Future PLA combat aircraft composition


Phead128

Junior Member
Anyone that thinks stealth is the be all and end all of Air combat needs to learn more about how air battles are fought. I suggest you watch some videos on youtube of people flying various planes and fighting in DCS air combat simulator.

The most important in any combat is tactics, not capability.

Stealth is overrated. The only advantage stealth provides is a lower detection range in BVR. A stealthy plane might be detected by an X band radar from 30 miles vs non-stealthy plane at 150 miles. That might seem huge but it is not. First of all, low frequency radar can detect stealth planes from 100s of miles. So, there is no element of surprise here. If a country has low frequency radar in planes or AWACS or even ground based radar, they can easily identify where the planes is.

Once you know where the plane is, there are many tactics you can use to defeat stealth. You can design your radar guided missile to fire without a full lock but low-frequency radar given coordinates. Once they are close enough, the missile can lock on its own. Modern AI allows much more complex logic about these kind of decisions on the fly. With AI you can use image based recognition to lock on targets without using a radar.

Even if you don't have these technologies, you can use superior tactics to defeat stealth. Avoid BVR and just hug to the ground and fly low, thus masking yourself from the planes. You can use terrain features such as mountains to hide. Once stealth planes gets close enough to be detected by your X band radar, you can lock and fire.

You can set up approach from different angles. One group can fight from the front to act as decoy while several groups can engage from the side. Stealth planes have limited number of missiles in their bay and thus, they can be exhausted from missile using decoys and then chased by faster planes from the side or behind.

Discussions about air combat here most of the times boil down to which plane has what new stuff. But there is a reason militaries around the world are not going crazy over stealth. Its just a new capability just like having a more powerful radar which allows early detection. A nice thing to have for sure, and raises the chances of winning. But superior tactics and superior numbers can defeat any equipment.

If you run a air combat simulation between 187 F-22s versus (93 J-20s and 93 J-16s), the F-22s will win every single time.

An 100% 5th gen force will decimate a 50:50 4thgen/5th gen force every single time, no matter how many AWACs you have in your force.

The reason why militaries around the world aren't going crazy over stealth is because they are BROKE as heck and 5th gens are expensive to build. That's why you have Russian deputy of defense saying the Su-57 is "too good, too superior to Western offerings", ergo, therefore "We don't need to build it, go for Su-35S instead" type of mental gymnastics. It's the economy, duh.

If Russia had the money, they would certainly go for as many 5th gens as possible.
 
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Eurofighter

New Member
Whole of Japan is in.
If you run a air combat simulation between 187 F-22s versus (93 J-20s and 93 J-16s), the F-22s will win every single time.

An 100% 5th gen force will decimate a 50:50 4thgen/5th gen force every single time, no matter how many AWACs you have in your force.

The reason why militaries around the world aren't going crazy over stealth is because they are BROKE as heck and 5th gens are expensive to build. That's why you have Russian deputy of defense saying the Su-57 is "too good, too superior to Western offerings", ergo, therefore "We don't need to build it, go for Su-35S instead" type of mental gymnastics. It's the economy, duh.

If Russia had the money, they would certainly go for as many 5th gens as possible.

First, no one doubt about the qualities of 5th gen. But given that contemporary battle space is multi-faceted, I don't believe an air force with only 50% 5th gen is bound to lose the war over the skies by definition. Wars simply don't not work that way.
 

crash8pilot

Junior Member
Registered Member
If you run a air combat simulation between 187 F-22s versus (93 J-20s and 93 J-16s), the F-22s will win every single time.

An 100% 5th gen force will decimate a 50:50 4thgen/5th gen force every single time, no matter how many AWACs you have in your force.

The reason why militaries around the world aren't going crazy over stealth is because they are BROKE as heck and 5th gens are expensive to build. That's why you have Russian deputy of defense saying the Su-57 is "too good, too superior to Western offerings", ergo, therefore "We don't need to build it, go for Su-35S instead" type of mental gymnastics. It's the economy, duh.

If Russia had the money, they would certainly go for as many 5th gens as possible.



