Juicing the gen in Zhuhai

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The world – including North Korean technicians dressed in mufti, uniformed African delegations by the busload and Iranian officials flown in by executive jet – flocked to the 11th China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai from 1-6 November.

Nowadays the biennial Zhuhai Air Show is undisputedly Asia’s largest military exhibition and, unfortunately, that means the price of hotel accommodation doubles or triples and the event is overrun by people who have no business being there. Just what is the point of allowing housewives, the elderly and infirm, and thousands of souvenir hunters and selfie-takers to run roughshod over the show?

However, as one elbowed their way through the heaving masses, there were numerous exciting revelations to discover. The highlight was the J-20 stealth fighter’s cameo appearance on opening day. However, if you blinked, you would have missed this brief apparition as the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) enigmatically played hard to get.

Other PLAAF aircraft debuted in Zhuhai, however, to sooth the disappointment of those who blinked. Among them were the J-10B fighter, H-6K bomber, KJ-500 airborne early warning aircraft, Y-20 transport aircraft and Z-10K attack helicopter.

All photos by the author.

Nearby were towering air surveillance radars, a number purportedly able to detect F-22 and F-35 stealth aircraft. Fact or fiction? Certainly China is happy with either as it handcrafts an aura of technological advancement. On display was the JY-27A 3D long-range surveillance/guidance radar, the PLA’s first active phased array system. The debuting SLC-7 radar integrates mechanical scanning with phased-array technology, and yet another anti-stealth fighter radar was the JY-50 2D passive system.

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What about the halls crammed with lethal weaponry, which give the outside world vague hints as to what the PLA might be fielding? Was the two-stage TYD-1 missile target a tantalising hint that China is robustly pursuing a ballistic missile defence programme?

There were explosive missiles revelations too. Very potent was the supersonic 290km-range CM-302 anti-ship cruise missile, an export version of the YJ-12 in PLA service. Chinese media called it ‘the world’s best anti-ship missile’ thanks to supersonic speed sustained throughout flight, before it accelerates to Mach 3 in its terminal phase.

There were startling revelations about China’s space programme too. Perennially touted as being for wholly peaceful purposes, it was shown for what it is in one fell swoop. On show were scale models of two transporter-erector-launchers (TEL) able to launch Long March rockets, both clad in a military camouflage schemes. Why does China need military TELs for Long March rockets? Obviously, their function is to rapidly launch satellite payloads to replace satellites lost in a space war. Such satellites could also deploy microsatellites possessing warheads to destroy US satellites.

And no description would be complete without mentioning the bewildering array of UAVs. Leading the charge were unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV), which China is hawking worldwide and are being used for manifold purposes by somewhat dubious regimes.

The well-known Wing Loong 1 and 2 appeared, while models and brochures indicated the existence of a Wing Loong 1-D and Wing Loong 3, the latter powered by two propeller engines.

Two new jet-powered UCAVs also had maiden appearances in Zhuhai. One was the high-altitude, long-endurance Cloud Shadow with 14,000m cruising altitude and 620km/h maximum speed. Also, the competing CH-5 UCAV can carry a 1,000kg payload to a ceiling of 10km.

Although it was an air show, there was a massive amount of heavy armour on display too. Norinco unveiled its VT5 light main battle tank, this sharing heritage from the PLA’s own light tank that entered service in 2014.

To summarise, if you’re looking for new fighters, helicopters, UAVs, radars, missiles or armoured vehicles, China’s giant military-industrial complex is churning out equipment that will suit you. And even better, anyone can apply, despots from North Korea, Africa and Iran included.

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