By 1990, the technical sophistication of the PLA had deteriorated to the degree that Iraqi forces enjoyed a considerable advantage over their Chinese counterparts. The Iraqi Air Force included MiG-23s, MiG-25s and MiG-29s, while the PLAAF relied on Chinese-produced copycats of the MiG-21, as well as older aircraft such as the MiG-19. Moreover, the obsolete Iraqi air defense system failed to incur major damage on waves of attacking American aircraft, a major factor behind Iraq’s defeat.
This understanding of the Gulf War helped drive PLA modernization, especially in air. China took immediate steps to update its military technology, generally through purchasing the most-advanced Soviet hardware (Su-27 and S-300). Strapped for cash, Russia was eager to make deals, and didn’t worry overmuch about the long-range consequences of technology transfer. China also attempted to acquire technology with military applications from Europe, but sanctions associated with the Tiananmen Square massacre hamstrung this effort. Finally, China accelerated efforts to increase the sophistication of research and development in its own military-industrial base.
China’s HQ-9 (Hongqi-9)
HQ-9 is China’s long-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) system. The addition of the HQ-9 has greatly increased the People’s Liberation Army’s air defense capabilities. China’s HQ-9 (200km) SAM systems can engage targets flying at 90,000 ft and can simultaneously destroy six airborne targets, and track up to 80 targets. The AESA (active electronically scanned array) radar of HQ-9 offers key advantages to China as it’s more resistant against electronic jamming, offers higher resolution when targeting stealthy aircraft (F-22, F-35, and B-2), supersonic cruise missiles, drones and 4th Generation fighter jets. Chinese HQ-9 is partially based on Russian S-300P. However, there are significant differences between the Russian and Chinese systems. The Chinese system incorporates technology from the U.S. Patriot missile defense system. Furthermore, HQ-9—unlike its American and Russian contemporaries—uses active electronically scanned array radar technology.
China’s Type 052D destroyer is better than the U.S. Arleigh Burke class destroyer as it is equipped with better electronics for communications, especially its advanced phased array radar/AESA radar that can detect and track stealth warplanes including US F-35, F-22 stealth fighter jets.
According to Missile Threat, the Chinese developed much of the HQ-9’s technology from a Patriot battery Beijing acquired from Israel, due to which HQ-9’s guidance system is modeled on the Patriots. This means that the HQ-9 uses the Patriot’s “track-via-missile” guidance system—allowing the HQ-9 interceptor to fly directly at an incoming missile? The HQ-9—like the Patriot—would either explode as it nears the target or directly hit the incoming missile. Either way, the incoming target is either destroyed or knocked off its trajectory.
Chinese HQ-9 is further supported by HQ-7B (20km), HQ-16 (40km) and S-300-PMU2 (200km) which eventually allows China to form an integrated multi-layered air defense system.
The HQ-9 is competitive with Russian and American air defense systems—indeed, NATO member Turkey had intended to purchase a variant of the weapon and the deal got finalised in 2013, beating Russia (S-300), American (Patriot) and other European missile systems. But the deal fell through late in 2015, due to the pressure from the USA. India’s hostile neighbour Pakistan has already started negotiations on the import of the HQ-9 missile system from China. If this deal gets finalised, it would definitely bolster Pakistan’s air defense capabilities. The fact that the HQ-9 could compete for an international missile tender against American, Russian and European systems (and win) is an indication of just how capable the Chinese weapon is. Moreover, 2016 came with another disappointment for Russians in the defense export market when Turkmenistan chose HQ-9 missile system over S-300.
China has also made the naval version of HQ-9 missile system i.e. HHQ-9. Chinese Type 052D Red Aegis Air Defense Guided Missile Destroyers (GMD) constitutes a potential threat to U.S. Navy as the best missile (HHQ-9) is supported by the best radar. The Type 052D is a true blue water navy warship.
China’s KJ-2000 radar currently has the longest range in the world. At present, 11 are in service with China.
China’s Type 052D destroyer is better than the U.S. Arleigh Burke class destroyer as it is equipped with better electronics for communications, especially its advanced phased array radar/AESA radar that can detect and track stealth warplanes including US F-35 and F-22 stealth fighter jets. These vessels also act as a strong access/area denial tool with their capable AESA radars, powerful AAW (anti-air warfare), ASW (anti-submarine warfare) capabilities and ASCM’s (anti-ship cruise missiles). With these vessels, the PLAN (Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy) can create a large, air defense umbrella (200 km) over Chinese military operations and building projects in the region.