Here's a video of a T-38 going up against an F-22... He definitely gets a gun-track kill, and has multiple windows of opportunity to fire off Fox-2s if this were a real battle. As @tamsen_ikard mentioned, fifth-gen isn't everything. Now it'd be pretty appalling if the Raptor ever found itself at the visual merge, let alone being defensive like it was in the video (might have been a defensive BFM training set, and the Talon might just have come out on top against what might've been a less experienced Raptor pilot). But my point here is that flying a fifth-gen fighter doesn't automatically outclasses lower generation opponents. It comes down to whether the pilot of the fifth-gen fighter is able to utilize the strengths of their platform to formulate a game plan (does the pilot go for a one-circle or two-circle fight? How the aircraft handles high aspect and the affect it would have on airspeed? Rate of turn? Getting good angles? Jamming weapons employment zone with angles) that hopefully capitalizes on the opponents weakness, or to force a mistake from the opposing fighter to get the kill. I am currently based in the UK, and while not privy to details, I'm witness first hand how slowly the RAF/RN's Lightning program is coming along (the Ministry of Defence definitely thought they'd be a lot further along the line fielding the F-35, I mean they even had to call in a US Marine squadron to field the HMS Queen Elizabeth?!). It isn't just a matter of American allies procuring fifth-get fighters, and they'd automatically kick our asses. These pilots will still need time to develop the experience to maximize the capabilities of their fifth-gen platforms, just like the PLAAF's own pilots will have to do with the J-20.

Now the F-22 is the king of BVR, that's most likely where the F-22/J-20 manages to fire off Fox-3 AMRAAM/PL-15s to rack up impressive kill stats you've cited, when the opposing fighter can't pick up the fifth-gen platform due to inferior radar/data-link. With that said, as @tamsen_ikard mentioned in his post, low frequency radar is capable of painting a fifth-gen platform. Moreover it would sure seem as though the PLA are investing a lot into developments in the EW sphere to enhance the PLAAF's forth-gen platforms ability to go up against a fifth-gen. Although thrust vectoring is impressive, and the F-22's flight control system allows the Raptor to perform ridiculous manoeuvres, it wasn't built to be a dog-fighting machine. A fifth-gen pilot would then have to revert to his or her skill, experience, sticking with his or her game plan, and hopefully a bit of luck in order to come out of the confrontation, regardless if its within visual range or BVR.

Tying all this back to the discussion of the PLA's combat aircraft composition, what I'm suggesting is that while fifth-gen fighters are game changing, they don't necessarily guarantee victory. The J-20 is still a revolving program, and until the WS-15 is introduced I just don't think the J-20 program has reached it's maturity, especially given how the Flanker program continues to make leaps and bounds. I am fascinated to see what the J-11 can do with a thrust vectoring variant WS-10 featured on the J-10, which would seemingly allow the J-11 to superceed the latest Russian Flanker in the Su-35. My favorite fighter, the J-16, also seems to be on par with the American Strike Eagle, and I'm fascinated by what the J-16D would be able to accomplish in the EW battleground conducting the SEAD/DEAD mission.

If we looked back at the past decade, the F-22 hasn't exactly seen a whole lot of action either. The only publicly known Raptor action was in Syria... other than that the Department of Defense seems comfortable integrating a mixed forth/fifth-gen air tasking order. If you listened to Red Flag briefings, they seem to bring in the Raptor on Night One to secure air superiority for non-stealth platforms to roll in once the skies have been cleared of enemy aircraft. Until the F-35 can be properly fielded, that would be the formula the USAF would seemingly follow.

China finds herself in similar circumstances, when the J-20 is still awaiting the WS-15 engine, while we are yet to see what is to come with the FC/J-31 and the WS-19 engine that would power it. I keep being dismissed, but I'd still reiterated that the current J-20 configuration as it stands is a stopgap solution for the PLAAF's need of a fifth-gen stealth air superiority fighter, buying time for Chengdu to collect valuable experience to bring along a J-20 that features supercruise, thrust vectoring, as well as other capabilities to meet the PLAAF's longterm needs. Until then, I strongly believe other forth-gen platforms in the J-10/J-11/J-16 still have a role to play within the next 5-10 years.
 

tamsen_ikard

Junior Member
Registered Member
If you run a air combat simulation between 187 F-22s versus (93 J-20s and 93 J-16s), the F-22s will win every single time.

