Since the consolidation of Communist Party rule over mainland China in 1949, China’s military aviation sector has owed a tremendous debt to the Russian Bear. Right away in 1950, the Soviet Union provided Beijing with capable MiG-15 jet fighters (and entire squadrons of Russian pilots) that eventually compelled the U.S. Air Force to curtail daylight strategic bombing raids along the Yalu River during the Korean War.
China subsequently began production of domestic clones of Soviet MiG-17, MiG-19 and MiG-21 fighters—the J-5, J-6 and J-7 respectively—on such a scale it exported large numbers abroad.
After the Soviet collapse in 1991, Russia sold China fourth-generation Su-27 and Su-30 Flanker jets, a powerful twin-engine fighter known for its supermaneuverable flight characteristics. The Shenyang Aviation Corporation went on to develop three separate clones of the Flanker: the J-11, carrier-based J-15 Flying Shark and strike-oriented J-16.
However, according to a study published by the Royal United Service Institute, the world’s oldest military think tank, the apprentice may have surpassed the master.
The study’s author, analyst Justin Bronk, writes:
“…from a position of dependency on Russian aircraft and weapons, China has developed an advanced indigenous combat aircraft, sensor and weapons industry that is outstripping Russia’s… China has started to build a clear technical lead over Russia in most aspects of combat aircraft development. Moreover, Russian industry is unlikely to be able to regain areas of competitive advantage once lost, due to deep structural industrial and budgetary disadvantages compared to the Chinese sector.”
To be sure, China still imports turbofan engines from Russia as it struggles to perfect domestic alternatives such as the WS-10B and eventually the powerful WS-15. However, the latest Chinese fighters increasingly incorporate weapons and avionics that are more capable than those of their Russian counterparts.
Factors behind the shifting fortunes of China and Russia’s military aviation sector include:
- Beijing’s annual military spending exceeds Moscow’s two or three times over (Russian spent $70 billion on defense in 2020, China $190 billion)
- Cross-applicability of China’s well-developed civilian electronics industry to manufacturing advanced avionics, resulting in Western-style computers, sensors, and datalinks.
- Willingness of Chinese firms to copy technologies from across the globe through reverse-engineering or industrial espionage (particularly hacking)
- Western sanctions on Russia have reduced Moscow’s access to components necessary for high-performance sensors
That isn’t to say that the Chinese military holds all the advantages. Most notably, Russian military aviation has far more combat experience, with most of its fighter and bomber crews rotated into combat tours in the Syrian Civil War. The Chinese military has only begun in the last decade to implement more realistic joint combat training with other branches of the military.
The VKS (Russian Aerospace Forces) also still operates some specialized aircraft types without real Chinese equivalents, such as the MiG-31 interceptor, Tu-160 and Tu-22M supersonic bombers, and the Su-25 ground attack jet.
Russia has also had far more success exporting fourth-generation fighters than China has. (Beijing has had better fortune selling combat-capable jet trainers and drones.) But Bronk predicts that dynamic will change:
“As the superiority of Chinese weapons systems and airframe manufacturing capacity over Russian equivalents becomes increasingly obvious, countries with political alignments or budgets that preclude relying on Western aircraft will look increasingly to Beijing rather than Moscow for equipment, especially as Soviet-era fleets continue to age out.”
The remainder of this article looks at a few areas where Chinese aircraft designs are pulling ahead of their Russian counterparts.
More Extensive Use of Composite Materials
One of the key weight-saving tricks in modern aircraft design is to substitute metal components with lightweight composite materials. Those weight reduction translate into major improvements in agility and range.
Extensive use of composites can be pricy and technologically demanding. Bronk writes that China, nonetheless, has taken a lead in incorporating composites in J-11B, J-11D and J-16 fighters, all derived from Russian Flanker jets. The end result is jets that incorporate additional systems compared to the Russian original, yet still achieve a superior thrust-weight ratio.
The Xi’an aircraft corporation further advanced composite technology by 3D-printing composite components and implementing new computer-assisted design techniques for its Y-20 “Chubby Girl” transport planes—techniques sure to make their way into future combat aircraft.
Active Electronically Scanned Array Radars
The ability to spot an enemy and maneuver into advantageous position, while denying the adversary those same advantages has historically proven the most decisive edge a pilot can have in air-to-air combat. That’s why a superior radar—and greater discretion—can wind up being a deadlier advantage than, say, a higher maximum speed.
The latest Russian Su-35S jets feature extremely powerful Irbis-E passive-electronically scanned array (PESA) radars claimed capable of detecting an F-16-like aircraft up to 250 miles away. But the Irbis is also extremely conspicuous when active, meaning leveraging its capabilities can leave the operator even more vulnerable to being detected first.
The current gold standard in sensor technology is the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, which has greater range, higher resolution and better capability to maintain multiple tracks than its predecessors. Perhaps most importantly, AESA radars are much harder to detect—making it possible to search for targets without necessarily giving one’s presence away. That amounts to a huge advantage in managing situational awareness.
The U.S. Air Force and Navy have been introducing AESA radars into their fighter fleets for nearly two decades. Russia claims to have finally fielded AESA radars for the Su-57 stealth fighter and MiG-35—but the few MiG-35s delivered have lacked the AESA radar, and the maturity of the radar on the few Su-57s remains unclear.
Meanwhile, China is incorporating AESAs broadly into J-11B/D, J-15 and J-16 twin-engine fighters, J-10 single-engine fighters, and J-20 stealth fighters.
It’s worth noting the caveat that China has released little technical data on its AESA radar, and it’s unclear just how far along the introduction of AESA radars is across China’s fleet at present.
