On the 19th December 2015, Chinese military watching forums began to circulate with rumours that an electronic warfare variant of the J-16 multirole strike aircraft had conducted its maiden flight, and barely a few days later on the 21st of December, photos emerged which definitively proved the veracity of the claims.
The new aircraft was thus tentatively christened “J-16D,” where “D” likely stood for dian, which is likely in turn short for dianzi zhan – Chinese for “electronic warfare” (EW).
The emergence of J-16D was interesting for a couple of reasons, one being the very short delay period between the rumours of the new aircraft emerging and photos confirming veracity of the rumours. The J-16D itself is of course notable as it seems to be a dedicated electronic warfare/strike aircraft – of which there are very few types around the world – thus its emergence may have interesting implications for the Chinese military’s orientation towards airborne electronic attack (AEA), suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD) and destruction of enemy air defences (DEAD)
Existing Chinese military aviation EW capabilities:
Mainstream media and even defence media typically do not focus very much attention towards the Chinese military’s airborne electronic warfare capabilities, with most coverage following developments in fighters, bombers, and stealth fighters.
However, the Chinese Air Force and Navy between them do host an impressive fleet of dedicated EW aircraft, including electronic intelligence (ELINT), signals intelligence (SIGINT), and electronic counter measures (ECM).
Of the dedicated long range EW aircraft, at least eight Y-8GX3 (or Y-8G) ECM aircraft are in service with the Chinese Air Force, which are thought to be dedicated, long range stand-off jamming aircraft, and a new variant based off the Y-9 platform is also confirmed to exist. The Chinese Air Force and Navy are also equipped with a total of at least eleven ELINT/SIGINT aircraft, with three Y-8GX1 (or Y-8CB), four Y-8GX2 (or Y-8JB), and four Y-9GX8 (or Y-9JB) making up the fleet, all derived from the Y-8 and Y-9 airframes, respectively. Dedicated psychological warfare Y-8 and Y-8 variants are also in service, such as at least a pair of Y-8GX7 (or Y-8XZ) as well as the new Y-9GX9 (or Y-9XZ).
Of the large, long range EW aircraft listed, the ELINT/SIGINT and ECM capabilities among AEW&C, ground surveillance aircraft, and MPA aircraft are not included.
JH-7/A strike aircraft are also known to have carried large electronic warfare pods, which likely provides the aircraft with some standoff and escort jamming capabilities, but is also likely less than what a dedicated electronic warfare aircraft can provide.
Chinese fighter and bomber aircraft have also been known to carry self defence electronic warfare pods.
Thus, taking into account the present EW capabilities for Chinese military aviation, an important capability yet to be filled, is a dedicated aircraft type whose primary mission is to conduct both EW and SEAD/DEAD missions.
Current pictures of the J-16D indicate that it fields several meaningful modifications compared to the standard J-16. These include:
-Wingtip pods on J-16D seemingly as part of standard loadout configuration.
-Removal of internal gun on J-16D, from J-16.
-Removal of nose mounted IRST on J-16D, from J-16.
-A modified nose and slightly smaller radome on J-16D, possibly indicative of a different AESA radar compared to J-16. Such a radar may potentially have a more EW oriented role compared to the standard J-16’s.
-Various antennae and dielectric grey fairings have been added around the airframe of the aircraft, including the dorsal side of the aircraft, the side of the aircraft’s nose, and the sides of the aircraft’s intakes.
The conversion of J-16 to J-16D is very similar in concept to that of the conversion of F/A-18F to EA-18G, as both the J-16 and F/A-18F were supersonic, manoeuvrable, multirole strike fighters capable of air to ground and air to air missions, and both aircraft had similar equipment removed as well as potentially added. Specifically, the EA-18G features various additional antennae to the airframe, and is equipped with wingtip pods as standard, and is not equipped with an internal gun.
As a dedicated EW aircraft, the J-16D’s EW suite will likely include a passive ESM suite as well as an active, offensive ECM jamming suite, as well as various datalinks to communicate with friendly aircraft, ships and other assets to effectively conduct its mission in an integrated way.
The J-16D’s ESM suite may include an equivalent to the EA-18G’s ALQ-218 ESM system, which provides ELINT/SIGINT capabilities to detect, identify, track, locate/geolocate, and analyze emitted radio frequency sources, which can in turn help to cue and conduct electronic attacks or physical attacks against opposing air defences. On the EA-18G, the most distinctive evidence of the ALQ-218 are two wingtip pods. The ALQ-218 pods tend to be fit aboard EA-18Gs as standard configuration, and appeared to be present aboard the maiden flight the EA-18G for both the US Navy and Royal Australian Air Force. J-16D’s wingtip pods have also been speculated to have ESM roles similar to the ALQ-218, and were present aboard the J-16D’s maiden flight as well.
