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Chinese Dimensions of the 2005 Moscow Aerospace Show

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by Richard Fisher, Jr.
Published on September 12th, 2005

The 2005 Moscow Aerospace Show or "Salon" (MAKS) came at a delicate time. It coincided with two demonstrations of Russian military power. The first was a strategic nuclear exercise involving a ballistic missile submarine launch and a Tu-160 bomber exercise, with one bomber piloted personally by President Vladimir Putin. The second was an unprecedented combined forces exercise with China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) called "Peace Mission 2005," which allowed the PLA to test its decade and a half effort to build a modern military force against a true "peer" military.

These joint exercises are particularly noteworthy as they permit the transfer of doctrine and operational elements—what might be called military "software" from Russia to China—in addition to the already well established transfers of "hardware" widely evident at shows such as MAKS. These exercises will transfer "software" or doctrine and operational elements absent from the intense Chinese-Russian "hardware" relationship evident at shows like MAKS.

The Chinese, however, were keen not to highlight the military aspect of the show, however. They sent as special ambassador on the first day of the show their first astronaut Yang Liwei, to put a positive "civil" face on the relationship.

"Peace Mission 2005" and Tupolev Bomber Sales:

Tupolev officials would not answer questions as to whether their Tu-95 BEAR and Tu-22M3 BACKFIRE bombers might be purchased by China after their demonstration in the Peace Mission 2005 exercises. Russia has been marketing both bombers to China, and is slated to retire two regiments of Tu-22M3s. Tu-95s are also available for sale. Some sources interviewed after the show believe China is close to buying both bombers, modified to carry the new range of Russian heavy and light weight precision guided weapons, along with anti-ship—including anti aircraft-carrier—missiles.

Tupolev Tu-95 BEAR: Russia is marketing the Tu-95 and the Tu-22M3 BACKFIRE to China. Photo: RD Fisher

Peace Mission 2005 also showed that the PLA is making progress in coordinating its forces. Naval exercises featured coordinated submarine missile launches, in which Y-8 Airborne Early Warning aircraft passed targeting data to submarines, apparently through the use of a communication buoy.

Airborne Force Projection:

On September 8 came news that that China and Russia had signed a contract for the sale of 30 Ilyushin Il-76 heavy transport aircraft and 8 Il-78M refueling tankers which are based on the Il-76. This agreement has been discussed for roughly four years: it came together after the successful demonstration of both aircraft during the combined exercises.

When completed, this sale could increase the PLA Air Force’s inventory of Il-76s by 150 percent to about 50 transports.

During the exercise the PLA used the Il-76 for transport and air drops to three new armored infantry fighting vehicles designed for its Airborne forces. Multiple sources indicate that the PLA will soon begin forming a second airborne army, to be called the 16th Airborne Army. It may mirror the 15th Airborne Army, which consists of three combat divisions and a training division. During Peace Mission 2005 both PLA and Russian airborne units practiced the capture of a large airfield—a key PLA Airborne mission. Reports also circulated of PLA interest in the much larger Antonov An-124, perhaps a new version that can carry up to 150 tons. At the show Antonov officials confirmed China’s interest but would not say more.

For some time PLA Su-30MKK jet fighter pilots have been conducting in flight refueling training with Russian Il-78M tankers, and did so again during Peace Mission 2005. The Il-78M will allow PLA Air Force and Navy Su-30s to reach Guam easily, or to conduct extended missions over disputed regions with the Sea of Japan , the South China Sea, and other waters.

Airborne projection: Russian sales may soon lift PLA Il-76 inventories to 50, and the sale of Il-78M tankers will enable long-range Su-30 strikes by PLA Air Force and PLA Navy units.

Chinese Aircraft Carrier Plans:

The Moscow show also provided some new indications with respect to Chinese preparations for a future aircraft carrier air wing. Speculation about China’s carrier intentions has intensified recently as the People’s Liberation Army’s Kuznetzov-class carrier Varyag, obtained from the Ukraine in 2002, emerged from a Dalian dry dock painted in PLA Navy grey. One source from the Sukhoi family of companies stated his estimate that China would purchase the Su-33 carrier fighter for a "future carrier," not for use on the Varyag. Another source from a Russian engine company noted that China was intent of acquiring a thrust-vectoring system for its AL-31FN engines in order to develop a carrier-capable version of the Chengdu J-10 fighter. For the J-10, thrust-vectoring is deemed necessary to assist rapid take-off in the event of a "bolter," or failed landing that misses the carrier arrester-hook cable. This source also notes that thrust-vectoring will allow the J-10 to achieve an even lower landing-speed, an important safety concern for carrier aircraft. It is not clear whether the thrust-vectoring engine will allow the PLA to build a carrier in the Soviet/Russian style, not using a catapult. The Sukhoi source countered with concerns that the J-10 might not have enough thrust to take-off without a catapult by pointing out that the Su-33 could.

