Why does the Chinese Air Force consider J-16 as the backbone of its fighter fleet?

PLAAF J-16
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According to recent media reports, the PLAAF J-16 fighter has been seen flying in a formation near the Eastern Theater Command. The J-16 is in service with the PLAAF since 2015. China operates approximately 175+ J-16 long-range strike fighters.

As we all know, due to one of the most critical combat indicators of the current fourth-generation aircraft technology, the research, and development work of ultra-stealth capability is mainly concentrated in the hands of the world’s top powers such as the United States, Russia, and China.

Judging from the current development trend of armament technology around the world, other countries have not yet been able to independently “crack” the key parameters of the 5th-generation fighter stealth technology.

The J-16 is seen as one of the most advanced and important fighter aircraft in the fleet of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force. The aircraft is capable of performing long-range air combat and patrol missions. It has the maximum takeoff capacity of 35,000 kg (77,162 lb) and a long range of 3,900 km similar to Russian Su-30 after all it’s an upgraded variant of Su-30/Su-27.

J-20 and J-16
J-20 and J-16

Countries like the United States, Russia, and China have been known to have mastered stealth technology. These three countries represent the current top combat power right now, the 4th-generation fighter aircrafts developed by these nations are able to perform different types of combat missions. The F-15 Eagle, F-18 Super Hornet, Su-30, etc are good examples of fourth-generation jets.

For modern warfare, the role of the 4th-generation aircraft is still relatively large, especially when large-scale frontal battles for air supremacy are launched in large airspaces, the 4th-generation aircrafts are still the main force, but if technologies of the 5th-generation aircraft are used on them, it will allow these 4th gen aircraft to gain some combat advantages of the 5th-generation aircraft. So why this is not applied?

-In the present scenario, the overall cost of the 5th-generation fighter is still relatively expensive, and it is not suitable for super-large batches. Some combat missions that are not too important are more suitable for the 4th-generation fighters.

After all, other 5th-generation aircraft capabilities are relatively easy to achieve compared to stealth fighters. Many technical and tactical features of 5th-generation jets can be achieved by in-depth improvements inside original 4th-generation aircrafts. Therefore, under the guidance of this kind of combat thinking of “having a certain generation difference advantage at the smallest cost”, a type called the 4.5th gen has emerged. This type of fighter is a fourth-generation aircraft without the benefit of stealth. Russia calls such fighters “4++” fighters.

Among them, the more famous ones are the “Rafale” series fighters that are representing the aerial power strength of French aviation, and the newly launched F-15EX fighters of the United States. China has also developed J-10C and J-16 fighters in this category while India Tejas mk1A will join soon the category.

The JF-17 “block 3” fighter uses the diverterless supersonic inlet jet engine air intake system used by many fourth-generation and fifth-generation stealth fighters. It can be clearly said that by using the available technology of the fourth-generation jets, the combat capabilities of forth-generation jets can be greatly improved.

Therefore, these type of fighters, after their upgrades are capable of performing the combat missions of fourth-generation jets, such as using its own over-the-horizon combat advantages to accurately eliminate enemy fighters outside the defense zone, using its own super-maneuverable ability to evade the attack of enemy fighters, etc. Even under certain circumstances, the forth-generation fighters can also become the command center and information processing methods in the aerial battlefield, commanding or guiding their own drones to conduct operations, etc.

That is to say, for the J-16, a 4.5th gene fighter, it reflects the characteristics of modern warfare. For example, the F-15EX of the U.S. military is designed to consider the future of combat operations with supersonic weapons. The concept, which fits the “fast, accurate, and powerful” combat characteristics of supersonic weapons, makes it part of the future U.S. military’s over-the-horizon strike system.

Compared with the highly expensive expensive F-35, the F-15EX, which has some 5th-generation aircraft combat capabilities, highlights its cost-effective advantage.

Similarly, the J-16 of the Chinese Air Force is not only equipped with an active phased array radar, which makes its detection capability ahead of the traditional forth-generation fighter, it also inherits the excellent aerodynamic shape and air mobility of the “Flanker Series” fighter. In terms of performance, compared to the Su-35, the J-16 has even developed a “Silent Flanker Version” – J-16D on the original basis.

In other words, this J-16D capable of performing electronic warfare can not only act as an independent unit to undertake tactical-level electromagnetic interference to the enemy’s important detection facilities in the future. According to Chinese media the performance of the J-16 has basically reached the standard of the fourth-generation aircraft. In theory, it has the ability to completely cooperate with fifth-generation aircrafts.

There is a high probability that the J-16D will play a very important role in the Chinese Air Force’s future electronic warfare combat capability.

Therefore, the J-16 series can be regarded as a relatively powerful new version of the “Flanker” series fighter. After all, the Russian-made Su-35 which is known as the “Ultimate Flanker” is also in service with the PLAAF.

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