Now that 2016 is upon us, it is a good time to look back on 2015 and briefly assess some of the biggest and/or most important developments in 2015 that we managed to see from the Chinese military.
Thus without further ado, placed in no particular order, here are ten major developments we’ve seen, ranked in no particular order.
DF-21D and DF-26 Anti Ship Ballistic Missiles
The DF-21D and DF-26 AShBMs have both been rumoured for a significant amount of time, however it was the high profile reveal of both systems at the 70th anniversary VJ day parade, along with clear descriptions of their role and even rough specifications offered by state media commentary which made this reveal virtually unprecedented in recent memory.
Y-8Q/GX6 ASW MPA commissioning
Clear pictures of the Y-8Q emerged in the latter half of this year, along with confirmation that the first Y-8Qs had finally entered Chinese Naval Aviation service after years of testing. The future influence of the Y-8Q on the Chinese Navy’s anti submarine warfare capabilities will be immense, and cannot be underestimated. Therefore it well deserves its place as one of the Chinese military’s top ten developments in 2015.
In early April of 2015, pictures from Dalian shipyard emerged of a new large ship under construction in the same drydock where the Liaoning carrier underwent its own fitting out. Many experienced Chinese military watchers knew this ship would be 001A, the first domestic aircraft carrier, however it took many months until roughly November, when progress of module assembly reached a stage where even the strongest skeptics agreed the ship was mostly likely a carrier. Furthermore, at time of writing, the Chinese Ministry of Defence has also confirmed definitively that the “second carrier” (i.e.: first domestic carrier) is under construction.
Furthermore, 001 class Liaoning carrier has also continued carrying out exercises and training for its crew and aircrew. While pictures and video have been scarce, a brief video clip was released in December, showing at least six J-15s simultaneously on the ship at once likely with multiple more regularly operating from the ship to assist in training pilots.
Chinese Navy surface ship progress
2015 was another productive year for progress of the Chinese Navy’s fleet.
The sixth and last 052C class destroyer was finally commissioned in early 2015, two 052D class destroyers were commissioned, four 054A class frigates were commissioned, five 056/A class corvettes were commissioned as well, as well as a 903A class AOR, and a large number of auxiliaries, medium landing ships, and research and intelligence ships.
Furthermore, three 052D class destroyers were launched (including the first from Dalian shipyard), as well as three 054A class frigates, and seven 056/A class corvettes. Early in the year the fourth 071 class LPD was also launched (and appeared close to commissioning by the end of the year), and the first of the 50,000 ton 901 class AOE was launched along with two additional 903A class AORs.
In late 2015, confirmation of China’s order of 24 Su-35s was finally unveiled by both Chinese and Russian media and governments, ending a multi year and almost decade long rumor echo chamber that suggested a Chinese purchase of Su-35s was “imminent”.
The actual usefulness and reasons of China buying 24 Su-35s is still a matter of some debate, however it goes without saying that they will offer some new capabilities to Chinese military aviation. More importantly, for Chinese military watchers, the Su-35 purchase finally ended years of having to suffer through consistent, seemingly annual media reports of confirmation of a Chinese Su-35 purchase.
SAC built Flanker progress (J-11D, J-15, J-16, J-16D)
Shenyang Aircraft Corporation experienced a successful year with their production of domestic Flanker aircraft.
The much awaited J-16 striker appeared to finally be delivered to the Air Force for handover, providing a long range multirole strike aircraft with advanced avionics such as AESA radar.
J-11D also emerged near the end of the first quarter of the year, which was a single seat, structurally enhanced fighter with similarly modernized avionics such as an AESA radar and appeared to be intended more for the air superiority role.
J-16D, a relatively unexpected electronic warfare variant of the J-16 made its maiden flight near the end of the year with little preceding ceremony. However the impact of this aircraft cannot be underestimated, as it could dramatically enhance the Chinese military’s electronic attack, suppression of enemy air defence and destruction of enemy air defence capabilities.
Finally, production of the J-15 carrierborne fighter continues at SAC. While this is not in itself a major advancement or event, it is probably worth clumping with the rest of the progress SAC has made in its Flanker developments.