An 100% 5th gen force will decimate a 50:50 4thgen/5th gen force every single time, no matter how many AWACs you have in your force.

The reason why militaries around the world aren't going crazy over stealth is because they are BROKE as heck and 5th gens are expensive to build. That's why you have Russian deputy of defense saying the Su-57 is "too good, too superior to Western offerings", ergo, therefore "We don't need to build it, go for Su-35S instead" type of mental gymnastics. It's the economy, duh.

If Russia had the money, they would certainly go for as many 5th gens as possible.


This is just speculation on your part. You have not given me any tactic stealth fighters can use to defeat the tactics I have given you. There is no magic that stealth fighters can use to avoid detection by low frequency radars. Once their location is known, there is no magic that can save them from a fighter hiding by flying low or hiding behind a mountain. They most certainly don't have any magic to save themselves from Image based or infrared missiles.

All this simulation exercises that 10-1 kills by stealth fighter are very limited in terms scope. They are probably just fighters dog fighting head on. Real world is much more complex than that. I gave you several ways to defeat stealth fighters. This is just me thinking on top of my head. Real combat tacticians have probably thought hundreds of tactics to defeat stealth fighters using formation, missiles, IRST and so on.

World's top militaries have budgets in 50-100 of billions. Even if a stealth fighter cost 200 million they can buy 50 of them in 1 year using their massive budget, if they were that desperate to have stealth. They are not that desperate because they know stealth is not a big deal in air combat.

World militaries are always thinking of ways to ensure their victory. If they were that much threatened by stealth then they would have abandoned all their other procurement just to get stealth fighters. They would have made this threat a huge issue in public and get a higher budget. Most countries in the world still spend just 2% or below of their GDP in defense. This is extremely low compared to the past when countries spent 5-10%. So, if stealth was that big of a deal, they would have raised their budget to get it.

You are just blinded by dumb hype that's all. Its looks shiny and cool to think of stealth as some kind of invisibility cloak. Its not.
 

Bltizo

Lieutenant General
Staff member
Super Moderator
Registered Member
Well said. And I agree with you here. And I have never deluded myself, I never doubted the direction China should be heading, i.e. building 5th gen, research/develop next next gen manned/unmanned etc; and eventually all 4th will be phased out. There I have no doubt. But the question is, does it have to be an 5th gen to replace a 4th gen? Not necessarily. Given the economics and with realistic regional threats in mind, for the foreseeable future China's air force remain well served with both 4th and 5th gen systems, without the necessity to achieve numerical parity in terms of 5th in the next 10-20 years; or even ever achieve parity for that matter, as those funds will be better on research/development for the next gen systems. I don't believe that by having "only" 50% 5th gen in next decades will endanger China's strategic standings. To again resort to simple numbers: nobody want to take on a country with say 2000 F35s, but nobody, US included, would want to take on an adversary with 1000 J-20 and 1000 J10/J16s either. China will be in no way be pushed in a corner in the next 20 years because it does not have a full 5th gen air force. Better than reaching parity is to spend that money to ensure you will transition into the next gen faster than the US can while keeping the cost in check. That is for me a more sensible choice.

The specific bolded part is the kind of tenor of the discussion I have an issue with.

Saying they will be "well served" with that sort of fleet composition distracts from the fact that it is suboptimal compared to the scale of the competition they will be facing and that if they do end up with that kind of fleet composition it would be a reflection of compromise due to insufficient budget/industry/resources.

I would instead venture to say that such a fleet composition is a "necessary compromise".


Optimally you would be able to have a large all or mostly 5th gen fleet that is well supported by budget/industry/resources to meet immediate needs while also having the budget/industry/resources to effectively pursue next generation systems and procure them in large numbers as well when they arrive.
 

