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Chengdu J-10 Fighters for Iran

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by Richard Fisher, Jr.
Published on October 28th, 2007

According to an October 23 report by Russia’s Kommersant, “Iran has signed a contract with China for the delivery of two squadrons of J-10 fighter planes…Representatives of the Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company said China would deliver the total (24 jets) in 2008-2010. Engines for the jets will be supplied by Russia…estimating one fighter at $40 million, put the contract’s value at $1 billion.”[1]

On October 24 a reputable Asian source confirmed this sale to the IASC, noting that it will include 20 single seat J-10A fighters, 4 J-10S twin-seat fighters, 120 SD-10A medium-range self-guided air-to-air missiles and 120 PL-9C short-range air-to-air missiles.

However, denial of the sale was quick to come from the Chinese Foreign Ministry.  On October 25 Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao stated, “It's not true, it is an irresponsible report…China has not had talks with Iran on J-10 jets.”[2] Well, China is marketing the J-10 to other countries to include Pakistan (up to 40 J-10s) and countries in Southeast Asia, so it is at least plausible that it is also offering the J-10 for sale to Iran.

True or False: Iranian sources claim that China is going to sell 24 J-10 fighters to Iran by 2010, which has been denied by China’s Foreign Ministry. Source: Chinese Internet

While further confirmation or denials can be expected from other Russian, Iranian and Chinese sources, such a sale remains possible given Iran’s requirements and its relationship with China.  But at a time when U.S. and Israeli officials are increasingly considering the heavy burden of having to attack Iran’s nuclear weapons related facilities, China’s sale of the J-10 to Iran may signal the beginning of a deeper Chinese effort to protect Iran’s nuclear aspirations, much as it has ensured North Korea’s nuclear weapons development.   The J-10’s defensive capabilities would be formidable, as would its ability to perform all-weather strikes with new precision guided weapons against Israeli or U.S. targets.  For Israel a J-10 sale to Iran would mark a sobering betrayal of Israel’s considerable efforts to help China’s military modernization, to include its substantial help with the J-10 program, and one of its air-to-air missiles, both of which may apparently arm Iran. 

Factors Favoring the J-10 Sale to Iran

Iran has been striving to modernize its air forces while also investing mightily in an indigenous aerospace sector to meet its needs.  Its efforts are thus divided between seeking technology to pursue indigenous designs like the Saeqeh and Azarakhash, which are derived from the old Northrop F-5E design, and the Shafaq, which may be assisted by Russia, while also pursuing new combat aircraft from Russia and China.  Defections of Russian-made aircraft from Iraq in 1991 and subsequent purchases show that Iran now has about 25 MiG-29 fighters and 30 Sukhoi Su-24 attack bombers. Russia reportedly offered Iran the sophisticated MiG-31 interceptor in 2003.[3]  In July 2007 reports emerged from the Paris Airshow that Iran was seeking to purchase 250 Sukhoi Su-30MK fighter-bombers, which were denied by Russian sources.[4]  Iranian interest in such a number of Russian fighters is also plausible given a large proportion of Iran’s Air Force relies on old U.S.-made fighters (25 F-14; 70+ F-4D/E; and 60+ F-5E/F) that in turn rely on an extensive espionage network, aided by China, to supply spare parts.[5]  A force of 250 Su-30MK fighters would allow Iran to retire its U.S. fighter force while significantly increasing the air defense and attack capabilities.  During his recent visit to Iran, Russian President Putin reportedly approved the sale of 50 RD-33 engines that Iran will use to build its Azarakhash fighter.[6]

Russian Help: Iran operates 25 or more MiG-29 fighters and may soon purchase Russian RD-33 engines to power its indigenously designed Azrakhash fighter (below). Source: Internet

Both Russia and China have sought to cultivate strategic relations with Iran which have cooperative and competitive aspects.  Both have worked to shield Iran from U.S. and international pressure, particularly in the United Nations Security Council.  At times both have provided assistance to Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, and both have supplied Iran with modern conventional weaponry.  For the later there is perhaps a more competitive relationship, with China now seeking to ensure its “market share” in the face of Russian efforts to sell advanced air defense systems and combat aircraft.  As such, an implication of a potential J-10 sale is that China may also be marketing its advanced air-defense missiles to Iran, like the FTC-2000, which also draw on Russian technology. 

