China's Hidden Treasure
July 2, 2010: In the last two decades, China has designed and put into production three locally designed jet propelled warplanes. Two of them, the J-10 and JF-17 fighters, have gotten most of the attention. But the third one, the JH-7 is the most successful design. Officially a fighter-bomber, the 28 ton JH-7 is actually a light bomber that took nearly two decades to perfect. Originally meant to serve both air force and navy needs, the air force dropped out of the project, and the JH-7 entered service optimized for operations over water. Because it is a light bomber, and mainly a navy aircraft, the JH-7 has not received much media attention in the West.
The JH-7 carries a crew of two, and has radar for spotting other aircraft (at up to 75 kilometers), or ships at sea (175 kilometers). It is armed with a single 23mm cannon, and can carry eight tons of bombs or missiles. The first J-7s entered service in the early 1990s. Top speed is 1,800 kilometers an hour and combat radius is 1,700 kilometers. Nearly a hundred have been built so far, and most of them serve in the navy, as a replacement for the elderly H-5. The twin jet, 21 ton H-5 could carry three tons of bombs and missiles. It had a crew of three, a top speed of 900 kilometers an hour and a combat radius of about 800 kilometers. All but a dozen or so of the H-5s have been retired.
An upgraded model, the JH-7A, appeared in 2004. This version satisfied air force needs, as it was equipped to use smart bombs and find targets over land. The air force is now getting some of the JH-7 production. In many respects, the JH-7 has been more successful, as a precision light bomber, than two other efforts to develop jet fighters.
One of these, the J-10, is the first modern jet fighter designed and built in China. The aircraft is an attempt to create a modern fighter-bomber that could compete with foreign designs. The experiment was not completely successful. Work on the J-10 began over twenty years ago, in an attempt to develop an aircraft that could compete with the Russian MiG-29s and Su-27s, and the American F-16. But the first prototype did not fly until 1998. There were problems, and it wasn't until 2000 that the basic design flaws were fixed. By 2002, nine prototypes had been built, and flight testing was going forward to find, and fix, hundreds of smaller problems. It was a great learning experience for Chinese engineers, but it was becoming apparent that the J-10 was not going to be competitive with the Su-27s/30s China was buying from Russia. The J-10 looks something like the American F-16, and weighs about the same (19 tons). Like the F-16, and unlike the Su-27, the J-10 has only one engine.
Then there is the 13 ton JF-17, designed as a low cost alternative to the American F-16. It was developed in cooperation with Pakistan. The JF-17 is considered the equal to earlier versions of the F-16, but only 80 percent as effective as more recent F-16 models. Most of the JF-17 electronics (in the Pakistani version) are Western, with Italian firms being major suppliers. The JF-17 can carry 3.6 tons of weapons and use radar guided and heat seeking missiles. It has max speed of nearly 2,000 kilometers an hour, an operating range of 1,300 kilometers and a max altitude of 17,700 meters/55,000 feet. China has not yet decided on whether it will use the FC-1/JF-17 itself. This is apparently because China believes its own J-10 (another local design) and J-11 (a license built Russian Su-27) are adequate for their needs. The J-10, like the JF-17, did not work out as well as was hoped