Option One: China appears to be considering outfitting its Chengdu J-10 multirole fighter with a thrust-vectoring system that would increase its utility for aircraft carrier duty. Photo: RD Fisher and Internet

In the mid-1990s U.S. Naval Intelligence estimated that China would develop a carrier-compatible version of the J-10. However, financial and logistical logic suggest it may make more sense for the PLA to go with proven Sukhoi aircraft that is compatible with Russian carrier designs. Sukhoi carrier aircraft are built at the KnAAPO factory, which has a deep relationship with the PLA.

Sukhoi is also marketing its Su-33KUB, a unique twin-seat strike and trainer variant of the Su-33 with added payload, avionics and stealth features. The Su-33KUB has the potential to carry large supersonic anti-ship missiles like the Yakhont, or be outfitted to conduct heavy strike, anti-submarine, and aerial refueling missions similar to the slightly larger Su-34. In addition, higher-thrust engine and radar/avionics upgrades for the Su-33 could turn this into a potent multi-role platform.

Option Two: China may also purchase Sukhoi Su-33 carrier fighters (bottom) or the newer twin-seat Su-33KUB strike fighter. Photos: RD Fisher

This new information does not confirm that China is now building a carrier, a decision that is not known publicly to have been made. But it is suggestive, adding to other signs that China is headed in this direction. In June a Chinese magazine revealed a possible design for a Chinese carrier AWACS aircraft, a critical component for a carrier air wing.

Interest in Kamov Ka-31 AWACS Helicopter:

Officials from the Kamov helicopter concern confirmed previous reports that China is interested in acquiring its Ka-31 radar-equipped naval helicopter. The Ka-31 was designed to assist small aircraft carriers and large combat ships with an ability to provide targeting data for long-range missiles over the ship’s horizon, and to provide warning of incoming low-flying missiles. For China the purchase of the Ka-31 would provide an early AWACS for a new carrier.

This interest could also indicate that the PLA Navy may be seeking to assist the targeting of new Russian cruise missiles on KILO submarines, as well as the targeting of new indigenous long-range anti-ship missiles. China already has about 9 Ka-28 anti-submarine and rescue helicopters.

Ka-31: China considers airborne over-the-horizon targeting for ships and subs. Photo: RD Fisher

Russian Or Chinese Sukhois?

Several sources at the show noted that there is no indication that China and Russia have resolved their conflict over the means of China acquisition of future Sukhoi fighters. Will it be by purchase from Russia or upgrading in Russia, or will it involve a "Sincized" Sukhoi to be developed and produced in China? Since early 2004 deliveries of KnAAPO-produced Su-27SK/J-11 "kits" for the Shenyang Aircraft Company have been halted. . A source at the show noted that of the 105 kits reported delivered—out of a 1996 contract that called for 200—80 to 100 have been built. A Chinese source has recently noted that up to 100 have been built. Sukhoi has been heavily marketing its upgrade package called the Su-27SMK, which features radar, avionic and weapon upgrades, but the PLA has not shown great interest.

Instead, China has been quite visibly developing its own version of the J-11 using the basic Su-27 airframe, but with a Chinese multi-mode radar, a new Chinese turbofan engine, plus new Chinese weapons and avionics. Shenyang’s intention to take this route has been evident from models on display at headquarters building since at least 2002. Comparing opinions at this year’s show to those at the 2003 MAKS, the Chinese are developing more confidence in their abilities to manufacture the radar and engines to make their indigenized J-11 a success. Between the two shows, moreover, many Russian assessments of the time it will take them to succeed have been reduced from 10 years to 5 years.

Russian engine makers appear quite familiar with the degree of progress China is making in its WS-10A advanced turbofan program, which seeks to make an engine slightly more powerful than the Saturn/Alyuka AL-31 that powers the Su-27. One source noted that China is still facing problems reducing the weight of the WS-10A’s primary and secondary compressors. In 2004 a Russian source noted the WS-10A was not meeting thrust goals, but that the engine might still end up in production. These delays have led the Chinese to hedge: they signed a contract in June for delivery of 100 AL-31FNs for the Chengdu J-10, to be delivered before the end of 2006. According to Russian reports this number could grow to 150 more for a total of 250. Another source indicated that while China is developing its own thrust-vector technology for this engine, it may still end up buying the Russian thrust vector system for the Russian engines it purchases.