Another reason for Iran to purchase the J-10 would be to replace the 24 or so obsolete Chengdu F-7M fighters that it purchased in 1987.  The F-7M, a Chinese copy of the Russian MiG-21C Fishbed is a relatively simple supersonic interceptor with a short range and very limited weapons payload.  The J-10 is a modern 4th generation multi-role air combat and attack fighter.  But for China, beyond its desire to strengthen its military relations with Iran, there is perhaps a more direct political imperative: China’s desire to further improve its relations with Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards (IRG), or Pasdaran (Guards), which apparently, at least during the early 1990s, controlled many or most of Iran’s F-7M fighters.[7]  While IRG Air Force is more recently described as controlling Iran’s Sukhoi Su-25 ground attack fighters,[8] China’s sale of 24 J-10s, a number that may be similar to the number of Iran’s F-7Ms, may indicate a revival or strengthening of China’s relationship with the IRG. 

Possible Replacement for F-7s: Iran purchased at least 24 F-7M fighters from China in the 1980s, which for a time may have been operated by the Islamic Revolution Guards. Source: Chinese Internet

Since 1979 the IRG has been a parallel military force in Iran directly loyal to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Government.  It bore the brunt of the fighting during the Iran-Iraq war, is responsible for internal security and border security, controls Iran’s long-range ballistic missiles and is responsible for exporting Shia Islamic revolution, via the Hezbollah movement which controls much of Lebanon and by aiding Islamic radicals in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The IRG is also quite economically powerful in Iran.  For China to have close relationship with Iran, it must have a strong relationship with the IRG, hence, the logic of its willingness to sell the J-10 fighter to Iran.  In contrast, the United States is preparing to designate the IRG as a proliferators of weapons of mass destruction, and to designate the IRG’s “Quds Force” as a supporter of terrorism, which would allow the U.S. to sanction companies and countries doing business with it.[9]

Furthermore, Iran seeks full membership in the Beijing-centric Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).  Military cooperation is a main binding activity for the SCO, as represented by its largescale combined arms exercise in Russia this past August, called Peace Mission 2007. By selling advanced weapons to Iran like the J-10, China can bolster help “normalize” Tehran’s image and ease its entry into the SCO, which will substantially help its geostrategic heft. 

Threats Posed by Potential Iranian J-10s

Even the sale of a small number of J-10s will pose new challenges to Israel and to U.S. forces in that region.  The J-10 program dates its origins to the early 1960s, and was bit declassified by th Chinese until January 2007.  In the J-10 the People’s Liberation Army has succeeded in building its first “indigenous” 4th generation multi-role combat aircraft.  Even though it has been “declassified,” neither the Chengdu Aircraft Co. nor the People’s Liberation Army has provided any official performance statistics for J-10.  Nevertheless, there are credible estimates for its performance, such as the largely Russian estimates included in the chart below. 


However, there remains a great deal not yet known about the J-10 performance.  The estimates above from the March 2007 issue of Aviatsya i Vremya gives the J-10’s range with external tanks as 2,900km, whereas another published estimate holds that the large fuel tanks of the J-10 give it a 2,500km radius, or a potential 5,000km total range.[10]  Such a range would be astounding for basically an F-16 size fighter.  The J-10 is usually estimated to have a 550km to 600km combat radius.  But one cannot be sure due to China’s refusal to reveal real numbers. The radar for the J-10 is another “indigenous” Chinese design which has drawn heavily from Russian and possibly, Israeli technology.  At the 2004 Zhuhai Airshow Russian sources revealed that China is claiming this radar can guide four simultaneous air-to-air missile engagements, while the Russian believed the radar could only successfully guide two under fast moving air combat conditions. 

