As with previous editions of the biennial show, there were a great number of new platforms and important revelations emanating from Airshow China 2022, with an aarray of weapons, vehicles, helicopters and aircraft on display as Chinese industry seeks to meet the needs of the rapidly modernizing People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and to capture lucrative export markets.
Indeed, just about all of the weapons and platforms currently used by the PLA are available for export now. China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC), for example, was promoting its export-version Type 052DE destroyer. This is the first time this advanced warship has been marketed in the international arena.
A Type 052DE brochure listed a length of approximately 159m and displacement of 6,800t for the destroyer. It has a cruising speed of 16 knots over a range of 4,000 nautical miles, or a maximum speed of 28 knots. CSSC listed typical sensors and weapon systems, though “the main subsystems or equipment could be selected according to the user’s demands”.
Such statements, highlighting China’s accommodation of diverse customer requirements, are very important. Indeed, it was a recurrent theme at Airshow China 2022, as Beijing seeks to corner more and more of the global arms trade.
Remember too that Russia is embroiled in a bitter war with Ukraine, with vast amounts of vehicles, aircraft, helicopters, small arms and munitions expended or lost. Given the seriousness of its losses, and the impact of Western-led sanctions, Moscow’s supply chain has been severely disrupted.
This means it will be increasingly difficult to supply the Russian armed forces, let alone the export markets it has long relied upon for extra cash. Indeed, it is difficult to see how Russian arms exports will not be severely dented by its violence in Ukraine. This provides China with even greater opportunities to garner export sales. It has already been doing very well in sales to markets such as Africa, the Middle East and Asia, and it is opportunistically looking to kick on even further.
Note also that weapon sales are a powerful geopolitical tool to curry favor and leverage ongoing influence over dependent clients for many years to come. China, with its powerful economic clout, can offer attractive pricing, loans and deals that will bring countries into Beijing’s inescapable orbit.
One example is Thailand, whose military junta found a willing ally in China when others like the USA shunned it. Thailand has been buying up all manner of weapons, such as main battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, radars, surface-to-air missiles, submarines and a landing platform dock ship (currently undergoing sea trials), from China.
With a one-party state in power in China, it is very easy to coordinate foreign policy and defense sales as well. In doing so, Beijing can create toeholds and jam its feet in the door to curb or even shut out American influence. This is important to Chairman Xi Jinping, who is leading China in a great “struggle” against the USA.
These important twin geopolitical-military thrusts by China were very evident in the Zhuhai exhibition in two ways. One was the prevalence of unmanned weapon systems, and the other was a progression from selling mere weapons to marketing complete national defense solutions.
Taking the first point, unmanned systems, China showed a wide range of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), ground vehicles and unmanned sea vessels. These can work independently or with other manned systems, and it is the way that future warfare is heading. China is famous for its vast array of UAVs, the two most famous families being the Wing Loong and CH/Rainbow families of armed UAVs.
Specifically, two important new UAVs debuted at the recent Zhuhai show. The first was the Wing Loong 3, which has a maximum take-off weight of 6,200kg, a range of more than 10,000km and an endurance greater than 40 hours. The maker is reportedly readying for serial production of the Wing Loong 3.
Measuring 12.2m long and with a 24m wingspan, it can be armed with advanced weapons like the PL-10E short-range air-to-air missile to give it an air combat capability. Additionally, it can perform reconnaissance, anti-submarine (it can drop sonobuoys and relay data) and air-to-ground attack missions. The Wing Loong 3 has nine external hardpoints that can carry up to 16 munitions.
AVIC also displayed the Wing Loong 10 high-altitude long-endurance UAV. This Cloud Shadow electronic reconnaissance UAV has already received the official designation WZ-10, demonstrating that it has entered PLA Air Force (PLAAF) service. Its wingspan is approximately 10m.
Other interesting designs saw the light of day in Zhuhai too. The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp (CASC) displayed an improved CH-7 stealth UAV with a 26m wingspan and maximum take-off weight of 10 tonnes. Another mysterious stealthy UAV was the Cloud Shadow CS-5000T with blended-wing design.
Another newcomer was a near-space hypersonic technology testbed called the MD-22. It is 10.8m long, has a 4.5m wingspan and 4-tonne weight. Its range is listed as 8,000km. Returning to the earlier second point – China’s ability to offer national defense solutions- it can be seen that Beijing is already outstripping Moscow.
Russia did very poorly at selling complete defense systems and networks. Sure, it was good at selling individual items such as Su-35 fighters or S-400 air defense systems, but countries rarely went to Russia for integrated solutions. Indeed, Russia’s failings in Ukraine can be partially attributable to such shortcomings within its own military.
Russia sold individual items to gain income, and not so much for geopolitical influence.
Conversely, the USA remains the exemplar when it comes to selling integrated solutions encompassing things like command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR). Such systems are the backbone of national defense, where equipment plugs into wider networks. This is precisely the kind of thing China is attempting to do nowadays. Instead of selling a handful of UAVs or tanks, Chinese companies such as Norinco are now marketing complete combined-arms battalions and brigades to foreign countries.
