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China Is Betting Hard On The J-16

September 14, 2022
Via Chinese state media.

Since August 3 an undeclared siege has been imposed on Taiwan’s airspace as large formations of Chinese military aircraft are flown over the strait to threaten the “Median Line.” This contentious boundary is an artificial border drawn on open sea serving as a threshold for China’s hostile actions; the erasure of the line is a clear signal an assault on the island is underway. While constant flights might be interpreted as pure symbolism and are non-hostile their daily presence over the strait for the past month and a half is staggering. In just the first two weeks of September Taiwan’s defense ministry identified over two hundred military aircraft flying circuitous routes along the Median Line’s edges.

While the reasons that drive Beijing’s activities against the “rogue province” it vows to unite are matters of tangled speculation a silver lining in the past month is the air force revealing its newest aircraft. Gone are the outdated models of the past, which were slowly retired beginning in the 1990s, and the PLAAF now boasts a sizable fleet of advanced warplanes. There are reports the stealthy J-20 did fly near Taiwan’s airspace but there is a deeper body of evidence in the public domain on the PLAAF’s other prized models, including the J-16. Not to be confused with the Russian-made Su-27 or Su-35S the J-16 is a radical evolution of a Sukhoi-based airframe and is the PLAAF’s chosen multirole strike fighter. Its basic external characteristics are a twin seat cockpit and a distinctive hump on the upper fuselage as a result. When it comes to the airframe it shares the dimensions of the PLAAF’s older J-11B and the PLAN’s J-15 carrier-based fighter, the later based on the Su-33, although the J-16 doesn’t have canards like the J-15.

Not surprisingly, the most accessible verified information about the J-16 comes from Chinese state media, whose official news agencies have circulated only impressive details about the model. Its first public appearance was during a flyover in 2017 for a military parade at a PLA training area that was attended by President Xi Jinping. Years later, in 2021, a single J-16D was displayed at Air Show China together with the rest of the PLAAF’s current generation models. The sudden appearance of the J-16D at the event was strange since the distinctions among the “A,” “B,” and “C” variants were never elaborated. But it turned out the J-16D was a dedicated electronic warfare variant for tracking and eliminating enemy radar installations and ground-based air defense weaponry.

It was also Chinese state media responsible for hyping other aspects of the J-16 such as the coating layer over its airframe meant to diminish its radar signature. One reason put forward for the feature is the J-16’s role in accompanying the J-20 on strike missions or vice versa. Since the J-20’s payload is limited to its internal bays the J-16 can be armed with anti-radiation missiles–the munitions used on enemy air defenses–for taking out ground-based threats in contested airspace where the J-20’s beyond-visual-range or BVR targeting wipes out enemy aircraft. The J-16 can perform the same BVR targeting but is also capable of attacking ground targets with guided and unguided ordnance.

The overall “modernization” of the PLAAF happened at a faster pace than anticipated. In the mid-2010s it was assessed the branch had several hundred fourth-generation fighters in total and a still enormous pool of outdated fighters such as the J-7. Acquisitions of Russian-made Su-27, Su-30, and Su-35 twin engine fighters were considered the most advanced in the air fleet. This was a premature judgement since production of the J-20 was in full swing by 2016 and this was accompanied by full-rate production for the J-10B/C and the J-16. The result is within the span of a dozen years the PLAAF is now operating a majority fourth and “4.5” generation fleet with fifth-generation fighters and teaming/tethered combat drones being integrated soon. This dramatic change is noted in the defense ministry of Taiwan’s public information about PLAAF flights going back at least four years.

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