AL-31FN: One hundred more over the next year, possibly 150 more after that, for Chengdu’s J-10. Photo: RD Fisher

Russian fighter radar manufacturers are also very familiar with their Chinese counterparts, having sold them many radars, or entered into co-development or consulting arrangements over the last decade. One source noted that China might need another five years to move to production of a new multi-mode radar suitable for its J-11 program.

Sukhoi: UCAV Development Depends On "Customer Interest":

While unmanned combat aircraft (UCAV) programs proliferate in the U.S. and Europe their absence in Russia’s usually very competitive arms offerings has been something of a mystery. There is now the start of an answer from Sukhoi: future UCAV development could proceed rapidly provided there is sufficient interest from "traditional customers," which is to say,, India and China. At least in terms of concepts, Sukhoi remains a leader among Russian companies in continuing research on its ZOND series of medium range tactical and long-range strategic surveillance UAVs. It is likely that Sukhoi has also been investigating UCAV designs but funding constraints have forced them to take a low profile. A Sukhoi official notes regular Chinese interest in their UAV programs, but no development or sales program has come together. Target UAV makers SOKOL continued to hint that it was also developing a medium sized jet-powered delta-wing UCAV-capable platform.

Possible UCAV: This concept from the SOKOL could perform strike or surveillance missions, but Powerhouse Sukhoi may soon enter the UCAV arena. Photo: RD Fisher

Su-30MKK2 Tabletop Trainer for China:

Russian company Kurs Simbirsk has delivered to the Chinese Navy a PC-based table-top training aid for the Su-30MKK2. The device consists of a large flat-screen display and PC manipulated by close facsimiles of the control stick and engine control of the fighter. It allows pilots to conduct introductory training, or it can also be used by pilots to practice specific missions, either singly or in cooperation with others. The devices can be used to simulate both the pilot and weapon systems operator positions in the Su-30MKK2.

Desktop Trainer for Su-30MKK2: Now serving the PLA Navy Air Force. Photo: RD Fisher

China to Get All CLUBs:

The Novator bureau, maker of Russia’s main strategic cruise missiles, and the family of cruise and ballistic missiles known at the "CLUB" system, noted that the current customers will soon acquire all parts of this system. The CLUB’s current customers are known to be India and China. China is purchasing the CLUB system to arm its 8 new KILO 636M submarines—the first of which was delivered in August. This means that China will soon acquire the latest member of this family, the 300km range 3M-14 land-attack cruise missile. Other members include the deadly 220km range 3M-54E two-stage anti-ship missile and the 91RE1 anti-submarine rocket that deploys a small torpedo to intercept submarines.

Novator 3M-14 Cruise Missile: China will get the land attack version too. Photo: RD Fisher

Novator’s K-172 Long Range AAM:

Novator remained tight-lipped about its long gestating K-172 300km range air-to-air missile, other than to note it was displayed prominently on a show-floor model of a Sukhoi Su-30 fighter-bomber. It has been reported previously that this program, which has suffered from lack of funding during the 1990s, had recently been revived. Reports link the program revival to India. Novator had designed this missile specifically to combat U.S. long-range surveillance and intelligence aircraft, such as the E-2 and E-3 AWACS systems. While there is no comment on the possibility of Chinese interest in this missile, this is a matter that deserves serious attention as many Russian weapons eventually end up in the PLA.

Novator K-172: This 300km range AAM appears to be in development, again. Photo: RD Fisher

Possible Russian Help for China’s New Targeting Pod:

Since at least the early 1990s, China has been developing low-light/laser targeting pods to enable aircraft to use precision guided munitions (PGMs). In June 2005 internet-source pictures appeared, most likely from a Chinese popular military magazine, showing two new Chinese targeting pods. Officials at the Russian company UMOZ, which is developing the Sapsan-3 targeting pod, said they had seen, even touched the new Chinese pod. However, for the record, they denied any role in its development. They did, however, agree there was a coincidence in certain aspects of the Chinese pod and similar systems made by UMOZ. UMOZ hopes that it will sell its Sapsan-3 to current Su-30 users, which include the Chinese Air Force and Navy.

Officials from the Russian guided bomb maker Region seemed familiar with new Chinese-made laser and optical guided bomb programs, but denied any specific cooperation program. These new Chinese bombs show a distinct similarity to Region’s designs. However, the Chinese optical seeker appears to be smaller than Region’s design.

Pod-sibilities: While UMOZ denies collaboration, they do acknowledge the basic similarities between Sapsan-E pod and a new Chinese targeting pod revealed in mid-2005.