Bltizo

Lieutenant General
Staff member
Super Moderator
Registered Member
Stand off missile strike idea as the ultimate solution keeps rearing its head. Yet it's fallacious in many aspects.
Because of the following:

1. Chinese enemies would not have just a few bases available (like on Guam) but possibly 100 + various bases spread over vast swaths of land to operate from, with great majority being closer to China than Guam.

I think that is a massive geopolitical and military assumption which at this stage doesn't really play out.

One doesn't simply open up a post with the assumption that "US will have 100+ air bases to operate military aircraft from in event of a conflict" and make it sound like everyone already accepts it.


Sure, the idea that the US could use airports in Japan and convert them to their military use is not impossible but I'm sure you appreciate that military air bases are not simply airports but require some rather substantial dedicated infrastructure of their own to even get operating, never mind if you are wanting to field more advanced 5th generation fighters from them for any length of time.

The scale of such a conversion of all of Japan's airports into viable military airbases as well would require such a massive and lengthy build up that consideration of such a possibility would be well preceded by months if not years of political and military discussions between the US and Japan that China would obviously alter their own force structure and contingency planning in the interim.
That is to say, it isn't on the cards in the foreseeable future.



This isn't to say I disagree with the idea that direct attack munitions should be an important component of strike -- and that's one aspect where I think H-20 may have a role in -- but what you've described here is quite a jarring and significant shift in military contingency planning that isn't something which can be just "slid in" as if it's assumed to be reasonable.
 

Bltizo

Lieutenant General
Staff member
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I think the USAF is heavily over-invested on short-ranged manned stealth fighters like the F-35, even if it is amazing in the air.

These aircraft need to operate from bases close to the Chinese mainland and are therefore highly vulnerable to destruction on the ground where they spend the vast majority of the time.

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I also disagree with your assertion that USAF force multipliers will become more survivable and distributed.

If we're talking about large tanker/AWACs/bomber aircraft, they are so vulnerable because they rely on fixed airbases within range of Chinese missiles. And on a cost-benefit basis, destroying these expensive aircraft on the ground is a bargain compared to the cost of missiles.

We already see the USAF removing its bombers from Guam due to Chinese missiles, and I expect Chinese missile development to continue with even longer-ranged missiles up to Hawaii which is some 8000km from the Chinese mainland.

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I actually see the advent of loyal wingman autonomous UCAVs as reducing the utility of manned stealth fighters like the F-35 or J-20.

These UCAVs will become the primary sensor and shooter platforms, as they are sent out far ahead. An F-35 or J-20 will become the secondary sensor and shooter platform. Then there is a question about whether the F-35 or J-20 is the best command and control platform for these drones.

So the conclusion is that you want to produce vast numbers of UCAVs, which are controlled by a more modest number of F-35s, J-20s or other aircraft.

Plus these cheap disposable UCAVs are being developed with a range of 4000-6000km in mind. 6000km of endurance is beyond the capabilities of a manned stealth fighter.

Even Guam is only a 6000km round trip from China, so it would be feasible to send large numbers of air superiority and ground attack drones against Guam. So from the Chinese perspective, what use is having an excessively large number of short-ranged manned stealth fighters?




My view is that it would be foolish for the Chinese Air Force to try and match the number of manned stealth fighters, even if they had the budget to do so.

The geography of the Western Pacific allows the Chinese military to invest in missiles to destroy opposing stealth fighters on the ground, rather than in the air which is far more difficult and expensive.

Let's say the Chinese Air Force was given the budget to match the opposition's 2000 manned stealth fighters, in its goal to contest achieve air superiority in the Western Pacific. But the Chinese Air Force would struggle to obtain air superiority in such a symmetric force-on-force encounter.

But if China were to only field 1000 manned stealth fighters, the rest of the money could be used for land-attack missiles instead.
A back of the envelope calculation indicates that China could buy over 100,000 JASSM or Tomahawk type missiles.
Other missiles are more or less expensive, but you get the idea.