China’s AWACS (Airborne Warning And Control System)
China’s KJ-2000 radar currently has the longest range in the world. At present, 11 are in service with China. The AWACS aircraft designated KJ-2000 made its first flight in November 2003, before entering into service with PLAAF in 2006. The KJ-2000 has five flight crew and possibly 10-15 mission crew. The aircraft carries out patrol missions at an altitude of 5,000-10,000 m. The maximum flight range of the aircraft is 5,000 km and the flight endurance is 7 hours 40 minutes. At a range of 2,000 km, the aircraft can remain on patrol for up to 1 hour 25 minutes. The primary radar system housed in the radome is a three-sided electronically steered phased-array (ESA), developed by 14 Nanjing-based institutes.
Unlike the Russian A-50 or U.S. E-3, which rotate their roto-domes to give 360 degree coverage, the KJ-2000’s radar antenna does not rotate. Instead, three ESA antenna modules are placed in a triangular configuration inside the round radome to provide a 360 degree coverage.
Another formidable AWACS of China is KJ-500. Less than two years after being spotted in the air for the first time, the new Chinese KJ-500 AWACS aircraft has entered service. The KJ-500 AWACS can track over 60 aircrafts at ranges up to 470 km. The KJ-500 aircraft looks more like the American AWACS (with a round radar dome on top) but is smaller and carried by the Y-9 four engine turboprop aircraft (similar to the U.S. C-130).
The KJ-200 designs used the smaller Y-8 aircraft and a long box-like radar array on top of the aircraft. The KJ-500 will supplement and eventually replace 11 KJ-2000 AWACS that has been in service with PLAAF (People’s Liberation Army Air Force) since 2006. Both airborne early warning and control aircraft like KJ-2000 and KJ-500 are also equipped with the ability to detect stealth fighter jets.
Moreover, China is also developing early warning pod for fighter jets, AEW&C helicopters and large, unmanned AEW&C aircraft.
Chinese Radars Can Detect Stealthy Aircraft
China’s modern radars DWL002 uses paired primary wide band apparatus. Features such as heat absorbing surface materials, smooth surfaces and hidden engines render stealth aircraft like F-22 Raptor undetectable by conventional radar. However, China’s DWL002 passive radar system (which consists of three stations) reads the electronic signals emitted by aircraft to detect their presence. It can allegedly detect fighter aircraft (including stealth) within 400 km. For Airborne early warning and control aircraft, the radar system can detect them at a range of 600 km.
On 10 February 2016, China claimed to have tracked an F-22 Raptor flying over the East China Sea. It’s very possible that China can track the Raptor. Stealth is not a cloak of invisibility, after all. Stealth technology simply delays detection and tracking. The range of the system means China would be able to identify aircraft flying over Taiwan, Senkaku Islands (East China Sea), Hanoi and Indian locations like Kolkata and New Delhi.
Its radar was able to pick out an American stealth F-22 Raptor off the coast of South Korea almost 500 km away, which eventually rang alarm bells in Washington, D.C.
China’s Divine Eagle anti-stealth Drone
Divine Eagle—how much of a threat is China’s new, high-flying drone to U.S. air superiority? The U.S. has led the way in the use of stealth aircraft in combat. Now, the game could soon be up as scientists in China are discovering ways to make the invisible ‘visible’.
China has produced a huge, new twin-fuselage, high-altitude Chinese drone called the ‘Divine Eagle’. Those in the know instantly labeled it the “stealth-hunting drone”. Stealth technology is the equivalent of electronic camouflage for planes, making them hard for enemy radar to spot. But the Chinese drone is certainly big enough to carry the special radars developed to detect stealth aircraft. It’s able to fly high enough to detect them long before they can reach their targets. Its radar was able to pick out an American stealth F-22 Raptor off the coast of South Korea almost 500 km away, which eventually rang alarm bells in Washington, D.C.
To some analysts, the Chinese drone represents the death of stealth. For others, it is merely a serious threat to the future of the technology on which America has based its air superiority. Since photos of the Divine Eagle emerged in May 2015, China’s giant UAV has been getting a lot of international attention. With its giant, double-bodied design—carrying high performance anti-stealth radars—the drones are a key part of China’s offensive and defensive military strategy, in the coming years. Formations of Divine Eagle UAVs are expected to provide an early-warning line to detect threats to China’s airspace—like cruise missiles and stealth bombers—as well as to be able to take on such missions as hunting for aircraft carriers in the open waters of the Pacific.
