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PLA Navy Carrier Update and Euro-Naval Notes

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by Richard Fisher, Jr.
Published on November 7th, 2006

Yes, China is dead serious about aircraft carriers.

The most important news to emerge from the Euronaval weapons show at Le Bourget field near Paris, October 23-27, was word that Russia had agreed to sell China two Sukhoi Su-33 carrier-based fighters, with the possibility of selling up to 48 or 50 of these fighters. These would arm the three carrier battle groups that, according to Chinese press reports, are on track to be ready in a little more than a decade.

Should these fighters receive a maximum Russian upgrade, then the PLA Navy could possess fighters that in important respects would be superior the U.S. Navy F/A-18E/F, the dominant U.S. Navy combat aircraft for the foreseeable future.

In addition, China would have more carriers available for operations within a thousand miles of her shores than would the U.S. plus her allies. Carriers, with their ability to create local air superiority and sea denial, may be particularly effective in attacks on island territories belonging to such states as Korea (Socotra island) or Japan (the Senkakus) or the Philippines (who already have a Chinese presence on Mischief Reef) or Indonesia (the Natuna group) or even Taiwan --Taiping island, the most important strategic position in the South China Sea.

The best response will be submarines, which Japan has in limited numbers and Korea is building, but which are otherwise not widely possessed by American allies, as well as advanced anti-ship missiles and air power of a sort that, absent some improvements, will be no match for the Sukhois.

But the Sukhois may represent the limit of what Russia can do; they have a 5th generation fighter program but with uncertain prospects for success. Moscow lacks the most advanced technologies, the sorts that have the greatest potential to destabilize the region, such as stealth. So Beijing is now looking to Europe for that next input of know-how.

Euronaval heard new calls by the French government on October 25, 2006 to lift the 1989 European Union (EU) arms embargo on China. New European naval platform and weapons technologies revealed at Euronaval ensure that once the EU embargo is lifted, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will seek to move quickly to gain access and cement industrial relationships. China clearly is looking to the EU to provide "next-generation" military technologies increasingly unavailable from Russia’s weapons combine, which is still struggling to recover from the demise of their well-funded Soviet customer

Sukhoi Su-33 Sale To PLA

Russian press reports about the sale of Suhkoi Su-33 naval fighters to China offer further confirmation of China’s ambition to develop carrier aviation. At the 2005 Moscow Airshow Russian sources had initially disclosed that China was interested in the Su-33, a much-modified carrier compatible version of the basic Su-27 heavy fighter.[1] At Moscow the Russian also demonstrated the larger twin-seat Su-33UB training and attack fighter for a PLA delegation. But in late October 2006 Russian reports in Kommersant and elsewhere revealed that China has made an initial purchase of two Su-33 fighters for evaluation, likely to be followed by an order for 12, and the possibility of additional sales that could lead to a total of 48 to 50 of these fighters, for about $2.5 billion.[2] If acquired, such numbers might outfit two regiments of the PLA Naval Air Force.

Sukhoi Su-33 Naval Fighter: On display at the 2005 Moscow Airshow, China may buy 2 and then up to 50 of these fighters to equip PLA Naval Air Force regiments to operate from new aircraft carriers. Credit: RD Fisher

A regiment of 24 to 25 would also be enough to outfit a Russian style carrier like the Varyag, which is now undergoing refurbishment in Dalian harbor. In Moscow one Russian source noted that purchased fighters would not equip the Varyag, but a carrier to be built in the future, so the purchase of two regiments might be an indication that China intends to build two more carriers about the same size as the Varyag. However, such can only be speculation; Russia is now developing a new class of aircraft carrier that it hopes to launch later in the next decade. While little is known about their new carrier design, concepts from the mid-1990s suggest Russian consideration of a much larger hull incorporating catapults for the first time, which would also support heavier aircraft like naval AWACS. As the PLA is also known to be developing at least one carrier AWACS aircraft design, it stands to reason that it would also be very interested in Russia’s new carrier design.

