Sunday, August 5, 2007

Chinese Military Modernization


China has always been a nation of interesting people, outstanding Szechuan cuisine, and fascinating culture. China has a history of military prowess, from the brilliant strategist Sun Tzu to the modern million-man army. That being said, it was not until the very late stages of the 20th Century, however, that the Chinese military machine began to wander out from the dark and truly enter the modern world.

China's problem, since the end of the Second World War, has been one of technological inferiority. For most of the post-war period, Chinese military doctrine seemed to stress quantity over quality; our weapons are inferior, but the 10,000 soldiers we have holding them will be able to overrun your 2,500 modern fighting men, for example. Interestingly, there appeared to be something of a disconnect in this doctrine. Some modern weapons, like the nuclear bomb or the anti-ballistic missile, were developed and/or fielded. Others, like the modern fighter aircraft, were apparently ignored. Beginning with the end of the 20th Century, however, the Chinese military machine began a widespread modernization program designed to make the People's Liberation Army (PLA) a modern, effective fighting force. That effort continues to this day, and the effects can be witnessed through the examination of overhead imagery detailing certain key facilities and installations scattered throughout China.

The following overhead map of China depicts the locations of the items discussed in this article:


Airpower is one of the most important components of modern warfare. For the longest time, the Chinese PLAAF and PLANAF had to rely on imported and copied Soviet aircraft. One of the more common examples was the MiG-21 (FISHBED), remanufactured and redesigned over the years as the Chengdu J-7. During the 1980's the PLAAF and PLANAF could boast thousands of J-7s and other aircraft types on strength, but these aircraft all had some key flaws: they were short ranged, and they lacked any modern fire control systems coupled with BVR weapon systems.

China's first solution was to enter into an agreement with the United States under the PEACE PEARL program to modernize a number of Shenyang J-8II heavy interceptors with APG-66 radars and associated weapons. Another facet of this international collaboration would have been the production of the Super-7, a modernized J-7 design featuring a reprofiled nose, side-mounted intakes, and modern systems. Unfortunately, the activities of the Chinese government surrounding the Tianamen Square incident effectively ended any Sino-American collaboration efforts. The Super-7 has recently re-emerged as the FC-1, a cheap, lightweight replacement for the J-7, primarily useful for third-world countries where more modern fighter aircraft are cost-prohibitive or not required.

The next solution to the modern airpower issue was to import Russian-made Sukhoi Su-27 (FLANKER) fighter jets. The Su-27 was arguably the penultimate example of Russian fighter design, coupling a capable weapon system with a sophisticated, maneuverable aircraft design capable of physically outperforming the latest Western designs in terms of sheer maneuverability. Eventually China would import large numbers of Su-27SKs as well as Su-30MKK and Su-30MK2 multi-role, two-seat variants. Unfortunately, the import of Russian-made fighter aircraft was not going to magically jump-start the Chinese aviation industry. While it is true that many of the Su-27s were license-built by Shenyang, who has subsequently modified the design as the J-11B, incorporating Chinese engines, avionics, and weapons, China still needed an indigenous solution.

The answer to China's modern fighter needs would be provided by the J-7's manufacturer, in the form of the Chengdu J-10. The J-10 is a modern fighter aircraft capable of employing the PL-12, a Chinese AMRAAM equivalent, and performing a variety of tasks thanks to a multi-role avionics suite. The J-10 features a modern glass cockpit and a canard-delta layout, currently favored by European fighter manufacturers. The J-10 is currently being inducted into operational service in increasing numbers, and will likely form the backbone of the PLAAF for years to come.

The following image depicts a number of J-10s on the ramp at the Chengdu flight test facility. These aircraft are likely either prototypes or preproduction aircraft serving in a flight test capacity.

Gucheng airbase was one of the first locations to receive operational J-10s, three of which can be seen in the image below:

An important part of any combat aircraft's test regimen is weapons integration. Weapons systems must be trialled to ensure that they function effectively, and individual armament types must be verified to ensure proper operation and integration with the carrier aircraft. In China, airborne weapons testing is done at Dingxin airbase, situated on the massive military testing range at Shuangchengzi.