For Israeli and U.S. forces that may have to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, the J-10 presents more than a speed-bump.  The J-10 can carry two to four SD-10A/PL-12 self-guided air-to-air missiles.  The PL-12’s self-guidance radar is derived or copied from a Russian Vympel radar similar to that which guided the Vympel R-77.  However, the PL-12 uses a “lofted” missile flight profile which allows the PL-12 to achieve a 70km head-on engagement range, compared to 50km for the R-77 against a maneuvering target.[11]  Louyang’s PL-9C is derived from the Israeli Python-3 air-to-air missile.  At the 1997 Zhuhai Airshow the author learned that China had equipped this missile with a copy of the Ukrainian Arsenel helmet sight to increase its short-range combat potential.  China may also sell Iran additional “Chinese” air defense assets like the YJ-91, which Asian sources have told the author combines an Israeli technology anti-radiation seeker with the motor of the Russian Zvezda Kh-31 ramjet powered attack missile.  The YJ-91 would prove ideal for attacking AWACS aircraft or AEGIS air defense destroyers that might be supporting a U.S. or Israeli strike packages.

Armed J-10: This J-10 is armed with the SD-10/PL-12 medium range AAM and the PL-9C short-range AAM. Source: Chinese Internet

The J-10 is also a fully capable all-weather offensive strikes.  It will be equipped with a new low-light targeting pod, developed with Russian assistance, which can mark targets for laser and navigation-satellite guided weapons.  New Chinese precision guided weapons include Louyang’s laser-guided LS-2 and CMIEC’s 100kg, 250kg and 500kg nav-sat guided bombs.  It appears that the J-10 may be able to carry up to eight 250kg bombs, along with two refueling tanks and two PL-9C AAMs.  Iran already produces copies of the Chinese anti-ship missiles that could arm the J-10, to include the C-802 and shorter range missiles like the Kosar/C-701 and the JJ/TL-10A, both of which use optical guidance for attacking a range of targets. The J-10’s offensive potential is also represented by its ability to provide escort for other conventional or future nuclear weapon armed Iranian strike aircraft. 

In addition, a successful sale for the J-10 would not mean that sales would limited to two squadrons.  Iran could easily decide that the relatively inexpensive J-10 should arm further squadrons of its air force.  In addition, Chengdu has been working on advanced versions of the J-10 that may include stealth features and thrust-vectored engines.  Russia’s Saturn engine concern has also sold China a version of the AL-31FN with an axisymetric thrust vectoring nozzle, which will give the J-10 an extreme maneuvering capability that in some scenarios may help it to evade many types of intercepting missiles. A future dedicated strike-fighter variant of the twin-seat J-10S is already being marketed in Southeast Asia, and has likely been discussed with Iran. 

Advanced Versions: This twin seat J-10S is being developed into a dedicated strike fighter, which may also interest Iran should it acquire the single seat J-10A. Source: Chinese Internet

Israel’s Military-Technical Engagement

The sale of the J-10 to Iran would constitute a betrayal of Israel’s extensive aid to China’s military modernization efforts during the 1980s and 1990s.  Originally encouraged by the Carter Administration in the late 1970s, in the effort to encourage China’s strategic tilt toward the West and against the Soviet Union, Israel sold China a wide range of army, electronic, naval and aerospace technology.  However, after the June 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, when the U.S. and Europe placed arms embargoes on China, Israel refused to follow suit.  Many Israeli officials supported continued military technical sales to China not just to make profits necessary to fund future military products, but also because they felt that such sales would persuade China not to sell advanced weapons to Israel’s enemies.[12] The sales, which continued even as the United States objected, probably also represented an Israeli effort to develop her own independent relationship with China, that could begin to free her from dependence on the United States.

However, continued Israeli military cooperation with China became an increasing source of friction between Israel and the U.S., culminating in the mid-2000 decision by President Bill Clinton to force Israel to cancel its sale of the very advanced Phalcon phased array AWACS radar to China.  This issue was not settled until late 2005 when Israel and the U.S. negotiated a more formal agreement that Washington would review all substantive Israeli military technology sales to China. 

At the time of Tiananmen Israel was likely near the height of its involvement in the Chengdu J-10 fighter program.  Israel had agreed to sell China fighter aircraft technology from its Lavi (Young Lion) indigenous fighter program, which was aided and subsidized by the U.S.(40 to 90 percent of its $1.5 billion development cost), until Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger became convinced the Lavi would pose unneeded competition to U.S. fighters.[13]  The J-10’s anhedral wing and its empennage reflect the Lavi’s design influence while other sources note that Israel provided technology to assist China’s development of “fly-by-wire” or computer control technology to enable greater stability and maneuverability.  In 2005 a high Russian official told the author that during his visit to Chengdu’s J-10 development building in the early 1990s he saw wall posters written in Hebrew. 

