The PRC should take Gripen E as a template, says Senior Colonel Li Chunghua Hua of the PLAAF

RTAF Gripen D and PLAAF J-11A at exercise Falcon Strike 2019 at the Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base (Udorn RTAFB).

This is the second time in several years Chinese J-11A faces RTAF Gripen C. An early December 2019 report from inside of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) reveals previously unreleased technical details of People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) J-11A aircraft (licensed built Russian Su-27s) losing a majority of engagements in a November 2015 and August 2019 exercise with the 701 Fighter Squadron of the Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF). This Thai unit operates eight Saab JAS-39C and four JAS-39D Gripens. The PLAAF admission comes as no surprise to everyone as Thai media praises Gripen C as a rightful acquisition by RTAF.

The engagements, known as Falcon Strike 2015 and Falcon Strike 2019, were such exercises and were detailed in a lecture given by one of the PLAAF’s most heavily decorated pilots, Senior Colonel Li Chunghua Hua (李中華), at the PRC’s Northwestern Polytechnical University (西北工业大学) in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province.

J-11A Aircraft of PLAAF

 In the 1990s China signed an agreement with Russia, that allowed to build 200 Su-27SK aircraft from Russian-supplied kits. Production of the J-11 began in 1998. It made its maiden flight during the same year. However co-production of the basic J-11 was halted after around 100 aircraft were built. Some sources report that China violated agreement by installing indigenous electronics. It seems that Russia refused to supply kits for these aircraft to China. Later China began to produce indigenous versions of this aircraft, fitted with indigenous engines.

J-11A of PLAAF

Performance of the basic version of this aircraft, the Shenyang J-11, is very similar to Sukhoi Su-27, not only because of an almost identical design, but also because of the equipment. This version employs Russian equipment like NIIP Tikhomirov N001V radar and armament including Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-30-1 30 mm automatic cannon and Vympel NPO missiles. Some 253 aircraft of various versions of J-11 are in service with the PLAAF.

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Chengdu J-10C

Li is described as one of the most experienced Sukhoi Su-27SK/J-11A pilots in the PLAAF with some 3,200 hours in fast jets, much of them in the Russian-made Sukhoi.  His revelations are unprecedented and are assessed by US intelligence as demonstrating a growing concern within the officer corps over deficiencies with the training regime for the PLAAF’s pilot cadre.

Gripen C/D of RTAF

Gripen C/D is the first of the new generation, multi-role fighter aircraft to enter operational service.

Gripen D

Using the latest technology it is capable of performing an extensive range of air-to-air, air-to-surface and reconnaissance missions employing the latest weapons. Gripen C/D is designed to meet the demands of existing and future threats, while simultaneously meeting strict requirements for flight safety, reliability, training efficiency and low operating costs. Built for full NATO interoperability, Gripen C has successfully participated in NATO-led operations as well as numerous exercises and air policing assignments.

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The primary sensor of the Gripen C/D target acquisition/weapons aiming system is the long range PS-05/A radar. The Gripen radar is a compact, long-range, high-performance multi-mode pulse doppler radar with a modular architecture and high reliability, offering high resolution, excellent look-down performance and good Electronic Counter-Counter Measures
(ECCM) capabilities.

Falcon Strike: War Games Between RTAF and PLAAF

The Falcon Strike is the third of the so-called “Strike series”, joint military drills between Thai and Chinese armed forces officers. Up to 108 Thai officers and 106 Chinese personnel from the two air forces are participating in the exercise. The Chengu J-10C, Saab Gripen C/D and Shenyang J-11A were the main aircraft used in Falcon Strikes exercise.

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These first exercises ran at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base and showed the advantages of the smaller and more technologically-advanced Gripen over the Russian Sukhoi.  Several of Li’s summations from the exercise are:

  • The JAS-39C performance was great inside the within visual range (WVR) envelope against the J-11A.  Over a two-day period, RTAF pilots shot down 25 J-11A aircrafts of PLAAF against loss of two Gripen D.  Although, the J-11A has an advantage over the performance of the JAS-39 due to its more powerful Salyut AL-31F engines, and the Swedish aircraft was equipped AIM-9L Sidewinder managed to score better.
  • Once the exercise transitioned to beyond visual range (BVR) combat, the superiority of the JAS-39C of RTAF became readily apparent.  The Swedish aircraft shot down 41 J-11A over a period of four days with a loss of only five JAS-39C.
  • The J-11A flown by the PLAAF were operating with a modified version of the NIIP N001 radar that could fire the Vympel RVV-AE active-homing air-to-air missile (AAM). But its effective detection range was only 120km in comparison with the JAS-39C’s Ericsson PS-05/A at 160km.  The Gripen’s Raytheon AIM-120 AAM also outranged the RVV-AE at 100km versus only 70 km for the Russian missile.
  • Li stated that the JAS-39C/D’s much smaller radar cross-section (RCS) at 1.5-2.0 m2 was a major factor, as the much larger 25m2 RCS of J-11A is easier to detect at 40 sq miles.  The JAS-39C/D can also ripple-fire up to four AIM-120 simultaneously but the J-11A can fire only one RVV-AE at a time.

Gripen achieved 88 percent of its kills at 80 km or greater range, while the J-11A had just 14 percent of its kills at smaller range. The RTAF also had 10 kills at a distance of more than 90 km compared with zero long-distance kills by the J-11A.

In subsequent exercises the PLAAF fared better by sending the Chengdu J-10A – and then in 2019 the J-10C – in place of the J-11A.  Li pointed out that the J-10C was not a match to Gripen C but a bit comparable to the JAS-39C/D in that “its active array radar significantly improves detection distance and multi-target attack capability, the DSI (divertless) air intake of the J-10C reduces the radar intercept area while the PL-15 missile increases the range, making it an over-the-horizon platform.”

Li also commented that the next-generation version of the Gripen, the JAS-39E, is likely to feature even more advanced combat performance with superior radar and electronics. His interest in the aircraft parallels a larger body of analysis within the PLA intelligence community that has had a fixation on the design and development of the Gripen as a template for PRC industry to follow.

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