Russian Carrier Designs: China is consulting with Russia regarding future carrier designs, though these are previous designs from the 1980s and 1990s that could be guiding China-Russia consultations. Credit: Russian Internet

As for the Varyag itself, some in the U.S. Intelligence Community and others view it as a possible "transitional" ship to develop PLA carrier aviation, but with potential military applications as well.[3] The purchase of 2 to 12 Su-33s to start would be consistent with the more limited goal of assessing the aircraft and obtaining initial experience with carrier aircraft operations. Also, a Varyag with 12 Su-33s, a small number of Su-33UBs and supporting helicopters, would pose a formidable political symbol of Chinese strategic ascendance to Asian allies of the United States already wary of its declining influence vis-à-vis China. A Varyag so equipped would also allow the PLA to more quickly develop difficult combined-arms operations between PLA Navy, Air Force, Second Artillery and space forces to better combat U.S. aircraft carrier groups.

Sukhoi Su-30UB: Demonstrated to PLA visitors to the 2005 Moscow Airshow, this unique Russian fighter could be developed into an electronic warfare version capable of electronic attack, information attack and jamming missions. Credit: RD Fisher

But the purchase of just a small number of Su-33s may convey other intentions when considering another Russian revelation from the Russian press that China had managed to acquire from the Ukraine one of the T-10K prototypes for the Su-33.[4] This may indicate that while purchasing some Su-33s, the PLA’s real intention is to obtain the ability to produce their own version of the Su-33, to be based on the Su-27/J-11 now under co-production at the Shenyang Aircraft Company. Shenyang and KnAAPO, the maker of the PLA’s Su-27 and Su-30 fighters, have been at loggerheads since 2004 over the Shenyang’s desire to build a much-modified J-11 that would vastly reduce Russian content and potentially allow China to market their own version of yet another Russian fighter. KnAAPO and its parent company Sukhoi would like maximize their profits from future upgrade or modifications Shenyang may make to its J-11s. KnAAPO has also produced all of the Russian Navy’s Su-33s and would likely want to retain this business.

At Moscow in 2005 a Russian source was rather confident that China could not master all of the necessary modifications to turn their J-11s into carrier capable fighters like the Su-33. Compared to the basic Su-27, the Su-33 has a strengthened airframe covered with corrosion-resistant materials, much strengthened landing gear, the addition of "canard" lift devices and larger wing flaps to lower landing speed, folding wings, an aerial refueling probe, and a landing system that automatically controls the aircraft to land on the carrier deck.[5] The Su-33UB contains further aerodynamic refinements, uses more stealthy composite materials, and can carry a larger radar for attack missions. The Su-33UB has also been proposed for AWACS missions with the addition of a phased arrary radar atop the dorsal spine or under the fuselage. The Su-33UB demonstrated for the PLA in 2005 had also been modified with thrust-vectoring engines which greatly improve maneuverability.

But a year later it is possible to conclude that perhaps as far back as the late 1990s the PLA has been trying to develop an indigenous carrier capable J-11. Such a fighter may also benefit from Shenyang’s indigenized land-based J-11 program, which will likely incorporate new 13,200 to 13,600kg thrust WS-10A "Taishan" turbofan engines, new advanced PLA-developed radar and PLA-developed PL-12 advanced air-to-air missiles and new precision-guided ground attack weapons. A navalized J-11 based on this program would be decidedly superior to the Su-33 now in service with the Russian Navy.

Shenyang’s J-11 Ambitions: It is possible that for a number of years that Shenyang has been developing a carrier capable version of it J-11, benefiting from its program to create a new multi-role version of the J-11. Credit: Chinese Internet

To head off this program, and to appeal for future Russian Navy orders, Sukhoi is promoting upgrades for the Su-33. These will likely benefit from an upgraded version of the Su-35 that was marketed at the recent 2006 Zhuhai Airshow.[6] One major upgrade will be replacing the 12,500kg thrust AL-31F engines with 13,500kg thrust AL-31-F-M1 engines, which will allow for more rapid take-offs and larger weapons carriage. And while funding constraints have prevented radar and weapon upgrades, it is now possible to envision new Su-33s being equipped with new active electronic scanning array (AESA) radar like the Phazotron Zhuk-MFSE revealed in 2005. This radar can simultaneously track 30 aerial targets, two ground targets simultaneously, and locate naval targets out to 300km. Russian radar maker NIIP is also working on AESA radar. With additional development such phased array radar can themselves become weapons for delivering a range of electromagnetic attacks into enemy electronics. The Su-33UB’s ability to carry a much larger active array makes more attractive for such electronic weapons. The Su-33 can also be expected to carry the full range of Russian weapons, such as the Vympel R-77 active-guided BVR AAM, the 300km range Novator KS-172, the Kh-31 supersonic anti-radar/anti-ship, the Raduga 300km Kh-59MK anti-ship missile, and soon, air launched version of the unique 200km range Novator 3M-54E anti-ship missile and the 300km range 3M-14E land-attack cruise missile.