Such a combination of forces would guarantee Chinese air superiority over the Western Pacific, because everyone else will barely have any aircraft into the air.

A few counter points.

1. I think we need to stop calling the F-35 short ranged. It has an equal or longer range than F-22. F-35 isn't exactly an F-16 or Mig-29, is my point here.

2. WRT force multipliers being more distributed, I'm not sure why you would doubt that. I am talking about the aircraft in the US fleet that currently do their AEW&C, EW, ELINT/SIGINT work. Those aircraft types will be supplemented by distributed long endurance drones in coming years, that will be more distributed and attritible in nature.
Obviously non-stealthy bombers and tankers will remain vulnerable, but I never mentioned these aircraft types in my previous post.

3. WRT loyal wingmen UCAVs, I would argue that loyal wingmen UCAVs act as force multipliers for manned fighter aircraft rather than making them less relevant.
Say, hypothetically, a formation of four 5th gen fighters and eight loyal wingman UCAVs will be able to defeat four 5th gen fighters alone, sure, I don't think anyone would dispute that. The advantages in having additional offboard sensor/shooter nodes is massive in such a matchup.
However, what happens if both air forces have 5th gen fighters and loyal wingman UCAVs in their fleets?
What is the best composition of 5th gen fighters and loyal wingman UCAVs?
More importantly, what if the competition has not only a larger fleet of 5th gen fighters than you, but also a commensurately larger fleet of loyal wingmen UCAVs than you as well?

4. WRT strike systems vs fighter procurement, sure I agree with you, that at the overall military/multi-domain level, opportunity-cost becomes very obvious. The cheapest place to destroy an enemy's air force is when they're on the ground.
The limitations of budget/industry/resources means they will have to prioritize certain specific domains over others to achieve better cost effectiveness.
I have no disagreement with that, but again, this discussion up to now has been about PLA fighter procurement, and the fleet compositions described over the last few pages of mixed 5th and 4th gen aircraft is again something I would say should be best described as a "necessary compromise" and avoid speaking of it as if it was somehow always the first choice or most optimal fleet composition from the outset.
 

Phead128

Junior Member
I agree that China doesn't NEED to match parity unit-per-unit with US in 5th gens, mostly because Sino-US air conflict is highly unlikely, and a respectable number of J-20's and J-31 is more than enough to achieve local area dominance in China's region, and deter foreign intervention in Taiwan.

Also, I agree that radar tech and tactics is rapidly evolving, so stealth is definitely no silver bullet.
 
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AndrewS

Major
Registered Member
A few counter points.

1. I think we need to stop calling the F-35 short ranged. It has an equal or longer range than F-22. F-35 isn't exactly an F-16 or Mig-29, is my point here.

I would also call the F-22 short-ranged.


2. WRT force multipliers being more distributed, I'm not sure why you would doubt that. I am talking about the aircraft in the US fleet that currently do their AEW&C, EW, ELINT/SIGINT work. Those aircraft types will be supplemented by distributed long endurance drones in coming years, that will be more distributed and attritible in nature.
Obviously non-stealthy bombers and tankers will remain vulnerable, but I never mentioned these aircraft types in my previous post.

I understand where you're coming from, but geography negates this reasoning.

Do a cost-benefit calculation for a future 8000km range hypersonic missile ($40M?) launched from mainland China, which can reach all the way to Hawaii or Seattle.

A single missile can blanket a base with 17gram Mach 5 submunitions so that every large aircraft is hit.

So it makes sense to devote multiple missiles with submunitions, if there is even a single large expensive aircraft as a target.

Think any:
B-2 stealth bomber ($700M+)
B-1 conventional bomber ($423M)
KC-46 tanker ($150M)
E-3 AWACS ($270M)
P-8 MPA ($125M)
ISR, ELINT/SIGINT, etc etc

There are literally only a handful of force-multiplier aircraft available for deployment from US carriers.
In comparison, there are over 1000 large force-multiplier aircraft available which use land bases.

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If everyone is limited to smaller aircraft, China has many secure rear bases to put up many more aircraft of all types.
In comparison, the US has no secure land bases and only a very limited number of aircraft carriers to work with.