The J-16D’s active offensive ECM suite will likely include a number of externally mounted ECM jamming pods. It is unknown what type of ECM pod the J-16D will mount, it may include a variant of the pods seen mounted before on JH-7/As, or it may include an entirely new type of pod such as one utilizing AESA technology like the NGJ pod being developed by the US Navy. Given the variety of AESA radars that are in service with the Chinese military across a number of platforms, it would not be out of the question for the technology to be applied for jamming purposes. Indeed, it has been speculated that the Y-9G and possibly even Y-8G standoff ECM aircraft may make use of AESA technology in their speculated side mounted jamming antennae. But considering all this, it will likely still require a number of months if not potentially years for pictures of J-16D with jamming pods to emerge in the public sphere, given Chinese military operational security.
J-16D will also likely be equipped with various datalinks, and may include the supposed Link 16 equivalent called JSIDLS (Joint Service Integrated Data Link system), and other datalinks designed for network centric communications and warfighting.
Various other EW mission specific counter measures and avionics may also be installed, as well as the possibility of a cockpit optimized to perform EW tasks.
The J-16D will likely be compatible with many weapons that the standard J-16 is confirmed or expected to field, including short range air to air missiles (such as the ImIR guided PL-10), medium range air to air missiles (such as the active radar guided PL-12 and its variants), as well as air to ground weapons including the standoff range KD-88 missile and direct attack precision guided munitions.
But as an EW/SEAD/DEAD aircraft, the J-16D will likely also carry anti radiation missiles (ARMs), which home in on and destroy sources of radio frequencies (usually radar). J-16D will likely make use of the YJ-91 and its variants, which is a domestically produced version of the Russian Kh-31 ARM. A number of other ARMs offered for export in recent years such as the CM-102 and LD-10 may also potentially find a place on the wing of J-16D, or a completely new ARM could be developed for J-16D.
It is important to note that a standard J-16D outfitted with an EW suite may have fewer available hardpoint stations for mounting weapons. A standard J-16 features twelve hardpoints: two wingtip, six underwing, two under air intakes and two centreline. However a J-16D with a standard EW configuration may include two wingtip ESM pods and three ECM pods, and assuming one of the three ECM pods are mounted centreline, then only six hardpoints will remain for other weapons and/or systems – interestingly enough that is the same number of hardpoints available to an EA-18G for a similar EW pod loadout.
Role in Chinese military aviation:
Overall, the conversion of J-16 to J-16D can be seen as logical and sensible, given the likely requirements of Chinese military aviation as well as the availability of the J-16 as a platform with potential for modification.
As a derivative of the Flanker family, the J-16 inherited many of the positive characteristics of the original Su-27 and the Su-30MKK it was then based on, including large internal fuel capacity, large external payload, large nose radome, as well as the Flanker family’s impressive aerodynamic and kinematic performance inherent to its airframe design (with adequately powerplants).
For those reasons, the twin seater, multirole strike capable J-16 was probably thus the optimal platform accessible by the Chinese military, to convert to an EW/SEAD/DEAD aircraft. The J-16D would be capable of performing not only the traditional EW/SEAD/DEAD missions required by an aircraft, but it would also have the speed to keep up with formations of strike aircraft to serve as an escort jammer during all phases of a strike mission, and its manoeuvrability would give it a greater chance of surviving encounters with opposing fighter aircraft if such situations arose, thus increasing the survivability of the aircraft overall. The J-16 platform would also have sufficient payload to conduct comprehensive EW/SEAD/DEAD missions independently if needed, at relatively long ranges or long endurances.
The closest international peer to the J-16D in terms of configuration and expected role, is thus unsurprisingly, the US EA-18G Growler. Similar to EA-18G, one challenge for the J-16D may be the need fulfil the demands of AEA and SEAD/DEAD in an aircrew of only two, however advances in automation technology may make such limitations less of an impediment for effective operations.
It is important to note that the J-16D is very much a land based aircraft and not a carrierborne naval aircraft, but there has been substantial speculation and expectation that Chinese Naval Aviation would likely leverage many EW technologies and subsystems aboard J-16D and integrate them into a variant of the J-15S, the twin seater variant of the J-15. Indeed, in recent years evidence has emerged suggesting studies have been conducted, looking into the prospect of an EW variant. The common airframe and potential for many common subsystems would make conversion of the J-15S to a potential “J-15SD” variant quite conceivable if not sensible, and it would not be surprising to see the emergence of a J-15S variant fielding many J-16D characteristics and subsystems within the next few years.
The J-16D will likely provide the Chinese military with a very capable and multirole EW/SEAD/DEAD capability once it enters service in meaningful numbers. It is difficult to project how many aircraft will be bought, and also impossible to predict whether only the Air Force will purchase the aircraft or if Naval Aviation will purchase it as well (for its land based operations).
The J-16D may also provide the basis for an expected conversion of the J-15S twin seat multirole fighter to a similar EW/SEAD/DEAD aircraft, which could share many characteristics and subsystems to the J-16D.
All in all, the J-16D is further evidence of the Chinese military’s already impressive investment into network centric, informationized warfare, and their investment into ECM/jamming and ELINT/SIGINT in particular.