The following image provides an overview of the Shuangchengzi test complex:

The following image provides an overview of Dingxin airbase:

One issue with current free imagery services like Google Earth is that imagery can be updated over time, and some rather interesting sights can be removed from view. The next three images are examples of some of the fascinating sights at Dingxin airbase which have disappeared due to a recent Google Earth imagery update and are no longer visible to the public. Let this be a lesson to the imagery analyst or casual observer: if you see something interesting, save a copy of the image, you don't know if it will be there the next time you look!

The following image depicts two J-10s on the ramp at Dingxin AB:

Visible here at Dingxin are examples of two of the PLAAF's current AEW&C projects, the KJ-2000 (based on the Il-76 airframe), and a Y-8 derivative referred to as the "Balance Beam" due to the shape and mounting of the radar array:

The following image would seem to depict some sort of official presentation underway at Dingxin AB. Various aircraft types, including the KJ-2000 and J-10, are visible.


While the modernization efforts in Chinese military aviation are substantial, the efforts underway in updating the PLAN's surface and submarine fleet are equally impressive. Until recently, Chinese naval vessels have lagged far behind those of the West in terms of weapons capability. The most serious deficiency was in the realm of air defense.

China's naval re-equipment and modernization began with the purchase of Sovremennyy-class DDGs from Russia. Fitted with 3M80 anti-ship missiles, the Sovremennyys also boasted the Shtil (SA-N-7 GADFLY) and Shtil-1 (SA-N-12 GRIZZLY) naval SAM systems, providing China's surface fleet with its first modern, ocean-going air defense capability, a capability critical for any nation wishing to possess a blue-water ocean-going naval force. More recent efforts have focused on producing indigenous classes of modern destroyers and frigates, complete with modern weapon systems to replace the outdated legacy systems found on older classes of Chinese-produced warships. One such example is the 052B DDG, which has been fitted with the Shtil-1 SAM system.

The most significant new ship classes, by far, are the 051C and 052C DDGs. The 052C was the first of the two classes to enter service and is fitted with an Aegis-type phased array radar system to control the HHQ-9 SAM system, a derivative of the land-based HQ-9. The 051C lacks the phased-array radar system of the 052C, but is fitted with a far more capable SAM system in the form of the imported Russian-made S-300FM (SA-N-20 GARGOYLE), controlled by a 30N6E1 (TOMB STONE) radar mounted on the rear of the vessel. Even when compared to the Shtil-armed Sovremennyys and 052B DDGs, the 051C and 052C represent a quantum leap in Chinese naval air defense.

The following image depicts a Type 051C DDG in Dalian shipyard:

The ultimate form of naval power is the aircraft carrier. While Chinese production of an indigenous aircraft carrier is only speculation at ths time, there is some evidence to suggest that at least one aircraft carrier may soon enter service with the PLAN. The ex-Soviet carrier Varyag was purchased from the Ukraine in 1998, ostensibly to be used as a floating casino. The vessel was purchased in a 70% completed state from the Nikolayev shipyard where the Varyag was under construction before work halted with the fall of Communism in the USSR. Interestingly, the vessel took up residence in the PLAN shipyard in Dalian once it was finally delivered to China in 2002, suggesting that a floating casino was not what the Varyag was destined to become.

The following image depicts the Varyag at some point after delivery to Dalian:

The evidence that Varyag will soon be inducted into service with the PLAN is circumstantial at best, but it is certainly interesting. In 2005, the Varyag was painted in "PLAN grey", and in 2006 the scaffolding surrounding the superstructure was removed, suggesting that work on restoring the vessel to operational capability was nearing completion. It should be noted that as of yet, no systems have been seen being fitted to the Varyag, such as air search radars or CIWS, and no carrier-based aircraft currently exist in the PLAN. However, China has recently contracted for around 50 Sukhoi Su-27K carrier-based aircraft, designed to operate off of the Varyag and his Russian classmate, the Admiral Kuznetsov (the term "his" is used in deference to the Varyag's Russian designers, as Russian naval vessels are referred to by their sailors in the masculine).