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Plus how will the carriers be resupplied, if the supply ships are being attacked in Hawaii or the West Coast?

That is why I think the US will have a far harder time bringing force-multiplier aircraft to the Western Pacific in the future.

Today, they've already stopped sending large aircraft to Guam for example.

3. WRT loyal wingmen UCAVs, I would argue that loyal wingmen UCAVs act as force multipliers for manned fighter aircraft rather than making them less relevant.
Say, hypothetically, a formation of four 5th gen fighters and eight loyal wingman UCAVs will be able to defeat four 5th gen fighters alone, sure, I don't think anyone would dispute that. The advantages in having additional offboard sensor/shooter nodes is massive in such a matchup.
However, what happens if both air forces have 5th gen fighters and loyal wingman UCAVs in their fleets?
What is the best composition of 5th gen fighters and loyal wingman UCAVs?
More importantly, what if the competition has not only a larger fleet of 5th gen fighters than you, but also a commensurately larger fleet of loyal wingmen UCAVs than you as well?

After taking a look at the cost-effectiveness comparisons and where the technology is going, I'm firmly of the view that UCAVs will become the primary platforms for the deployment of sensors and weapons.

And that manned aircraft will be the secondary platform for these functions, whilst they will (initially at least) be the primary C&C platform.

In such a world, the optimal force balance becomes a very large number of UCAVs, but only a modest number of manned stealth fighters.

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So let's take your example of a competitor with a larger fleet of 5th gen fighters and commensurately larger fleet of loyal wingmen UCAVs.
Geography forces these aircraft to be based close to the Chinese mainland, and makes them vulnerable to ground-attack.
In comparison, China has super hardened bases and secure rear area bases to use.

So China can accept a smaller fleet of 5th gen manned stealth fighters and UCAVs, but build a bigger missile force for land-attack.
You end up with more opposing aircraft destroyed for the same money.
 
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Nobonita Barua

Junior Member
Registered Member
Think any:
B-2 stealth bomber ($700M+)
B-1 conventional bomber ($423M)
KC-46 tanker ($150M)
E-3 AWACS ($270M)
P-8 MPA ($125M)
ISR, ELINT/SIGINT, etc etc

Someone said what i was thinking.
I am no war expert but have been watching what's going on since last decade.

I don't get this theory that you need to match the number of adversary platforms to win "a war" . Considering the geography, i am wondering who is willing to go to war against China? Japan is 60 years old grandpa in wheelchair who will never recover from such a conflict. South Korea is more focused on North than anything else. Even if they buy 100s of F35 from US , i dont see what difference it makes given thy share border with China & they will be toast in case of any misadventure.
Which essentially leaves The US. They couldn't go to war with Russia after they took Crimea. They can't do anything against NoKo . Flying F-22 over Syria or dropping bombs from F-35 over Iraq doesn't exactly scream "superbbb" for me.

I also don't get the scenario where US will be sending it's "armada" to drop bombs on China & China is going to send it's own armada to retaliate by matching the numbers. If US targets Chinese mainland, China should be targeting US mainland, for that i guess 1 long range strategic bomber should be enough.

I was surprised by this report that China is developing 2 stealth fighters & 2 stealth bombers. Unless China wants to get into big ticket arms exports, this makes no sense to me.

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You are talking about platforms that are so costly it would be near about impossible for those to be expendable.
Cheap , cost effective, disposable solution has worked for China . TBH in this era of missiles, ucavs, developing/producing massive numbers of costly platforms make no sense.
Only costly platform i find worth putting money into is submarine.
Additionally i wanted to ask, is there any plan for China to develop intercontinental range hyper sonic missiles that is conventionally armed? Normally conventionally armed ICBM concept isn't cost effective.
But if it's armed with hgv, could this make some difference?

China should really avoid getting into that fetish of "super army armed with super weapons", because trust me, that is a dead end. USSR is gone, now US is going USSR too. "Conceptual war" has no end in imaginary world.
 

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