Russia-China S-400 Deal
In April 2015, despite intellectual property concerns (reverse-engineering), Russia agreed to sell six battalions of S-400 missile systems to China—a deal worth three billion dollars. S-400 is Russia’s most formidable long-range Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) System.
The S-400 will supplement China’s Russian-made S-300 and domestic HQ-9 long-range SAMs.
Each S-400 battalion consists of a command post, radar system and 12 launch vehicles, each with four 40N6 (400 km) missiles. The S-400 Triumph has a range of 400 km and can simultaneously attack 36 airborne targets with 72 missiles, with a target’s maximum speed of 4.8 km per second. The remaining S-400 missile system involves 48N6 missiles (250 km), 9M96E2 missiles (120 km) and 9M96E missiles (40 km). With each battalion consisting of 12 transport erector launch (TEL) vehicles, China would have 72 launch vehicles.
Moreover, the radar system of S-400 is capable of tracking up to 100 targets at a time. S-400 can blow stealth aircraft like the American F-35, F-22 and B-2 bombers out of the air. It can also destroy aircraft or missiles flying five meters above ground level by targeting them from above. Its missiles can travel at speeds of up to Mach 14—or 17,000 kph—the system can literally take the war into the enemy’s airspace. The 91N6E “Big Bird” AESA radar of S-400 can detect high altitude targets like ballistic missiles at distances of up to 600 km.
According to Sputnik International, “Russia could start delivering S-400 to China by December, 2016”.
Talking about the S-400 India-Russia defines deal, the recent denial by the Russians to provide India with S-400 is probably due to India-US rapprochement—marking a strong paradigm shift in Russia’s defense policy towards India. Furthermore, Russia had lifted arms embargo from Pakistan last year, which has eventually opened the doors of arming the latter. Supplying Pakistan with latest Mi-35M attack helicopters further illustrates that Russia wants to expand its military cooperation with Pakistan. However, India plans to restart negotiations on S-400 with Russia after two years but it is definitely a very long way to go for the S-400 deal to get even materialise.
There are many weapons in the Chinese inventory that pose a grave threat to its adversaries but by procuring S-400 surface-to-air missile systems (which Russian President Vladimir Putin approved for purchase by China), it would be an extremely dangerous foe for any Air Force to deal with.
Change in the Russian approach towards China has been adopted in light of the deterioration of the relationship with NATO, following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Political relations have become ever closer. Most symbolically, Chinese President Xi Jinping traveled to Moscow in May 2015 to participate in Russia’s Victory Day parade. It is an event that was shunned by most Western leaders. In return, Russian President Vladimir Putin was present in Beijing in September 2015 to join Chinese celebrations of the 70th anniversary of victory over Japan. The Russian leader has even begun to describe China as Russia’s “natural ally” and proclaimed that relations are now at their “best in all their many centuries of history”.
S-400 is China’s Strategic ‘Game Changer’
The S-400 is a highly sophisticated system and would be a boon to Beijing’s air-defense capabilities. The 40N6 missile has a range of 400 km. Deployed on China’s coastline, it brings all of Taiwan’s airspace into range. Similarly and of particular concern to the Japanese, it will also be able to put the Senkaku Islands under range. One Chinese weapon that would make the Japanese military sweat in wartime is a Russian weapon, S-400 missile system.
Although the Senkakus will be at the outer edge of the S-400’s engagement envelope, this is still a serious problem for Japan. Japan regularly patrols the Senkaku Islands by air, with both P-3C Orion maritime patrol planes and F-15J fighters based at Okinawa.
China has a limited number of aerial refueling tankers, and in a conflict, might not be able to provide round-the-clock combat air patrols over the islands.
A very likely deployment of S-400s near the Senkaku Islands would create difficulties for Japan in both peace and war. In peacetime, it could mean scaling back patrols over the tiny islands by slower, less manoeuvrable aircraft such as the P-3C. In the event of an incident, such aircraft could be caught within range of the S-400 and would have no chance of survival. Moreover, assisting Japanese air-forces with F-22 Raptors would be a suicidal mission for American pilots as they would be confronted by the world’s best anti-air missile system.
