The Zhuhai Air Show in Guangdong, China is the largest aviation and military exhibition in all of China. The event took place from November 7th to 13th and offered an unusually wide range of insights into the development gains in military technology in a variety of categories. Everything from small arms to commercial naval technology was represented at the show, but the real gains were on display in missile, radar, unmanned systems and fighter aircraft technology. The weapons on display at this year’s show undeniably demonstrate what the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and ultimately the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) hold dear when it comes to unleashing their military might in the future.
An H-6K bomber with the YJ-21E anti-ship ballistic missile was parked at the air show. Considered in some circles to be China’s deadliest weapon in the conventional sense, the YJ-21E has largely been kept out of the public eye. This missile was already known to be used in a ground or ship based interface with an estimated range in excess of 1,500 kilometers and a terminal speed in excess of Mach 10. The configuration with China’s strategic bombing force seems to indicate the importance of anti-naval counter-intervention when it comes to their strategic focus on Taiwan and the first island chain. It is unknown if this weapon will be developed on a larger scale, but the impact this missile could have in an Anti-Access Area Denial (A2AD) campaign could be astounding.
In addition to the YJ-21E, the PLA Air Force had their newly acquired long-range PL-17 air-to-air missile on display with an announced range of 400 kilometers (250 mi), which would be more than double the current range of their most capable active-powered air-to-air missile Radar. This missile would likely be used against larger framed aircraft and not against other smaller framed fighter jets or aircraft. For example, aerial refueling or reconnaissance aircraft operating at higher altitudes with relatively predictable flight patterns would be the intended victim. While these weapon systems alone are enough to worry about, the two deployed together on a unified front to deny access and impose their will in a cross-strait scenario could prove very effective.
Radar technology research and development for the PLA and sister branches has seen a significant increase over the past decade. The Chinese military no longer relies on dismantling Russian Federation radars to replicate their own. Instead, China has surpassed Russian technology, particularly in terms of back-light observable radar technology and target acquisition systems to be used on its domestically-made surface-to-air missile systems.
The recent airshow proved that Chinese expertise in radar technology continues to grow. On the opening day of the Zhuhai Air Show, China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC) presented the SLC-18 P-band radar. It’s an AESA (Active Electronic Scanning Array) radar, which means each receiver also acts as an individual transmitter. This greatly improves the radar’s efficiency and likely means it can perform multiple functions at the same time. The SLC-18 operates in a low frequency band, giving it better fidelity when tracking poorly observable aircraft, drones, and satellites.
At the end of the air show, it was announced that China would be gifting the SLC-18 to Pakistan, which will likely use it to pursue India’s reconnaissance constellation. It is likely that this radar will aid in counter-reconnaissance by allowing the Pakistanis to track and calculate when specific electro-optical or infrared satellites are overhead.
This year has also seen a significant improvement in unmanned systems research and development for all branches of the Chinese military. It is not surprising that the Zhuhai Air Show featured countless unmanned aerial, ground and naval equipment. In particular, the fusion of stealth technology is becoming increasingly common for Chinese drones.
The FH-97, an unmanned combat aircraft that bears a strong resemblance to the US-built Kratos XQ-58 Valkyrie, was on full display at the Zhuhai Air Show. In true Chinese military fashion, the demonstration was coupled with a video playing the FH-97 working in tandem with a J-20 to shoot down a US F-22 fighter jet. This low visibility, medium-range UAV is marketed as the “trusted wingman” of the Chinese fighter trio consisting of the J-20A, J-16 and J-10C. This system will cover other tasks that would complicate the ergonomics of a dogfight, allowing the fighter pilots to focus on their mission.
It is likely that the FH-97 will be equipped with anti-aircraft radar jamming and sensor equipment to play a role in electronic warfare, relaying targets to the fighters via a data link. Additionally, it was announced that the FH-97 will deploy the FH-901 drone, a loitering munition capable of precisely guided attacks and overwhelming enemy command and control systems.
While there were some phenomenal insights from military technology at large at the air show, it is not surprising that Chinese aviation took center stage. Notably, the focus was on the “20 family of aircraft”: the fifth-generation Chengdu J-20 fighter jet, the Xian Y-20 strategic transport aircraft, and the Z-20 multi-role helicopter. In the future of Chinese warfare, these three will undoubtedly be the backbone of the military air force.
At this year’s air show, the J-20 stole the show, unveiling improved engine performance and fast ground refueling. Previously, the J-20 program was plagued by underpowered engine problems that really kept the program back from the public eye. This year, the WS-10 turbofan engine with its binary vectoring nozzle and the AEF1300 turbofan engines were on full display, indicating notable improvements in performance and thrust vectoring.
Communist youth leagues in several Chinese provinces released pictures of the jet in flight with captions such as, “The J-20 turned into a cloud-penetrating arrow and pierced a hole in the clouds, I can’t help but watch it a million times.” ” For years to come, the J-20 will continue to be the crown jewel not only at the air shows in China, but also on the PLA Air Force battlefield in the future.
For anyone interested in the focus of Chinese military development and how it could shape the future of warfare in the Pacific, the Zhuhai Air Show deserves a closer look. It will take months to analyze all the data on display. The focus on redundant deterrence in the form of anti-ship missiles, unmanned systems being integrated with manned systems to encourage more efficient combat routines, and stealth technology is the way forward for China and was showcased in full at the Zhuhai Air 2022 Show .