Airshow China 2021: Janes analysis of a highly anticipated event

by Kelvin Wong

As Airshow China 2021 kicks off,  Kelvin Wong, unmanned systems editor at Janes explores the unique flavour of China’s premier national aerospace and defence exhibition series and previews the some of the new systems that will debut at this year’s event

The 13th iteration of the biennial China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition, also known as Airshow China, promises to be yet another brief but valuable window of opportunity to observe China’s growing ability to indigenously develop and field advanced equipment. 

This year’s edition runs from 28 September to 3 October, postponed from its original date in November 2020 by Covid-19, and is being staged amid stringent domestic and international travel restrictions, expected to mean there will be fewer foreign visitors and major commercial and military equipment deals announced.

A highly anticipated event

Airshow China is much more than just a commercial and military aviation showcase, with a broad range of combat vehicles, airborne and ground-based electronic warfare systems, radars and missiles on display, as well as a large but still growing selection of air, land and maritime unmanned systems.

Airshow China is a key soft power event used by Beijing to highlight the country’s significant progress and innovation in defence technologies. Previous events have revealed new and more capable aircraft, such as the FC-31 stealth fighter prototype, J-20 multirole stealth combat aircraft, Y-20 strategic airlifter, and KJ-200 airborne early warning and control aircraft.

With Beijing aspiring to expand its stance on the world stage and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) rapidly modernising to support President Xi Jinping’s vision of an assertive and revitalised China, this year’s event will be used as a platform to demonstrate that the country is rapidly scaling the technology ladder in its quest to cement itself as a leading regional and global power.

Latest developments

Snippets of what can be expected at Airshow China 2021 have emerged in the weeks leading up to the exhibition via Chinese social media. What is already apparent is the increased variety of equipment that has recently entered service – or is soon to do so – with the PLA’s air and ground forces, such as the electronic warfare version of the locally made, twin-engine Shenyang J-16 multirole combat aircraft designated the J-16D.

The increasing maturity of unmanned systems in PLA service is also clearly demonstrated with the show debut of the PLA Air Force’s (PLAAF’s) Guizhou Aviation Aircraft Corporation WZ-7 Xianglong (Soaring Dragon) unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Roughly analogous in function – if not performance – with the US-made Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk platform, the WZ-7 is the PLAAF’s primary high-altitude long endurance UAV for strategic reconnaissance operations.

Using commercially available satellite imagery, Janes has over time documented significant WZ-7 activities in airbases responsible for covering strategically vital areas. These include: Shigatse Peace Airport in the Tibet Autonomous Region near the disputed Doklam tri-junction with India (available to customers HERE); the north-eastern Yishuntun airbase covering the North Korean border; and Lingshui naval airbase on Hainan Island, a key staging point for military operations in the South China Sea.

Series production of the type continues at Guizhou’s Corporation’s production facility adjacent to Anshun-Huangguoshu airport (subscribers can read this HERE). 

Also making its Airshow China debut will be the PLAAF’s WZ-8 high-speed reconnaissance UAV first unveiled during a large-scale military parade on 1 October 2019 in Beijing to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.  

No official information on the WZ-8 UAV has been disclosed to date, but Janes sources indicate that the aircraft is powered by two closed-cycle, liquid-fuelled rocket engines and functions as an air-launched, high-altitude, unmanned reconnaissance aircraft. It can be deployed by the Xian H-6N strategic bomber, which features a modified ventral fuselage section to accommodate the UAV.

The WZ-8 UAV forms an integral part of an innovative and comprehensive early warning sensor network that comprises ground-, maritime-, air-, and space-based surveillance assets. Within that network, the WZ-8 is used to visually confirm satellite detection of strategic targets such as aircraft carriers at stand-off ranges, using its high transit speed to cover long distances quickly and cue land-based ballistic missiles such as the Dongfeng-26 (East Wind-26, or DF-26).

In line with past practice, China Aerospace Science and Technology (CASC) will also be taking the opportunity to announce its latest unmanned aircraft developments, including the new twin-turbofan powered Caihong-6 (Rainbow-6, or CH-6) armed reconnaissance UAV. First revealed by Janes in April 2021, the CH-6 adopts a hitherto unseen airframe design for any Chinese-made platform with a chined fuselage, tapered wings terminating in split winglets, and a T-tail assembly. 