The following image depicts the Varyag after being repainted in overall "PLAN grey":

The Varyag is not the first former-Soviet aircraft carrier to take up residence in Chinese waters. Two former Kiev-class carriers (or more appropriately, aircraft-carrying cruisers, to refer to them in native Russian naval terminology) have been acquired to serve as displays in northern and southern China.

The following image depicts the Kiev as it is currently displayed at a military park in Tianjin:

The following image depicts the Minsk as it currently appears at the Minsk World public theme park near Shenzhen:

The above two examples do offer some evidence that the Varyag may not in fact enter service with the PLAN. Notice that they are displayed painted in standard Russian military colors. Were the Chinese to display Varyag in the colors of a warship, repainting the vessel in the available "PLAN grey" paint scheme would be plausible as the Varyag's original Russian paint job was in no condition to be put on public display when it was delivered in 2002. It could then be argued that the vessel was placed at the PLAN dockyard in Dalian for study and analysis while it was repaired and fitted out for commercial use. This does not, however, explain the Su-27K purchase, apart perhaps from the possibility that an Su-27K fleet would take time to be delivered, and if PLANAF Su-27Ks were destined for an indigenous vessel they could still be employed on the Russian-Ukrainian naval training facility at Saki in the Crimean for initial pilot carrier qualification.

It is obvious that only time holds the answers to the mystery of the Varyag.

There is one further example of an aircraft carrier to be found in China. Situated on the grounds of the Shanghai Military Academy 50 kilometers from the open sea, a 70-percent scale replica of what appears to be a US Nimitz-class CVN is located in a small lake. The purpose of the vessel is unclear, save perhaps to serve as a training aid of some sort. It may even perhaps represent a conceptual Chinese carrier design, given the fact that the flight decks are festooned with Chinese combat aircraft, albeit older, legacy types not likely to ever see carrier-based service with China or any other air arm.

The following image depicts the aircraft carrier replica in Shanghai:

While much attention has been given to the modernization of China's surface fleet due in no small part to the speculation over the Varyag's true purpose, China has also been modernizing her submarine force as well. The newest and most modern SSN is the Type 093 Shang-class. Current Chinese nuclear submarine classes are constructed in the assembly halls of the Huludao shipyard northeast of Beijing.

The following image depicts a Type 093 SSN at Huludao:


China's strategic nuclear deterrent relies on the use of land-based and submarine-launched nuclear missiles. A number of Harbin H-6 (BADGER) bombers, copies of the Russian Tu-16, are also in service, but their age and expansive RCS precludes them from any serious nuclear warfighting apart from use as standoff cruise missile platforms. The primary Chinese ICBM currently in service is the DF-5 (CSS-4). The DF-5 is deployed in well-concealed silos around China. The DF-5 was initially trialled at the Shuangchengzi missile test facility, being pad-launched.

The following image depicts the SLV and ICBM launch pads at Shuangchengzi:

Modern road-mobile ICBMs like the DF-31 and DF-31A are trialled at the Wuzhai test center. Wuzhai also contains an ICBM silo used for test launches of the DF-5 (CSS-4) ICBM in a manner more akin to operational employment than a Shuangchengzi pad launch. The first silo launch of a DF-5 took place at Wuzhai on the 7th of January in 1979.

The following image is an overview of the Wuzhai test facility:

The following image depicts the northern launch facilities at Wuzhai, containing the DF-5 silo and a possible mobile ICBM launch pad:

The following image depicts the southern launch pad, a probable mobile ICBM launch facility:

The Wuzhai facility is also capable of launching pad-launched ICBMs and SLVs.

The following image depicts the Wuzhai fixed launch pad:

The naval component of the Chinese nuclear deterrent consists of two classes of SSBN. The first vessel, the Type 092 Xia, was China's first SSBN. It has been plagued by problems, however, and its JL-1 SLBM lacks the range to target the United States from Chinese-protected waters, making the Xia little more than a theater nuclear strike option. Perhaps due to these issues, only one Type 092 SSBN was ever completed.

The following image depicts the Xia in a drydock at the Jianggezhuang submarine base near Qingdao:

Experience with the Xia provided China with a valuable knowledge base in designing the replacement, the Type 094 Jin class. With the Jin class, the PLAN finally has a credible sea-based nuclear deterrent option. The new JL-2 SLBM allows the Type 094 SSBNs to range the United States while remaining safely in the protected waters of the Bo Hai Gulf.

