China’s expanding line-up of multirole, all-weather J-16 fighter jets will help the air force to launch strikes deep into enemy territory and destroy key strategic assets like airfields and bridges, military analysts say.
While it is not as advanced as the new J-20 – officially named Weilong, or powerful dragon – the Shenyang J-16 will become a key part of PLA Air Force operations and any strategy against Taiwan or to deter US military intervention, they said.
China’s air force announced last week that a squadron of J-16s would soon be combat ready. Based on the Russian Sukhoi-30 fighter jet, the J-16 was introduced around 2012 to 2013 but did not make its official debut until a year ago, during a military parade marking the 90th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army. Powered by a Chinese WS-10 Taihang turbofan engine, the fighter jet has been compared to the US F-15A/C Eagle.
Military observers say they have noticed more J-16s entering service recently, based on the serial numbers seen on fighter jets used in recent drills – evidence that the PLA Air Force is quietly adding to its squadron.
The multirole aircraft is the first of its kind that can carry a full range of Chinese-built equipment, from anti-ship missiles and air-to-air missiles to satellite-guided smart bombs, cruise missiles and electronic countermeasure (ECM) jammers. The fighter jets can be used for both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions.
While the aircraft design is largely based on the Su-30, the J-16 features a Chinese radar and tracking system. It also has a provision for in-flight refuelling – giving it the capacity to strike deep into enemy territory and greater operational range. An electronic attack version, the J-16D, is also under development. China wants that fighter jet to be equivalent to the US EA-18G Growler – the most advanced airborne electronic attack platform.
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Electronic warfare is seen as the key to winning any conflict over the Taiwan Strait, with the ability to overwhelm enemy radar systems in the first few hours considered crucial.
Military experts said the J-16, with its large payload and long range, could transform China’s defensive air force into an offensive one.
“Before the J-16, the PLA has had to rely on a limited number of Russian-built Su-30s, whereas the indigenous J-10 lacks the range and payload to qualify as a true deep-strike fighter,” said Collin Koh, a research fellow with the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
Beijing has previously imported Su-27s and Su-30s from Russia for its post-cold war and modernisation needs. But these jets were not designed as multirole fighters, so they have mainly been used for defence.
“In the past the PLA Air Force’s combat division has been characterised more as a defensive arm, with limited range and offensive capabilities, confined mainly to its immediate region and territory,” Koh said. “The J-16 will push the envelope further.”
As well as boosting the air force’s combat abilities, the J-16 would also fill a gap in the period before the next generation of fighter jets can be built in greater numbers, Koh said.
“The J-16 will at least fulfil a role as a key stopgap before the J-20 and J-31 [stealth fighters] can be produced in sufficient numbers. These two new-generation jets would be too expensive to mass produce in the necessary numbers required to fully modernise the PLA Air Force’s combat fleet. Hence, the J-16 is crucial to bridge this gap,” he said.
The J-20 and J-31 are fifth-generation fighter jets that have been in development since 2008 and are designed to complement each other in warfare, similar to America’s F-22 and F-35.
The J-20 is expected to have superior dogfighting abilities, while the J-31 will be “the perfect fighter for the PLA to carry out anti-access area-denial (A2AD) strategies in the Western Pacific ”, according to The National Interest.
Adam Ni, a researcher on China’s foreign and security policy at the Australian National University, said the J-16 could give Beijing a supreme ability to either defend what it considers to be sovereign airspace, or to mount an aerial offensive in a wartime scenario.
“The J-16 would play an important role in a campaign against Taiwan or in deterring the US Navy from intervening,” Ni said, but added the J-16’s weak engine design would restrict its attacking ability.
As tensions have mounted across the Taiwan Strait in recent months, the PLA Air Force has “regularly” sent warplanes – in most cases the H-6K strategic bomber – to patrol around the island to show its “capability to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity”, according to the mainland defence ministry. But so far the J-16 has not been involved in these missions.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen will go to Paraguay and Belize – two of the island’s remaining 18 formal allies – on Sunday in the latest move expected to infuriate Beijing, which sees the self-ruled island as its “unalienable territory”.