Closing thoughts

Taken together, these developments send clear signals of China’s intent to acquire advanced military technologies that will not just enhance its standing in the immediate region and beyond, but also enable the PLA to achieve President Xi’s vision of a fully networked and modernised force by 2035 and attain “world-class military” status by 2049.

National events such as Airshow China provide a window into this progress and surprisingly rapid real world follow ups.

For example, the twin-engine TB001 UAV prominently exhibited at the 2018 event and in late August 2021, Japan Air Self-Defense Force fighter aircraft encountered exactly that type when they were scrambled to intercept potential incursions into Japanese airspace on two occasions (HERE).

According to Janes forecasts, China’s defence budget will grow by about 65% – from approximately USD258 billion to USD426 billion – between 2021 and 2030.

Up to USD110 billion of this figure will be used for investment funding that will support efforts to restructure its large but unwieldy defence industry, which is still dominated by well-resourced but often inefficient state-owned primes and spur innovation through competition with the private-sector and expanding its access to foreign technology networks.

This imperative will only gain further importance for China in the future, with the US  belatedly but surely ramping up its ability to engage near-peer competitors in the Indo-Pacific region and concurrently working with like-minded partners to stymie what Washington sees as Chinese military expansion.

Taiwan reports underplay ‘hundreds' of PLA aircraft in live-fire drills

by Akhil Kadidal

China's Eastern Theatre Command says it is launching hundreds of aircraft to participate in live-fire drills around Taiwan. (VCG via Getty Images)

China says it is dispatching hundreds of combat aircraft to the six live-fire zones around Taiwan. However, Taipei's daily air incursion reports show smaller figures. Janes assesses that this could partly be because of strains on the country's radar network.

China launched a four-day live-fire exercise around Taiwan from 4 August, in response to a visit by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on 2 August.

On the first day of the drills, the People's Liberation Army's (PLA's) Eastern Theatre Command said that it had “dispatched hundreds of fighters, bombers, and other multitype [aircraft] to the airspace in the north, southwest, and southeast of Taiwan Island”.

The PLA added that the aircraft are conducting “day and night” joint reconnaissance flights, air assault training, and support flights. All six live-fire zones are within Taiwan's Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ).

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Israeli military threatened UNIFIL ship

by Jeremy Binnie

An Indonesian Navy AS565 helicopter hovers over the Turkish corvette Heybeliada as other vessels serving with the UNIFIL Maritime Task Force follow behind during an exercise on 28 July. (Millî Savunma Bakanlığı)

Israeli aircraft threatened a naval vessel assigned to the UN Interim Force in Lebanon's (UNIFIL's) Maritime Task Force in early June, the latest UN report on the mission's performance revealed.

The threatening behaviour began on 6 June, when six Israeli fighter aircraft manoeuvred near the vessel, launching flares and generating supersonic booms. On the following day, six Israeli fighters flew over the same vessel, which “detected the electronic signature of a fire-control radar in lock on mode heading towards it”, according to the report, which was released on 27 July.

The report said the vessel was in the UNIFIL maritime area of operations in the vicinity of the Karish offshore gas field when the incidents occurred.

The field crosses into the expanded exclusive economic zone that Lebanon has claimed since 2011. Israel decided to develop the field before resolving this maritime border dispute, and a floating production, storage, and offloading vessel arrived there on 5 June to start extracting gas.

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China launches ballistic missiles into waters near Taiwan

by Ridzwan Rahmat & Jon Grevatt & Rahul Udoshi

Caption: According to the Japanese MoD, five of the missiles launched from within China on 4 August fell within Japan's exclusive economic zone. Some of the missiles also flew across Taiwan. (© 2022 MOD Japan/©2022 Janes)

China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) launched a barrage of ballistic missiles into waters near Taiwan on 4 August.

Janes analysis suggests that these missiles include the Dong Feng-15 (DF-15) and DF-16 family of short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs).

The Japanese Ministry of Defense (MoD) said a total of nine missiles were launched on 4 August from within China into waters southwest, northeast, and east of Taiwan between 2.56 pm and 4.08 pm Japan Standard Time.

This tallies with information provided by a Taiwan Ministry of National Defense (MND) spokesperson, who said in a press conference on 4 August that the missile launches started at 1.56 pm Taipei Standard Time.

The MND has not disclosed any information about the number of missiles launched, but various Taiwanese media reports indicate that up to 11 ballistic missiles may have been fired.

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