The following image depicts a Jin-class SSBN at the Xiaopingdao submarine base near Dalian:


The final area of the Chinese military to see massive modernization in recent years is the strategic SAM network. Chinese strategic air defense had until recently relied upon the HQ-2 SAM system, an indigenous version of the Russian S-75 (SA-2 GUIDELINE). The HQ-2 suffers from relatively short range, lack of mobility, and relatively dated electronics, although some systems have been modified to cure the latter issue to a degree. The answer to China's modernization efforts is the HQ-9. The HQ-9 is a modern SAM system employing system components which appear to be based on those of the S-300PMU employed by the Chinese military.

The HQ-9 is currently undergoing trials at the Shuangchengzi SAM test facility, seen below:

The image below depicts the HQ-9 test pad at Shuangchengzi:

With all due respect to the Chinese SAM developers, imitation in the form of the HQ-9 may be the sincerest form of flattery, but Russian air defense systems are still the best in the world. As such, S-300P variants have been imported continuously over the last two decades, and components can be found around Beijing, Yutian, and Shanghai.

The following image depicts a key component to the S-300P SAM family, the 64N6 (BIG BIRD) EW radar:

For more information on the 64N6 and the S-300P, reference the following two articles: LINK LINK The second link also features a section detailing current Chinese S-300P deployment strategies.


The Chinese military is clearly well along the path to modernization into a world-class fighting force. There are a few choice oddities that can be found by browsing through imagery of China which may or may not have anything to do with the modernization efforts. They are, however, unusual, and certainly interesting, and as such will be detailed here.

The first oddities to be found in China are evidence of serious research into the WIG concept. The WIG concept was made famous by the Soviet military, who trialed various military WIGs on the Caspian Sea during the Cold War.

The following image depicts the 751G Swan WIG craft, located on the shores of the Dianshan Hu reservoir near Shanghai:

The following image depicts the XTW-4 WIG located on the grounds of the Qingdao seaplane facility, a military facility home to Harbin SH-5 amphibians, perhaps implying a military role for the XTW-4:

A further oddity can be found 45 kilometers northwest of the Chengdu flight test center. Here, a solitary Y-8 apparently resides in an open lot behind a small cluster of buildings. The aircraft is apparently mounted on some sort of catapult system, with a ramp at the end to aid in takeoff. The aircraft seems to be positioned for rapid escape, a one-way proposition as there is no way of landing the aircraft back at the facility. It is possible that the facility where the aircraft is located houses an entrance to an underground military facility. To necessitate a rapid escape system, there are only two logical purposes for such an underground facility. First, the theoretical facility may be associated with the storage or production of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. In the event of an incident, a rapid escape system for the staff and scientists would be a valuable asset. Secondly, the facility may be some sort of national military command and control post. In the event of attack, leadership from Beijing could use the facility as an alternate command post. An escape system would be valuable in the event of a potential counterstrike against the alternate facility.

The image below depicts the unusual Y-8 found near Chengdu:


Chinese Defence Today

-All satellite imagery provided courtesy of Google Earth


Anonymous said...

To be clear, at the Dingxin Air Base, the higher resolution imagery is still available, but when the satellite took the image, those aircraft werent visible. When I first read the posting, I thought that GE had reduced the resolution back to the super low (and somewhat worthless) imagery.

Sean O'Connor said...

You're correct, the overview image I posted depicts the airbase as it currently appears in Google Earth. The zoomed-in bits are the older imagery.

They didn't reduce the image quality, they just updated it and a lot of the old, interesting stuff isn't currently visible anymore. Which is why I posted the images I'd saved!

Anonymous said...

Thats a very good effort Sean. That 70% replica for Nimitz class AC was something new for me.

A break from impossible naming schemes of Russian SAMs :D

Unknown said...

Very good work. Learned a lot.

HMS said...

Great research work! I used to think that the comments on Chinese military build-up come from some sort of sour-grape attitude. Seeing what you have posted (esp the 70% Nimitz replica) really makes me wonder/worry why they would do all these without disclosing their intend. Again, great work --- BRAVO!