China's military weapons

Air show guests impressed by China’s new-generation stealth fighters, but left wanting more

Brief fly-past and poor visibility hamper observation from the ground

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 November, 2016, 7:04am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 November, 2016, 9:25am

A two-minute demonstration by two of China’s new generation of ­J-20 stealth fighter jets and an aerobatics display by Britain’s Red Arrows impressed guests at Tuesday’s start to Airshow China in coastal Zhuhai, Guangdong province.

Watch: China showcases it’s military strength in Zhuhai Airshow

But delegates and military observers were disappointed by poor visibility and the too-brief fly-past of the J-20s.

Two minutes is too short, but I understand the J-20 should remain a mystery
PLA Air Force delegate

“Two minutes is too short, but I understand the J-20 should remain a mystery because it’s not ready for mass production for service in our air force,” a delegate from the People’s Liberation Army Air Force said.

Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Dong said he had expected the J-20s to open their weapon bays during their first public flight demonstration, which was watched by Central Military Commission vice-chairman General Fan Changlong and air force chief General Ma Xiaotian. Also watching on were former CMC member Chen Bingde and other central and provincial governmental leaders.

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“I am very disappointed because the J-20s opened their weapon bays during a rehearsal a few days ago, but didn’t do so in their first public appearance,” said Wong, who watched Zhuhai TV’s live coverage.

Aircraft analysts have said there are signs with the J-20 that China may be making better-than-expected progress in developing a rival to Lockheed Martin’s radar-evading F-22 Raptor.

But Andrei Chang, founder of Canada-based Kanwa Defence Review, said the conservative demonstration by the J-20 might indicate the aircraft was unable to compete with the F-22.

In 2014, China’s newest version of the J-31 debuted in a fly-past at the opening of Airshow China, in a show of muscle that coincided with a visit to Beijing by US President Barack Obama for an Asia-Pacific summit.

Cloudy and polluted skies affected a fantastic demonstration by the Red Arrows this year
Antony Wong Dong, military observer

On land on Tuesday, many media representatives were unable to cover the debut demonstration of the Chinese VT-4 and VN-12 main battle tanks, with only Zhuhai TV, some state media outlets and VIPs allowed on the demonstration site.

“Watching live TV is a good choice, which showed the main battle tanks’ demonstration was better than the display of the J-10, J-20 and even the debut flight of the Y-20 military transport aircraft,” Wong said.

“Cloudy and polluted skies affected a fantastic demonstration by the Red Arrows this year also, with the British aircraft sometimes covered by clouds even when executing low attitude manoeuvres,” he said.

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Liu Shiying, a retired professor of engineering from Wuhan University in Hubei province, said a performance by the PLA Air Force’s “August 1st” aerobatics team was inferior to that of the Red Arrows.

“The Red Arrows sent nine Hawk jets to fly together and perform superior difficult tricks like crossing and face-to-face close flying, while the August 1st team only has seven aircraft. A nine-aircraft team demonstration is much more difficult and risky than a seven fighter jet team,” Liu said.

“For example, the British team are able to fly crossovers involving two pair of aircraft, but the August 1st team only flew a two single jet crossover.”

Nine aircraft belonging to the Russian Knight and Swifts aerobatic teams also made their first joint performance in Zhuhai, and the Pakistan air force sent its JL-17, which was jointly developed with China, to take part in the show.

“The tank demonstration was a little Russian-style, but the Chinese tank drivers are too careful, and not as fierce and tough as their Russian counterparts,” Wong said.

As this year is both the 20th anniversary of Airshow China and the 60th anniversary of China’s space flight industry, astronauts Jing Haipeng and Chen Chong sent a congratulatory video message from the Tiangong-2 space laboratory about 400km above the earth.

The six-day show will fully open to the public on Friday, and wrap up on Sunday.