China Replacing Aging Fighter Jets With Advanced J-16s in All Five Theater Commands, Report Says
© Chinese Ministry of National DefenseTwo Chengdu J-16 Fighters of China's People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF)
© Chinese Ministry of National Defense
The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has stepped up its efforts to replace aging fighter jets with top-of-the-line J-16 fighters, according to reports in Chinese media. The advanced aircraft has most recently been deployed in Tibet and Xinjiang, meaning all five PLA commands are now using it.
One of China's newest fighters is being rapidly integrated into front-line air forces, allowing the PLAAF to phase out older aircraft like the J-7 and J-8, both of which are based on updated versions of the 1950s-era MiG-21, built by the Soviet Union.
"Chinese old generation military aircraft like the J-7 and J-8 are not enough to deal with the increasing security challenges around its periphery," Fu Qianshao, a retired PLAAF equipment specialist, was quoted as saying in Chinese media on Friday.
"Aircraft replacement is not taking place just in the western border, as China needs more long-range advanced warplanes to deal with increasing provocations from the United States and its allies in the South and East China seas, where the PLA’s key strategic focuses are," he added.
The J-16 is one of numerous aircraft derived from the Sukhoi Su-27, many of which form the backbone of the Chinese air forces. The J-16 is the newest member of the family, entering service in 2016 with a host of advanced equipment, including AESA radar, long-range missiles, and in the newest D-variant, electronic warfare capabilities. It can serve as both a strike aircraft and an interceptor.
Although it is considered a 4.5-generation aircraft, the J-16 is intended to be a key partner for China’s fifth-generation J-20, a true stealth aircraft, in future air operations. The PLAAF has already built at least 245 J-16s, with reported intentions to obtain at least 300 to meet anticipated threats from the United States and its allies in the region.
As such, China’s J-16 is easily the equal of the US’ F-15 Eagle fighter jets and could pose a threat to stealth aircraft like the F-35, too.
The J-16 has been spotted across China’s eastern commands in recent years, including near Taiwan, but the most recent news shows the strike jet being deployed in the west, where Chinese troops have been engaged in violent exchanges with Indian forces in the high-altitude Ladakh region along their ill-defined border.
In the event of a shooting war with India, the J-16 would find itself facing advanced aircraft from the US, Europe, and even Russia, including Sukhoi Su-30s, Dassault Rafales, Lockheed Martin F-16s, and the indigenously-designed HAL Tejas. India has also incorporated Russia’s advanced S-400 air defense system into its military, which would be a potent threat to the J-16.
"Increased air activity by [the] Chinese is being monitored. We have increased the presence of radars and air defense networks. Appropriate non-escalator measures have been taken in time," Indian Air Force Chief V. R. Chaudhary told Indian media in October, adding that the IAF was “expediting the operationalization of recently inducted systems,” including S-400 and Rafale.
A similar dynamic is in play in the South and East China Seas, where US military forces have stepped up their presence in recent years amid claims Beijing has expansionist ambitions in the region. Washington has in particular begun selling new jets to Taiwan, an autonomous island Beijing considers to be a Chinese province in rebellion, as well as upgrading their existing fleet of F-16s. The PLAAF has used J-16s for naval patrols and to provide other aircraft, including their powerful Xi'an H-6 bombers, with a screen of electronic jamming during their patrols across the waterways.