China Has Edged Ahead of Russia in Air vs Air Capabilities (With Russian Help)

The Chinese are amazing at tech

Editor’s note: The caveat is that Russia does not intend to fight pure air vs air battles. Russian doctrine envisages fighters and ground anti-air working together as a part of a whole. Nonetheless, purely looking at fighters China is now in the lead. Russia is still a little ahead in engines, but China has more advanced radars and better munitions. [— Russia still hasn’t managed to field an AESA radar.]

The old formulation that in the Sino-Russian alliance the Chinese are the economic superpower and the Russians the military superpower is one that will increasingly have to be amended. The Chinese are already the equals in military tech and may eventually pull ahead.

The text below is an abstract. For the entire 60-page report click here: Link.

The Soviet Union, and latterly Russia, have been the source of both aerial and ground-based pacing threats to Western airpower since the end of the Second World War. However, 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. As a result, for the first time since 1945, the likely source of the most significant aerial threats to Western air capabilities is shifting.

Modern air combat is primarily decided by the balance of advantage in situational awareness. Given broadly comparable numbers, the force which can provide its aircrew with superior awareness of enemy position, track and identity will have a major advantage in any clash. In scenarios where situational awareness is relatively equal, missile reach and seeker performance, crew experience, aircraft performance, electronic warfare (EW) and countermeasures systems all contribute to the likely outcome.

Russia and China currently field superficially similar combat aircraft fleets. Both rely heavily on the Su-27/30 ‘Flanker’ family of combat aircraft and their various derivatives. They have also both pursued a fighter with low-observable (LO) – also known as stealthy – features, alongside increased multirole capability for their main fighter fleets. However, a clear Chinese lead is now emerging over Russia in most technical aspects of combat aircraft development.

The Flanker family of combat aircraft share: a large radar, optical and heat signature; potent kinematic performance; a relatively long range on internal fuel; and the ability to carry heavy ordinance loads of air-to-air or air-to-ground weapons. This makes them comparatively easy to detect and, in the case of Russian Flanker types, the lack of a modern active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar restricts them to relatively ‘brute force’ tactics using powerful but easy-to-detect radars and missiles which are outranged by their Western counterparts.

China has developed J-11 and J-16 series Flanker derivatives featuring AESA radars, new datalinks, improved EW systems and increased use of composites, which give them a superior level of overall combat capability to the latest Russian Flanker, the Su-35S. 

This advantage is increased by Chinese advances in both within-visual-range (WVR) and beyond-visual-range (BVR) air-to-air missiles. Unlike the latest Russian R-73M, the PL-10 features an imaging infrared seeker, improving resistance to countermeasures. More significantly, the PL-15 features a miniature AESA seeker head and outranges the US-made AIM-120C/D AMRAAM series. China is also testing a very-long-range air-to-air missile, known as PL-X or PL-17, which has a 400-km class range, multimode seeker and appears to have been designed to attack US big-wing ISTAR and tanker aircraft.

China has developed and introduced into service the first credible non-US-made LO, or fifth-generation, fighter in the form of the J-20A ‘Mighty Dragon’. Subsequent developments are likely to increase its LO characteristics and sensor capabilities, as well as engine performance, with construction of the first production prototypes of the J-20B having begun in 2020.

Overall, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and People’s Liberation Army Navy are rapidly improving their combat air capabilities, including a focus on the sensors, platforms, network connectivity and weapons needed to compete with the US in cutting-edge, predominantly passive-sensor air combat tactics.

The Russian Su-57 Felon is assessed as not yet having matured into a credible frontline weapons system, and as lacking the basic design features required for true LO signature. However, it does offer the potential to correct many of the Flanker family weaknesses with greatly reduced signature and an AESA radar, while improving the already superb agility and performance of the Flanker series. [The Su-57 doesn’t need to be as stealthy from the side and rear because unlike the Chinese very-long-range J-20 it’s not supposed to venture outside the air defense bubble. That said it is true that so far the Chinese have demonstrated more “stealth” tech than the Russians — and in much greater numbers.]

The Russian Air Force (VKS) does not currently field targeting pods for its ground-attack and multirole fleets. This limits the ground-attack aircraft to internal equivalents with inferior field of view and tactical flexibility, and the multirole fighters to reliance on either pre-briefed GPS/GLONASS target coordinates, radar-guided weapons or target acquisition using fixed seekers on the weapons themselves. This limits VKS fixed-wing capabilities against dynamic battlefield targets compared to Western or Chinese equivalents.

China is actively pursuing unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) designs with multiple programmes at various stages of development. Detailed assessment is hindered by tight control of information leaks by the Chinese Communist Party. Of those known to be in development, the GJ-11 subsonic attack UCAV appears the most advanced.

Russia is also pursuing UCAV-style technologies and has produced the Su-70 ‘Okhotnik-B’ technology demonstrator. However, it is not yet clear what degree of practical operational capability the Russian aircraft industry will be able to develop through the Su-70, especially given the demands for significant levels of in-flight autonomy inherent in UCAVs designed for state-on-state warfare in heavy EW conditions.

China’s advanced and efficient Flanker derivatives, as well as lightweight multirole fighters in the shape of the J-10B/C series and potentially a developmental FC-31 LO fighter programme, are likely to provide the leading source of non-Western combat aircraft from the mid-2020s onwards. Likewise, their air-launched munitions will increasingly outcompete Russian equivalents on the export market. As such, the development of Chinese capabilities should be closely monitored even by air forces which do not include the PLAAF in their direct threat assessments.

The possibility of technology transfer from China to Russia in the combat air domain could potentially increase the threat level posed to NATO by Russian airpower in the longer term, should such a dynamic emerge.

Source: The Royal United Services Institute

  1. Jerry Hood says

    All pure speculations.No one knows what everything Russia has! Don’t believe the corrupted Western sources! Always liars like their zionazi bossess…

  2. Raptar Driver says

    I’m not sure about the conclusions of this article.
    It seems to be a little far fetched that the student has over taken the teacher.

    1. Geraldo says

      wel it does say ‘trends’ so it is possible that at some point, in some areas, the Chinese will overtake, maybe in areas that they rely upon more. China needs aircarft carriers and good fighters/fighter bombers, Russian Navy is all about stand off weaoonry, hypersonics etc.
      I think the two countries, together, make a formidible set of offensive and defensive capablities that in a pinch and fighting together can repell and offset the dwindling effectiveness of western military capabilities. I don’t think the penny has dropped in the West yet, just because there is no de facto military alliance on paper between Russia and China doesn’t mean that there isn’t one.

  3. GMC says

    Possibly, China is on their way to have a military that can keep it’s trade routes open or get rid of the “disrespectful ” competition like the western globalists, US proxies, etc. etc.- that keep interfering in it’s business ventures.

    In the old days it was imperative to have plenty of ships on the water – today- its the land , sea and air. Still fighting fighting Pirates too.

  4. Jorge says

    Really? Like those radar systems that fail to detect widebody planes when they are supposed to catch one square meter rcs at many miles and their overheating power sources. So bad the chicoms had to reimbourse the full 50 plus million dollars Bolivia paid for it. Or the shells that break open the barrels of argentinian tanks, forcing them to buy israeli and french ammo instead? That chinese miltec and ammo? Or maybe it is just the export versions the ones that don´t work? And by the way, check your sources; Russia has many AESA radars in operation, ground and airborne, most of them with lateral ultra-thin beam scanning. They are a bit bellow US/European manufacturers in DSP hardware, but that is pretty much it. Russia has a ton of extremely impressive and capable equipment, we do not know how capable…and we do not need to know either.

  5. Podravec says

    no it is not!

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