Lavi Influence: These head-on pictures of the Lavi (top) and the J-10 show their similar anhedral (negative-dihedral) delta wing with thick wing roots to increase fuel capacity. Source: Internet

Russian assistance also made a substantial contribution to the J-10’s eventual success, to include sale of a specific variant of the Saturn AL-31 high-power turbofan engine, design assistance to accommodate the engine in the J-10 airframe, plus assistance with the J-10’s radar. 

In addition, Israel sold China co-production rights for its Python-3 short-range air-to-air missile in the 1982, with the Chinese designator PL-8. China promptly copied it as the PL-9, with different fins, and later added a helmet sighting capability. U.S. sources have expressed to the author concern that Israel may have sold the more deadly hyper-maneuverable 4th generation Python-4 to China.  At the 2002 Zhuhai Airshow China’s AVIC-1 consortium featured a promotional video which gave a very brief glimpse of an AAM with characteristics very similar to the Python-4.  Israeli industry reps at that show would not comment on that missile’s similarity to the Python-4. However, Louyang officials have told the author and others that they are working on an advanced short-range AAM. 

China’s early 1990s assistance to Iran’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs likely mean that Tehran never took seriously Israel’s plan to separate her from her Chinese ally. China’s demand for Iran’s oil plus its desire to force Iran’s Islamic radical leadership to ignore the plight of China’s Muslims sealed its decision to support Iran’s Mullah government.  Israel and the United States now face an Iranian-Chinese alliance having a clear military character.  China now appears prepared to use Israeli technology to help Iran defend its nuclear weapons program aimed at Israel and the United States.

[1] “Iran buys Israeli fighter jets,” Kommersant, October 23, 2007,

[2] “China denies reports it will sell fighter jets to Iran,” Associated Press, October 25, 2007.

[3] Tom Cooper and Liam F. Devlin, “Iran, A Formidable Opponent?,” Air Combat, May 2006, p. 31.

[4] The first report of this sale was by Reuben Johnson and appeared in Shownews.  For the denial see, “Russian Expert Denies Western Reports That Iran Bought 250 Su-30 Jets,” Moscow RIA-Novosti, July 31, 2007.

[5] Estimates of U.S. fighters in Iran’s Air Force from International Institute for Strategic Studies, Military Balance, 2006;  for analysis of Iranian and Chinese espionage efforts to sustain Iran’s U.S. combat aircraft fleet, see author,  “China's Alliance With Iran Grows Contrary to U.S. Hopes,” International Assessment and Strategy Center, May 20, 2006.

[6] Konstantin Lantratov, “Iranian Fighters To Fly With Russian Engines,” Kommersant, October 16, 2007,

[7] Jane’s Sentinel, October 2007.

[8] Kian-Noush, “IRIAF, 75th Anniversary Review,” World Air Power Journal, Winter, 1999, pg. 34.

[9] Robin Wright, “U.S. To Impose New Sanctions Targeting Iran’s Military,” The Washington Post, October 25, 2007, p.A1.

[10] John Golan, “Piercing The Dragon’s Veil, Sizing-up China’s J-10 Fighter,” Air Combat, November 2006, p. 25; By comparison Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft 2007 credits the J-10 with a maximum 555km  combat radius.

[11] The PL-12’s range against a maneuvering target may also be less.  Range data from Robert Hewson, ed., Jane’s Air Launched Weapons, Issue 48, September 2006.

[12] The author has reviewed the history of Israel’s military technology relationship with China and warned of its dangers in two major reports: “Foreign Arms Acquisition and PLA Modernization,” in James R. Lilley and David Shambaugh, eds., China’s Miltiary Faces the Future, Washignton, D.C,: The American Enterprise Institute, 1999, pgs. 85-191; and The Impact of Foreign Weapons And Technology On The Modernization of China’s People’s Liberation Army, A Report for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, January 2004.

[13] For an insider’s view of the Reagan Administration’s effort to halt the Lavi program see Dov S. Zakheim, Flight of the Lavi, Inside a U.S.-Israeli Crisis, Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, 1996.

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