Production of the J-10B/C continued in 2015, seemingly with two units’ worth of J-10Bs being delivered to their locations after making its maiden flight first in late 2008. This much awaited fighter aircraft will replace the older J-10A in production and complement existing J-10As in service, and will provide true 4+ generation fighter capabilities to the Air Force.
It is also worth noting that at least two J-10Bs have been refit with a variant of the WS-10 turbofan, suggesting further advanced testing is occurring for the WS-10 family egines to eventually replace imported Russian built Al-31 family turbofans aboard J-10B/C production.
Progress for J-20 was steady for most of 2015, with two prototypes (serial numbers 2016 and 2017) making their maiden flights in the second half of the year. Serial number 2017 in particular appeared to field certain changes indicative of a final product and its roll out was accompanied by a degree of fanfare, leading to speculation that it may be the last or one of the last prototypes.
In December, images emerged of a J-20 in yellow factory primer with serial number 2101, and is highly suspected if not virtually confirmed to be the first Low Rate Initial Production model of the J-20, suggesting the aircraft has reached the next stage of development. At time of writing, J-20 airframe 2101 is expected to make its maiden flight within weeks if not days.
It is worth noting that J-20 at this stage is still only being powered by interim Al-31 family engines rather than the intended and more powerful WS-15s. However, given the rate of progress and the background of Chinese avionics and subsystems experience, it is likely that the rest of the J-20 programme (namely in sensor suite, mission avionics, and weapons suite) are progressing in line with airframe development for Chengdu Aircraft Corporation to feel confident in moving forward with LRIP.
China, through the China National Space Administration, made an impressive count of 19 out of 19 successful rocket launches in 2015, ranking it second in the world in terms of successful launches in 2015 after Russia.
Notable satellites launched included the Yaogan 29 military satellite, the Wukong/DAMPE dark matter exploration satellite, as well as the Gaofen 4 geosynchronous orbit earth observation satellite which boasts a 50m resolution in visual spectrum. Successful first launch of the CZ-6 and CZ-11 low short response carrier rockets are also notable events and important for the CNSA’s future earth orbit space missions.
Not all of these satellites or launch events direct military applications, however their potential for future military use as well as their general impressive nature gives space progress a worthy place as one of the top ten developments for the Chinese military in 2015.
Strategic missile forces and weapons
2015 featured continued reports of three successful tests of hypersonic glide vehicle, with its designation changed from WU-14 to DF-ZF, as well as reports of tests of the new generation long range DF-41 ICBM.
It was also reported by the US that the Chinese Navy’s 094 class SSBNs had begun making their first deterrence patrols, indicating the 094s and their JL-2 SLBMs had likely reached a level of operational readiness where the Navy was confident in their ability to make long duration patrols.
Finally, the aforementioned DF-21D and DF-26 IRBM/AShBMs are also very much strategic missiles in their own right and could potentially be armed with nuclear warheads. The DF-16 SRBM was also revealed at the 70th anniversary VJ day parade, and is also a very capable strategic missile itself.
What about 2016?
2016 will likely see continued production and commissioning of Chinese Navy surface combatants and other ships, including the commissioning of the first 901 class AOE. The 001A domestic carrier is also strongly rumoured to be launched at the end of the first quarter next year, but at this stage it is difficult to see how this may occur. Further developments in submarines will also be likely, but the high operational security around SSK, SSN and SSBN development makes it difficult to truly ascertain progress in this category. The first 055 class large destroyer is also strongly expected to occur late next year.
Progress in J-20 development is expected, with greater numbers of J-20s likely to be produced now that it has entered the LRIP stage. Continued production and commissioning of SAC Flanker variants and CAC J-10 variants will also occur. Progress with the Y-20 is also strongly expected, with greater numbers of airframes expected to be delivered in its equivalent of the LRIP stage, as well as hopes of seeing Y-20 equipped with the domestic WS-20 high bypass turbofan replacing the older imported D-30s currently in use.
But with PLA watching anything can occur, and wildcards such as the H-20 stealth bomber, nuclear submarines, UCAVs, missiles, or even rail guns and lasers, may emerge as well.