In late 2019, a new variant of China’s J-11B fighter jet, which had served the PLA Air Force for decades made its public debut amid much fanfare. The modified variant of J-11, details of which remain classified, participated in the latest drills held in the South China Sea.
The three-day drill is significant as it was held in the backdrop of a US admiral revealing that China has fully militarized at least three of several islands that it built in the South China Sea.
On its part, China has defended its right to deploy weapons on its own sovereign territory. Pertinently, it claims almost the entire sea as its territory.
The highlight of these drills, however, was the upgraded J-11B. The PLA Navy has received an updated variant of the J-11B fighter jet, with at least one of them taking part in a recent mock combat drill over the South China Sea, Global Times reported.
The round-the-clock flight training, organized by a brigade linked with the PLA Southern Theater Command Navy Aviation Force, included free aerial battle and offensive and defensive tactical exercises, informed the PLA Southern Theater Command’s Weibo account.
The confrontational training took place over the South China Sea and involved more than ten fighter jets in mock engagements of four-versus-two and two-versus-two, according to a report by state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV).
The PLA Navy has received delivery of an upgraded version of the J-11B fighter jet, with at least one participating in a recent exercise over the South China Sea. The upgrade will significantly enhance the aircraft’s capabilities: analysts https://t.co/hJv7LMLArt pic.twitter.com/3TjFOn7oQc
— libijian李碧建 (@libijian2) March 23, 2022
A J-11B fighter aircraft was seen returning from the drills and entering its hangar. Observers pointed out that this J-11B featured a grayish-white radar dome rather than the black radar domes found on other J-11Bs.
This is not the first time this aircraft was part of military drills. In February this year, three upgraded J-11Bs were seen attached to the PLA Northern Theater Command Air Force’s “Eagles in East Liaoning,” an elite unit that conducted night-time combat alert drills during the Chinese spring vacations, as previously reported by EurAsian Times.
J-11B: From Doppler To AESA Radar
Similar variations as observed in the recent footage have been noted since 2019, when the J-11Bs with black radar domes began moving to white ones, according to eastday.com, a Shanghai-based news source.
The color shift to the radar dome could suggest that the J-11B’s radar has been upgraded, possibly moving from the previous Pulse-Doppler radar to the modern Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar.
As compared to the Pulse-Doppler radar, the AESA scans with more precision as the radio waves can be blasted out in several directions at the same time using AESA radar technology. It provides more tactical information to its user by scanning at different frequencies.
AESA radars have a longer range, are capable of detecting even the minutest of the objects, and are resistant to jamming. According to analysts, the updated J-11Bs would have a longer detection range, identify more targets, and employ more modern armaments like the PL-10 short-range combat missile and the PL-15 beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles.
Wang Ya’nan, chief editor of Aerospace Knowledge magazine said that China has a big number of J-11B fighter jets, and upgrading them will considerably improve the PLA’s combat capability.
According to analysts, the current maneuvers indicate that both the Air Force (PLAAF) and the Navy (PLAN) would receive the improved J-11B. Further, the PLA Navy’s J-11Bs will also be equipped with China’s domestically built WS-10 engines as was suggested by previous reports.
Official media in #China have confirmed that all jet fighters in the Chinese air force are now equipped with Chinese made jet engines
The WS-10 engine series are used on the J-11B, J-10C and J-20
The WS-20 high bypass turbofan engine have also been confirmed to be used on Y-20 pic.twitter.com/f2kzODcfPb
— Zhao Dashuai 无条件爱国 ?? (@obsidianstatue1) March 14, 2022
This is significant as China remains locked in a tense battle with its regional rivals and the United States in the South China Sea as well as the wider Indo-Pacific region. A day before the drills started, a US carrier had traversed the Taiwan Strait which triggered angry Chinese aerial activity in Taiwan’s airspace.
Further, Vietnam had said that Chinese drills violated its Exclusive Economic Zone and continental shelf. However, China claims practically the entire South China Sea and has dismissed the accusation of militarization as ‘hype’. Admiral John C. Aquilino, the United States’ Indo-Pacific Commander recently alleged that China had deployed anti-aircraft missile systems and fighter jets in the South China Sea.
J-11B Fighter jet
Shenyang J-11, also known as Jian-11, is a multi-role fighter aircraft produced by Shenyang Aircraft Corporation in China (SAC).
In China, the J-11 aircraft has had a difficult history. The second batch of the “indigenously made and lawfully licensed” J-11A/Su-27SK was halted after Beijing was accused of breaching co-production agreements with Moscow.
The J-11’s success prompted Beijing to move forward with the development of the J-11B, an improvised and more domesticated version that employed Chinese avionics rather than Russian ones to lessen reliance on Russia.
A type 1474 radar, 3-axis data system, power supply system, emergency power unit, brake system, hydraulic system, fuel system, environment control system, molecular sieve oxygen generating systems, digital flight control system, and a glass cockpit are among the Chinese subsystems on the J-11B.
The J-11B is the backbone of China’s heavyweight fighter jet fleet today, and it is widely regarded as one of the most competent fourth-generation combat jets in service in terms of air-to-air and attack capabilities.
Over 200 of the elite fourth-generation heavyweight fighters are currently in service, with at least 70 in the Navy and at least 140 in the Air Force, however, the actual number is unknown because the planes are built behind closed doors in China and do not require foreign components, according to Military Watch Magazine.
Observers have predicted that the fourth-generation J-11B will develop to a fourth-plus generation level as a result of the enhancements and will remain in active duty with strong competitiveness for a long period.
The exact specifications of the upgraded J-11B are unknown but whatever they may be, one thing is certain: it will add more value to the PLA Air Force, and the greater the number of aircraft upgraded, the longer their lifespan will be.