Phazotron AESA Radar: Revealed at the 2005 Moscow Airshow, the Phazotron Zhuk MFE is now undergoing testing. Credit: RD Fisher

Should China instead opt to fund a maximum Russian upgrade for the Su-33 instead of developing their own version, the PLA Navy could begin limited carrier operations by the middle of the next decade with a fighter competitive to, if not superior in some respects, to the U.S. Navy Boeing F/A-18E/F fighter bomber. In terms of range and maneuverability, it appears that the larger Su-33 with lower wing loading and higher thrust engines, will dominate the F/A-18E/F.[7] This advantage will multiply should the new Su-33 use thrust-vectoring engines. Such platform advantages may be regarded as obsolete considering the U.S. use of long-range off-board sensors like AWACS, UAVs and even satellites, plus the ability of new Helmet Mounted Displays for reducing the advantages of platform maneuverability. However, the Russian and Chinese investment in counter AWACS and anti-satellite systems could revive requirements for platform superiority, especially when both sides have Helmet Display systems.

Boeing F/A-18E/F and the Raytheon AN/APG-79 ASEA radar: The U.S. Navy is betting this combination will sustain the superiority of its carrier combat fighters, but an upgraded Su-33 could radically alter this projection. Credit: RD Fisher

In terms of electronic systems, the U.S. Navy is leading by fitting current and future F/A-18E/Fs with the Raytheon AN/APG-79 active electronic array radar (AESA), but Russian AESA radar may soon be available for the Su-33. Regarding weapons there may be rough parity, with the Su-33 having access to more and longer-range anti-ship missiles than the F/A-18E/F. While it is due to be supplemented by the stealthy attack mission oriented Lockheed-Martin F-35C in the next decade, the F/A-18E/F will remain the numerically dominant U.S. Navy combat aircraft for the foreseeable future. Although the U.S. would retain a commendable advantage accrued from generations of professional carrier operations and development, it would be an unwelcome development for PLA to begin its carrier aviation era with a combat aircraft competitive to superior to the F/A-18E/F.


Severnoye and the Type 054 Frigate

Russian sources noted that in contrast to other firms, the Severnoye ship design and construction company played a consulting role in the development of the PLAN Type 054A JIANKAI frigate. These sources noted Severnoye’s role was confined to assisting the integration of Russian systems on to the ship. These sources noted that the Type 054’s design was largely a product of indigenous Chinese design bureau. However, the Type 054A also uses a full suite of Russian weapon systems, including the Shtil-1 vertical launched SAM, the MINERAL-E passive radar and data link system, and the FREGAT long-range search radar. The helicopter hanger is large enough to support a Kamov Ka-28 size helicopter. Two Type 054A frigates were under construction as of late 2006.

Type 054A Frigate Under Construction: Now beginning series production, the Type 054A provides the PLA Navy with a less expensive stealthy ship armed with capable Russian anti-air weapons and surveillance systems. Credit: Chinese Internet

Possible Almaz ZUBR Hovercraft Sale to China

In July 2006 Russian press reports quoted sources from the Almaz ship design bureau that it was close to completing a sale to China of six of its unique 550 ton ZUBR heavy amphibious assault hovercraft, with discussions also exploring possible co-production in China. At Euronaval Russian sources noted that China had not yet signed such a contract, but negotiations were still underway. These sources also noted that it took a little over two years to build a ZUBR assuming full funding. For a large order of the hovercraft, it was noted that Almaz would likely distribute construction among multiple shipyards. The ZUBR can carry up to four heavy main battle tanks or up to 20 lighter wheeled APC class vehicles. Being a hovercraft, the ZUBR can also much more easily penetrate Taiwan’s difficult west coast, giving the PLA many more options for amphibious attack routes. China itself has invested in the development of large hovercraft, but not as large as the ZUBR. Co-production of the ZUBR would likely enable China to more rapidly prefect very large hovercraft.

