China began showcasing its air power capabilities in 1996 when it staged the first Air Show in Zhuhai near Macao in the southern province of Guangdong. Since then it has become a regular biennial event. At the first show China displayed very few indigenously built aircraft and equipment because its aviation industry was still in its infancy. Although it had begun developing some fighters and transport aircraft and helicopters based on foreign designs from the early 1980s, these were not exactly path breaking and yet it was clear that with its economy on a gallop its leadership was determined to put China on the global aviation map.
At the time, most Western analysts dismissed China’s quest for military modernisation as something that would only fructify by 2020; if at all. In the last 14 years since the first air show, China has proved them wrong by leapfrogging a generation of technology. This time too when the show opens on 16 November, China is bound to spring a few surprises.
According to some reports, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) aerobatic team, the ‘Sherdils’ are scheduled to demonstrate their prowess on the jointly produced Karakoram-8 jet trainers. The JF-17 Thunder, cynosure of the PAF, is also expected to participate. Both these, as also the J-10 programmes, have now reached maturity and the PAF is slated to receive some 36 J-10 modern fighters in the next few years.
China’s own AWACS based on the IL-76 airframe and the Y-8 AEW based on the four-engined An-12 design are already flying with operational squadrons. Few remember that new engines now power the Y-8, as is the case with the H-6K (Tu-16) bomber/air refueller – the latter being nearly 50 years old but still flying. Having modified their jet intakes for the more powerful engines, the H-6K is a formidable weapon platform as it is now carrying a variety of Anti-Ship Missiles as well as Cruise Missiles.
The J-10 is soon to be powered by an indigenously produced turbofan engine that is undergoing trials, but in the meantime China already holds stocks of some 300 Al-31 FN engines that power the Su-30 and a sizeable number of RD-93 Russian engines for the JF-17 ensuring a smooth and undisrupted production schedule for some years.
China is also likely to demonstrate a new Robot that is used for bomb demolition, a new series of UAVs and possibly UCAVs, a variety of avionics both air and ground borne and above all a wide array of missiles that are already operational.
China has been working on the Russian Varyag, the junked aircraft carrier that it purchased over a decade ago, and visitors may be able to get a glimpse of what its plans are for a light aircraft carrier of its own. The PLA Navy Air Force is already training its Su-30 pilots on carrier flying. There were reports of some Chinese pilots training in the offshore Black Sea facility in Ukraine.
Having successfully demonstrated its capability of exo-atmospheric interception of a missile on 10 January 2009, and an anti-satellite test earlier, the Chinese might be tempted to give some hints about the progress in these two cutting-edge fields. While the DF-21 derivative now modified with a conventional warhead for anti carrier battle group operations as part of China’s Anti Access/Area Denial strategy is unlikely to be shown, though visitors would be keen to find out more about this missile which is bound to play a major role in enforcing China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Like in the past, many Western aviation majors would participate in the air show. France has just declared its keenness to once again collaborate with China’s aviation industry. Other European and indeed American companies would vie for business in civil, general, commercial and military aviation. Now that the US/European arms embargo is hardly being enforced, China may again gain from its close relations with these countries.
Thousands of aviation enthusiasts and professionals are bound to throng to Zhuhai on 16 November, but one wonders if Indian aviation companies such as the HAL, BEL, L&T, TATA and many other SMEs would send their delegations or sell their wares at the show. ISRO, DRDO, MoD and all three services as also think tanks like the IDSA, CLAWS, CAPS and NMF should also send their representatives, but knowing our indifference and disinterest one cannot say whether this will actually happen.