Likewise, in wartime, the S-400 could help China maintain air superiority over the islands. China has a limited number of aerial refuelling tankers and, in a conflict, might not be able to provide round-the-clock combat air patrols over the islands. A deal between Russia and China for procurement of the new S-400 air defense system will serve as a force multiplier for Beijing in its quest to dominate the skies along its borders and beyond. The 400 km range system will, for the first time, allow China to strike any aerial target on the island of Taiwan—in addition to shooting down air targets as far as New Delhi, Kolkata, Hanoi and Seoul. The Yellow Sea and China’s new air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea will also be protected. Some of S-400 missile systems might be used to protect major bases like the Hainan submarine pens, important cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, or hide within the inland mountains of Fujian and Guangdong Provinces.
The deal is significant to regional security as well as geopolitics. China’s improved air defense capabilities will greatly complicate any efforts to conduct aerial operations or missile attacks against the Chinese mainland.
Moreover, S-400 deal is a win-win situation for China. On one hand, it would allow Chinese to establish an ‘invincible’ integrated air defense network, while on the other hand China would no doubt attempt to reverse engineer S-400 or borrow hardware from S-400 to develop its own new, long-range surface-to-air missile system which would be much superior to S-400 .
The Chinese know that due to a rapid advancement in science and technology, a weapon that is modern today could be obsolete tomorrow. Therefore, they will soon try to develop a highly superior weapon system which would be much superior to S-400 in all the spheres, mainly due to the presence of a strong and reliable industrial-military complex as well as the experience of doing so. It is important to know that China’s reverse-engineering is not just about copying Russian military hardware but making an upgraded version of it. For instance, China imported Su-27 from Russia in the early 1990s and in 2007, the Chinese came up with the J-11B fighter aircraft. Although J-11B looked almost identical to the Su-27, it was superior to even Su-30MKIs and Su-30MKKs in terms of range, avionics and in carrying payload.
Chinese Advancement Has Made The U.S. B-2 Bomber An Obsolete Weapon
According to the U.S. Department of State Data, as of 1 January 2016, there are currently 12 B-2 bombers on alert. As for the B-2 Spirit, the plane is the most high-tech and expensive bomber in the world. It has a range of 11,000 km and over 19,000 km and with one mid-air refueling The B-2, is capable of carrying 18,000 kg of ordnance.
These aircrafts were first put in service as early as 1994. A total of 21 vehicles were issued, followed by the end of production—the enormous price took its toll. Accounting for the design costs, the price of one B-2 is a fantastic $2.1 billion dollars. For this money, the United States obtained a Stealth vehicle with one of the lowest radar cross-section parameters (RCS)—the lower this parameter is, the less conspicuous an object is for hostile radars.
However, modern Chinese radars are able to detect targets of this type—lower observe-ability only reduces the distance of detection, but does not exclude it completely. Given the fact that B-2s are equipped with free-fall nuclear bombs only, and carry no strategic cruise missiles, an effective deep attack into Chinese territory seems extremely unlikely. For example, the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system detects “ordinary” targets at distances of up to 600 km. The S-400 surface-to-air missile (SAM) system, which Russian President Vladimir Putin approved in April 2015 for purchase by China worth $3 billion dollars, which involves six battalions of it, would be soon operational with China. The S-400 is a highly sophisticated system and would be a boon to Beijing’s air-defense capabilities.
Even if the same B-2 is “seen” at a distance of only 200 or 100 km, it will not manage to drop bombs in time because China’s HQ-9 (200 km) can detect and shoot down even stealthy aircraft.
Moreover, contemporary and modernized Chinese fighters such as the Su-27, Su-30MKK, Su-35S, J-10A, J-10B, J-11B, J-15 and J-16 can also be involved in pursuing “ghosts.” It is this fact that makes the B-2 a somewhat awkward aircraft. Despite its record price, its actual role in a hypothetical global nuclear conflict is negligible.
The U.S. Air Force’s surviving fleet of 12 B-2 stealth bombers remain the only long-range penetrating strike assets in the Pentagon’s inventory. But, due to a rapid advancement by Chinese in science and technology, the B-2 bomber is no longer a deadly weapon of the USA that would make Chinese worry about it. It has automatically forced the Americans to plan for a new bomber i.e. B-21 Long range strategic bomber (LRS-B).
This piece was first published on the Indian Defence Review.