Last April, Chinese airplane manufacturer Shenyang Aircraft Corporation surprised military observers by test flying its new J-11D fighter jet, an upgraded version of the J-11, China’s indigenous copy of the Russian Su-27. The D-model J-11 is believed to include such advanced features as an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, a relocated infrared search and track (IRST) system, and the expanded use of composite materials to reduce the plane’s weight and radar signature. This first flight indicates that the J-11D is further along in its development cycle than many experts predicted and is poised to provide a new and deadly addition to the growing fighter fleet of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF).
Despite the evident maturity of the J-11D program, the Chinese military nevertheless appears to also be going ahead with plans to purchase Russian Su-35 Flankers. The Su-35 is far more maneuverable than the J-11 – which gives the Russian jet an advantage in short-range dogfights – can fly longer distances, and can take off and land with a larger payload. It is also equipped with new avionics and new cockpit displays. However, its radar is a less advanced passive electronically scanned array (PESA) than the AESA system on the J-11D. Moreover, the aircraft and its systems will be manufactured abroad. The Chinese government views its indigenous defense industry as a strategic asset; purchasing more planes from Russia will not help advance Beijing’s goal of developing a mature, self-reliant aerospace industry. Given the apparent redundancy of moving forward with two very similar aircraft programs, some analysts speculate that the PLAAF’s primary motivation for buying the Su-35 may not be for its value as a weapons system but rather because it is equipped with advanced AL-117S turbofans.