J-15s are too big and heavy for carrier operations aboard China’s sole flattop Liaoning, but were apparently the only carrier-compatible fighters Beijing could produce quickly. The alternative is a “navalized” MiG-29, but China has never imported MiG-29s and so cannot copy them.
The J-16 is reportedly intended to join the Chinese Navy first, with Air Force service to follow. But like the Su-30 it’s based on, the new plane is strictly land-based. With eight tons of air-to-air and anti-ship missiles and a combat radius of several hundred miles, the J-16s could help Chinese warships battle for control of the China Seas.
A Chinese military source said two years ago that the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation had already built 24 J-16s. The number could be much greater today. All told, Beijing possesses nearly 3,000 combat aircraft, approximately as many as Russia but less than a quarter the number operated by the United States.