Nonetheless, the eventual widespread integration of AESA radars into modern Chinese designs means they will be operating sensor capabilities in the same ballpark as those of cutting-edge Western fighters—while all but a few Russian fighters (at best) won’t be.
Better Long-Range Air-to-Air Missiles
In addition to sensors, beyond-visual range (BVR) warfare depends on missiles that can engage enemies at greater distances, at higher speeds and with greater resistance to decoys and jamming.
In the last decade, China has begun fielding two highly capable BVR missiles. The first is the PL-12, which approach the U.S. AIM-120C missile in performance and outranges the Russian R-77 BVR missile.
However, China has also developed a PL-15 missile believed to match or exceed the range of even the latest U.S. AIM-120D BVR missiles. The PL-15’sdual pulse motor also allows a lethal second burst of speed as its close with its target.
Russia, meanwhile, has had difficulties fielding the R-77-1 missile in adequate numbers. However, the VKS does field small numbers of very-long-range (200+ miles) R-33 and R-37M missiles used mostly on MiG-31 fighters that don’t currently have a direct Chinese or U.S. equivalent yet.
Russia’s short-range R-73 heat-seeking missiles have a more solid overall reputation, though the RUSI report notes they lack an infrared imaging sensor that’s better at distinguishing aircraft from flare decoys, unlike U.S. AIM-9X and Chinese PL-10 short-range missiles.
More Mature Stealth Aircraft Technology
China’s Chengdu J-20 Mighty Dragon, though likely less agile and all-around stealthy than the U.S. F-22, is generally considered the first credible operational fifth-generation stealth fighter designed outside of the United States.
By contrast, while Russia’s Su-57 Felon stealth jet appears impressively agile, it’s less technically mature. For example, the first production model Su-57 crashed just a few days before it was officially set to enter Russian military service due to a flaw in the flight control system.
The RUSI report further describes limitations to the Su-57’s stealth technology:
Notable sources of radar reflections include the unusual fully moving leading-edge root extension control surfaces and actuators, cockpit canopy design, ram air intakes at the base of the canted vertical stabilisers, IRST sensor in front of the canopy and the only partially shrouded jet engine turbine faces…These features are likely a result of comparative Russian inexperience in designing and building stealth aircraft, coupled with budgetary limitations. They, along with limited manufacturing tolerances and quality control issues, mean that the effective Radar Cross Section of the Su-57 will be at least an order of magnitude larger than the F-35 and several orders of magnitude larger than the F-22.
The Su-57 still has some good qualities, and is harder to detect than prior Russian warplanes, but the report emphasizes it is “not a direct competitor with the U.S. F-22 (or Chinese J-20) as Very Low Observable air superiority machine.”
Beijing simply has spent far more money to develop, refine and procure the J-20. Over the years, photos reveal the J-20 has gone through numerous iterations with improved engines and stealth technology.
The Shenyang Aircraft Corporation has also independently developed another stealth fighter called the FC-31 or J-31 Gyrefalcon with some resemblance to the U.S. F-35. It is unclear whether the Chinese military will introduce the J-31 into service, though it’s rumored it may be adapted for service on China’s growing aircraft carrier fleet.
Better Integration of Precision Guided Weapons
Modern air-to-ground warfare is increasingly premised on the idea that plastering a target area with lots of big bombs is less effective than getting just one or two munitions to land precisely on target. But scaling up from limited to wide-scale use of precision guided weapons poses formidable challenges.
Russia has developed a variety of PGMs, but stocks are limited, so in practice the VKS has primarily relied on unguided bombs and rockets when bombing targets in Syria. Contributing to this problem have been limited accuracy of Russia’s GLONASS satellite network used to calculate bomb release, and the inability of most Russian combat aircraft (with exception of dedicated attack aircraft like the Su-24, Su-25 and Su-34) to mount targeting pods for precision air-to-ground strikes.
That relegates most Russian pilots to more difficult and less accurate methods of targeting, such as hewing the entire plane around to paint a target, relying on the seekers of the wing-mounted munitions, or using TV-guided weapons manually guided by the weapon systems officer of a two-seat jet like the Su-30 or Su-34.
By contrast, targeting pod support or organic electro-optical targeting systems reportedly feature in later Chinese jets including the J-10, J-16 and the J-20 stealth fighter. Furthermore, China is developing and exporting a diverse array of precision-guided missiles and bombs, many of which are available in scaled-down form for deployment on combat drones.
More Mature Unmanned Drone Capabilities
All the emphasis on comparing high-performance jet fighters shouldn’t lead one to forget that the unmanned systems are increasingly poised to supplant manned warplanes in the 21st century. Some of these future robotic air warriors may be as exquisite and expensive as stealth fighters, but most will be far less costly and capable—and far easier to risk using in action due to their relative expendability.
Over the last two decades, China has developed a broad spectrum of both reconnaissance and combat drones (UCAVs), ranging from relatively small and cheap CH-2 and Wing Loong UCAVs widely exported abroad, to the jet powered Cloud Shadow, the high-flying Divine Eagle HALE surveillance drones, and the supersonic WZ-8 spy drone.
Russia meanwhile, neither operates nor export any UCAVs—though it has announced it will begin fielding an unidentified UCAV in 2021. To be fair, the Russian Ground Forcers does field a variety of tactical reconnaissance drones like the Orlan-10 that have proven effective over Ukraine and Syria. Sukhoi is also developing a sophisticated Su-70 Okhotnik-B stealth UCAV.
While Russia’s UCAV programs may eventually bear important fruit, it doesn’t change the startling fact that China, Israel and Turkey operate and export multiple types of combat drones today that have no equivalent currently in Russian service.