Clients can obviously still mix and match which individual elements it wishes to purchase – and there are dozens of dizzying options available – but China offers the glue that holds them altogether and turns them into an effective fighting force.
This is where Russia has come unstuck in Ukraine, for its C4ISR systems and infrastructure are very disjointed. Not so with China, at least if its glossy brochures and sales pitches are to be believed, for it is marketing integrated system of systems to anyone willing to buy.
Also evident at this year’s Zhuhai Air Show was an emphasis on demonstrating what its subsystems, when combined into a cohesive whole, can do. China is advertising more than just individual weapons, for discerning customers can flick through the thick catalog and pick which parts it needs to create a bespoke system.
For any country proceeding with such procurements, they must be cognizant that they are entering into a long-term relationship with China. It is far more than just a defense relationship, for they will become geopolitically dependent. Once a country has invested in such networks, it cannot then afford to abort and change to another supplier without massive financial loss. In other words, China will capture its customers hook, line and sinker.
With such an approach, China could well become the second largest arms exporter in the world, behind the USA. Such deals as mentioned above tend to be multi-year, long-term ones that deepen relationships and dependencies upon China.
Already, in 2020, Chinese companies accounted for a 13% share of the globe’s top 100 defense companies. This was the second-highest figure, behind 53% for the USA, and ahead of the UK (7.1%), Russia (5%) and France (4.7%). This trend is sure to continue.
Another very important revelation from Zhuhai came via the presence of J-20 stealth fighters. Normally, these fighters simply participate in aerial flying displays at the show, flying in from a nearby airbase. This year, however, a pair of J-20s was left parked at Zhuhai International Airport, and their close proximity to the public and telephoto lenses threw up some stunning possibilities.
On these two J-20s powered by WS10C engines, the construction numbers ‘CB0369’ and ‘CB0370’ were apparent. These numbers were repeated on various parts of the aircraft (e.g. the in-flight refueling probe cover, base of the tail and canopy. The specific numbers suggest that these J-20s are from the fourth production batch (gleaned from the ‘CB03’ nomenclature) and that at least 200 J-20s have already been constructed.
According to analysts, the first J-20 series production batch had at least 18 aircraft, the second batch 46 and the third 56. If there are already 70 in the fourth batch, then this adds up to a minimum of 208 aircraft, if 18 low-rate production aircraft are also thrown in. Previous estimates by Western analysts suggested that perhaps just over 100 J-20s were in service. However, the high numbers seen on the publicly exhibited J-20s could have rudely torn up such predictions.
Nonetheless, a word of caution must also be issued here. During the Cold War, it was normal for both sides to inflate or hide true numbers of key pieces of military hardware so as to mislead potential foes. The possibility should not be dismissed that China could have used these visible numbers as part of a carefully concocted ruse to throw off Western observers.
If these numbers are true, on the other hand, Chinese military aircraft production is proceeding at an incredible pace. If such rates are maintained, it is possible that more than 1,000 J-20s will be operating by the mid-2030s! Similarly, the construction number (‘1105’) on a J-16 fighter at the show suggested that 245 of these aircraft are already in PLAAF service. This number would indicate that it is the fifth aircraft of the 11th production batch, with 24 J-16s manufactured in each successive batch.
Chinese naval ship production has been outpacing that of the USA over the past decade. It might well be that Chinese military aircraft production is heading precisely the same way. At the show, a YY-20 aerial tanker, the aforementioned J-16 fighter and a Wing Loong 2 UAV all made their flying debut. Also on display was the very important Z-20 helicopter, a Chinese facsimile of the famous American Black Hawk.
It is rumored that the first production Y-20B transport aircraft powered by Chinese-built high bypass WS20 engines is being readied for delivery to the PLAAF. This would complete the move away from Russian D-30KP-2 engines. Another interesting revelation was a new air-launched ballistic missile carried by an H-6K strategic bomber. It is likely a hypersonic anti-ship missile based on the YJ-21, and with a range greater than 2,000km. The designation ‘2PZD-21’ was painted on the two missiles.
Another interesting missile was seen aboard a JH-7A2 fighter-bomber. It was an AKF-98 standoff cruise missile, akin to the American AGM-158 JASSM. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), China was the world’s fourth-largest arms exporter from 2017-21. It captured 4.6% of the market, behind the USA, Russia and France respectively.
SIPRI added, “A total of 79% of Chinese arms exports went to Asia and Oceania in 2017-21. China delivered major arms to 48 states in 2017-21, but 47% of its arms exports went to just one state, Pakistan, which is China’s closest ally.”
One thing is clear, if Airshow China 2022 is anything to go by, and that is that China’s share of the global arms market is set to climb much higher as the country occupies gaps vacated by Russia, and as it markets increasingly sophisticated military solutions and systems.