Raduga Kh-59MK To Enter Production in 2006:

First revealed at the 2001 MAKS, Raduga’s new active-radar guided Kh-59MK anti-ship missile is now due to complete development and enter production by the second half of 2006. Originally pitched to accompany the Su-30s being marketed to the Chinese Navy, but a company official would say only that the missile would likely be delivered to existing customers for the Su-30 fighter. With a range of about 300km the Kh-59MK would significantly increase the long-range strike capability of Chinese Navy Su-30MKK2 fighter-bombers. A test model of this missile was displayed on the flight line on a Su-24 Fencer fighter-bomber. Both Iran and Libya use this strike-fighter, it should be noted.

Kh-59MK: A test model seen on a Sukhoi Su-24 strike fighter; expected to be used by Chinese Su-30MKK2 naval fighter bombers. Photo: RD Fisher

More Details on the Zvezda Kh-31/YJ-91 Program:

As at previous shows, officials involved with the sale of the Kh-31 supersonic anti-radar/anti-ship missile deny that China is co-producing a version of this missile. These denials are at odds with reports from Russian and Ukrainian sources that the missile is indeed being produced in some version in China. One official did say that deliveries to China of both the anti-radar and anti-ship versions have preceded for the last five years, most recently the Kh-31A anti-ship version. However, another Russian official very familiar with the Kh-31’s ramjet engine design did not doubt that China had the capacity to make that engine. It may be that this source’s suggestion is correct, and that only the missile’s engine is being made in China. This is confirmed by Asian sources, who also note that the guidance package was developed with the help of Israel. This is the missile commonly referred to as the YJ-91, an anti-radiation missile like the Kh-31P, but with an Israeli co-developed seeker and guidance package. Washington recently chose Israel’s reported intention to upgrade China’s IAI Harpy subsonic-speed anti-radar drones to push for a halt to Israeli sales of high-technology weapon sales to China. The YJ-91 would in essence be a "supersonic Harpy," able to threaten AWACS and AEGIS radar ships.

Raduga Kh-31: Russian officials continue to deny Chinese co-production, but a new possibility is Chinese co-production of the engine, with an Israeli assisted guidance package, resulting in the YJ-91. Photo: RD Fisher

Chinese Interest In Russian Hypersonic Technology

China has an intense interest in Russian work in hypersonic missile technology and is building an impressive competency in this area, according to a Russian hypersonic technology engineer. Russia and China have been holding annual hypersonic technology conferences but this engineer had not been invited to attend them. He noted, however, that his impression of China’s ongoing investment in this technology, to include the development of a bright young engineer cadre, and an intense effort to study with Russian university experts, and interact with Russian design bureau, would enable China to be a world leader in this field in 15 to 20 years. Russian hypersonic technology programs, however, suffer from lack of funding and the expiry of active foreign funded development programs such as a recent program with France.

Russian Hypersonic Engine Concept: China has intense interest in Russian hypersonic tech. Photo: RD Fisher

Iskander-E Can Hit Moving Targets:

One of the revelations of the 2005 IDEX show was that a new optical terminal guidance system had been developed for the Iskander-E short range ballistic missile. At MAKS officials from the Iskander’s maker noted that with the new optical sight, this missile can hit a moving target, such a large ship. In the 2005 Pentagon report on the PLA it is noted that China is very interested in developing ballistic missiles with an anti-ship capability. Officials at the show would not say whether China had purchased this technology. However, it has been known since the 1996 Zhuhai Airshow in China that the PLA has been developing terminal guidance systems for Short Range Ballistic Missiles and Medium Range Ballistic Missiles. These could be based on radar or optical technologies.

Chinese Passive Phased Array Cooperation With Russia:

An official with design institute connected to the NIIP combat radar concern, which makes the BARS passive phased array radar for India, noted that his institute had completed a consulting contract with a Chinese radar firm on the subject of passive phased array technology. The contract has been completed within the last several years. This official did not think that China was building a passive phased array radar but did not describe the details of the contract. It remains possible, therefore, that China may have simply been trying to understand this technology better, technology with the goal of developing countermeasures.