Almaz ZUBR hovercraft: The sale of even a small number of ZUBR to the PLA would greatly increase PLA Army invasion options for Taiwan. Credit: RD Fisher

Air Launched CLUBS

The Novator company, designer and manufacturer of the unique CLUB family of ship and submarine launched anti-ship, land-attack and anti-submarine cruise missiles, stated that at the 2007 Moscow Airshow they would display new air-launched version of their 3M anti-ship missile and their 3M56E land attack cruise missiles. The unique two-stage 220km range 9M launches as a subsonic missile until a terminal supersonic second stage detaches about 50km from the target, to more effectively counter ship-based defensive systems. The 300km range 3M56E was revealed in late 2004. Novator officials stated these missiles would be displayed on a Sukhoi Su-30 fighter-bomber. India and China both deploy the CLUB family of missile from their KILO submarines and India from its Project frigates. As both also employ versions of the Su-30, it is logical that Novator hopes they would both also purchase the air launched versions.

Future Air Launched Clubs: Novator is now adding air-launched version of its 3M65E anti-ship and an 3M-14E land attack cruise missiles to its export offerings. Credit: RD Fisher

RIF-Ms to China Downgraded

Russian sources at Euronaval claimed that Altair’s RIF-M naval SAMs employed on China’s two new Type 051C destroyers are not capable of anti-missile missions. They would require both software and hardware upgrades in order to perform that mission. However, these sources did indicate that discussions are underway with China regarding the sale of more capable versions of the RIF-M. These sources also noted that China has not been sold the latest modifications of the RIF-M with employ the latest 45km range 9M96E and the 150km range 9M96E1 SAMs. Both of these, in addition to a version that would incorporate the naval version of the S-300PMU-2 FAVORIT, are anti-missile capable These two missiles can be carried four to a launch tube that would carry but one 150km range 48 SAM. The Type 051C carries 48 launch tubes for its RIF-M system.

RIF-M on Type 051C DDG: Russian sources claim the currently deployed system is not capable of missile interception, but perhaps future versions sold to China may be so capable. Credit: RD Fisher, Chinese Internet

Potential European-Chinese Cooperation

Despite France’s enthusiasm for lifting the 1989 arms embargo, strong U.S. opposition in 2005, plus Washington’s efforts to explain to defense industries how military technical cooperation with China will impact their business with the U.S. has produced results: at least British companies who look for greater business in the U.S. are not eager to do defense business with China.[8] However, barring a near term act of Chinese aggression, it is not assured that the embargo will persist for many more years. French and German marine diesel engines power PLA warships and submarines. Eurocopter is enabling China to develop and produce modern helicopters, and a recent decision by Airbus to build an assembly line for its A321 airliners in Tianjian will also assist China’s efforts to efficiently build future large civil and military transport aircraft. In terms of naval technology, the PLA would look to Europe to sell or co-develop technologies that Russia is not yet able to offer: advanced phased array radar; unmanned underwater combat systems; new more efficient air independent propulsion systems for submarines; and modern stealthy combat ship designs. In time, France could offer modern aircraft carrier technologies and advanced nuclear submarine technologies.

Future European Opportunities: The PLA already co-produces French SEMT Pielstick diesel engines for frigates and support ships, and would likely be interested in many advanced European naval technologies like the MESMA air independent propulsion system. Credit: RD Fisher

[1] See author, "2005: A Turning Point for China’s Aircraft Carrier Ambitions," International Assessment and Strategy Center, January 8, 2006.

[2] Konstantin Lantratov and Alexandra Gritskova, "China lands on Russian carrier," Kommersant, October 23, 2005; "China Buying Russian Fighter Jets," Prensa Latina, October 24, 2006,; also see Siva Govindasamy, "Beijing lines up naval fighter deal," Flight International, October 31-November 6, 2006, p. 16.

[3] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, May 23, 2006, p. 32.

[4] "China Buying…," op-cit.

[5] For more detail on the history of the Su-33’s development see, Andrei Fomin, Su-27, Flanker Story, Moscow: RA Intervestnk, 2000, pp. 111-162 and Yefim Gordon and Peter Davidson, Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker, Warbird Tech Series Volume 42, North Branch NM: Speciality Press, 2006, pp. 53-64.

[6] "Sukhoi markets new multi-role fighter at Chinese airshow," RIA Novosti, October 31, 2006.

[7] For more data on the design, performance and upgrade potential of the Su-33 see Dr. Carlo Kopp, "The Flanker Fleet-The PLA's 'Big Stick'," International Assessment and Strategy Center, May 3, 2006.

[8] This sentiment was expressed to the author by British aviation industry representatives at a conference in London on October 28, 2006.

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