China’s Air Power Future Is Visible in These Two Photos
Snapshots reveal badly-needed new engine and refueling pod
Two photographs posted to the Internet in early January reveal much-needed advancements for the Chinese Air Force and Navy. If the photos really do show what they appear to show, Beijing could soon have the ability to carry out long-range carrier air strikes and transport missions—a combination that, at present, only the United States can undertake on a large scale.
The photo above appears to depict an air-to-air refueling pod underneath the center fuselage of a J-15 carrier-launched jet fighter. The pod, which includes a hose that can be reeled in and out and trailed behind the jet, transforms any J-15 carrying it into a refueling tanker able to give fuel to other fighters, thus extending their range.
The pod appears to be based on the Russian UPAZ-1A Sakhalin, which is standard on Moscow’s large aerial tankers and fighter-bombers. That should come as no surprise: most Chinese aerospace technology is directly copied from Russian models—sometimes legally, other times in violation of international licensing.
The Chinese Navy—specifically its J-15s—really needs a refueling pod. The J-15, a copy of the Russian Su-33, is Beijing’s only carrier-compatible jet fighter. But it compares poorly to the American F/A-18 and the French Rafale, its closest rivals. That’s because Liaoning, China’s sole aircraft carrier, is a refurbished Russian design that lacks a steam catapult for boosting planes from her deck, and instead uses an angled ramp.
The ramp manages to get planes into the air—but inefficiently. To get airborne, the J-15 must stay light, limiting it to a small fuel and weapons load. Even then, the fighter has a useful combat range of just 100 miles, according to a scathing criticism in the Chinese state media. French and American carriers can, by contrast, routinely send their fighters hundreds of miles with heavy weapons loads.
Unlike the Americans with their hundreds of KC-130, KC-135 and KC-10 aerial tankers, the Chinese military possesses only a few dedicated tankers—Russian models, again. Liaoning’s J-15s cannot depend on big tankers to lend them an effective flying distance. But a refueling pod would allow J-15s to refuel other J-15s.
If Lioaning’s air wing—ultimately including probably a dozen or more J-15s plus helicopters—has enough refueling pods and its pilots are good at using them, it might be able to launch effective air strikes over distances possibly equal to what American and French wings can accomplish. Suddenly Liaoning is more than an experimental vessel. She could be actually useful in combat.
In December 2012, satellites spotted a new Chinese transport plane—Beijing’s first homegrown strategic airlifter in the class of the American C-17. The new Y-20 took flight for the first time in January 2013 and landed in front of a flag-waving crowd.
The Y-20 promised to help give China a prized capability that, at present, only the world’s leading militaries possess—the ability to quickly ship troops, vehicles and supplies over long distances … even between continents. But there was a problem: the new airlifter appeared to be using four D-30 low-bypass engines from Russia. Those motors probably lack the efficiency for long-range, high-payload missions.
Aero-engines are a big problem for Beijing. “China’s inability to domestically mass-produce modern high-performance jet engines at a consistently high-quality standard is an enduring Achilles’ heel of the Chinese military aerospace sector,” wrote Andrew Erickson, a U.S. Naval War College analyst.
Consequently, almost all of Beijing’s warplanes are powered by foreign-made engines—or at least copies of foreign-made engines. But a new photo, re-posted above, seems to show one of China’s Russian-made Il-76 transports with three D-30s … plus an unidentified fourth engine. Something big. Something new. Quite possibly the high-bypass powerplant the Chinese Air Force needs to transform the Y-20 into a true strategic airlifter.