BARS: Are the Chinese developing unique countermeasures? Photo: RD Fisher

NPO Mashinostroyenia Revelations on Space Warfare:

For the first time the missile/satellite powerhouse NPO Mashinostroyenia released its official history. NPO Mash was and remains unique for building a consistently world-class competency in the sensor to shooter continuum for most of its 60 year existence. It was also deeply involved in Soviet manned and unmanned military space programs. These programs have been documented by scholars like Steven Zaloge and Mark Wade, but the NPO Mash document serves as a new confirmation from a company source. Among its more startling revelations is that it launched a test version of the first manned space combat vehicle in 1960, launched its first successful unmanned satellite interceptor in 1968 and that Russia kept the NPO Mash "IS" satellite interceptor in service from 1973 to 1993. This history also provided confirmation of previous reports that manned "Salut" space stations that operated between 1973 and 1979 had film-camera based earth military surveillance as their primary mission. Manned military space plane development began in the 1950s, to include one intended to be powered by a nuclear-plasma engine. This small shuttle-like space plane was abandoned in favor of the larger "Buran." The small space plane program was intended to create a "fleet" of "space combat fighters."

Operational NPO Space Combat Programs: The "IS" anti-satellite interceptor was operation from 1973 to 1991 and the "Almaz/Salut" space station series had three dedicated military missions. Photos: RD Fisher via NPO Machinostroyenia

Also in attendance at the show were three former Soviet cosmonauts who trained for space combat missions onboard the Almaz/Salut space stations. They noted they were trained to shoot back at possible U.S. intercepting satellites with a special space-gun and that the Salut station was designed to withstand significant combat damage—in the vacuum of space--and still allow the crew to escape to its re-entry capsule.

Potential Space Fighter Concepts: Small space plane concepts from Russia’s Molyna (top) and China’s Shenyang Aircraft Company (bottom). Photos: RD Fisher and Internet

While most of these military space capabilities may not be current in the Russian armed forces , it is worth asking whether these capabilities, and likely Chinese knowledge of them, might serve and example for Beijing. China’s first manned mission, "Shenzhou" was after all primarily for military surveillance? When asked this question anNPO Mash official responded, "Of course, why not?" He said "the nature of this regime" makes such a direction possible.


The 2005 MAKS show offered additional insights into the levels of intimacy between the Chinese and Russian aerospace sectors. This relationship is now showing three main trends:

1. Hardware to Technology transfer. This relationship is now well on its way to evolving from one of hardware sales to that of technology transfer and co-devleopment, as China’s wishes. This shift is signaled by the painful hiatus in delivery of KnAAPO-made Su-27 kits for co-production by China’s Shenyang Aircraft Company, and the growing ability of China to master the necessary components needed to build an "indigenized" version of this same aircraft. Other examples of aerospace technology transfer include the NPO Mashinotroyenia radar satellite, radar seekers for the new PL-12 active-guided anti-aircraft missile, and technologies for making precision guided weapons. Many Russian firms continue to insist, some with justification, that they are not building up a Chinese competitor that may soon consume their business. They are in the main also very aware of the many obstacles confounding Chinese firms. But nevertheless their respect for China’s intense desire to master and excel is growing.

2. Increasing Transfer of Strategic and Power Projection Systems. The sale of additional Il-76 transport aircraft and Il-78M refueling aircraft will greatly increase the PLA’s ability to project its Airborne armies and long-range fighter-bomber strikes. Even more importantly, the possible sale of the Tu-95 Bear and the Tu-22M3 Backfire would herald an increased willingness to sell strategic systems to China. This may in part be a Russian attempt to maintain its hold on the PLA market in response to possible competition from the European Community, should its lift its 1989 Tiananmen arms embargo. But it is also striking that Russia would provide strategic military capabilities to a country that makes no secret of its desire to target American forces The Bear and Backfire—with refueling—would give the PLA increased options for striking at all U.S. bases in Asia, on to Hawaii and even Alaska and the U.S. West Coast. From Hainan Island, PLA Tu-95s could range well into the Indian Ocean or south to Australia, and even extend its reach to the Persian Gulf with refueling in Burma or Pakistan.

If China does purchase these Russian bombers then one may to ask whether the PLA might also revive its previous interest in purchasing Russian Akula-class nuclear attack submarines and Oscar-class nuclear powered cruise-missile submarines.

3. Increasing Transfer of Software. With the beginning of large scale joint military exercises, the Russia-China military relationship will now increasingly involve the transfer of Russian doctrine, operational methods and military experience—what may be called "software". Russian statements following "Peace Mission 2005" indicate that the future will see more large-scale Russia-China military exercises. The 2005 exercises helped the PLA Navy practice anti-submarine and blockade missions, while PLA Air Force units were able to rehearse offensive and defensive missions. For the first time, inexperienced PLA Marine and Airborne units could exercise with Russian Marine and Airborne forces that have a long military experience. Even though such exercises do not rise to the level of true "wartime" experience, with their lasting impact on personnel leadership, doctrine development and hardware development, they do constitute a level of military experience that far exceeds that of Taiwan, and begins to catch up with that of Japan and South Korea.

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