17 November 2014

Dennis Gormley: What 10th Zhuhai Airshow Reveals About China’s Military Capabilities

Bree Feng, “Q. and A.: Dennis M. Gormley on China’s Military Capabilities,” SinoSphere, New York Times, 10 November 2014.

Every two years since 1996, the China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition, the largest air show in China, has been held in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province, attracting thousands of commercial traders and military enthusiasts. This year its opening was set for Tuesday, the 65th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, or PLAAF, adding to the buzz around the six-day event. For those in commercial aviation, it is an opportunity to show off their wares to a fast-growing aviation market, including an increased appetite for private jets. Nearly 150 military and trade delegations attended the previous exhibition in 2012, which saw $11.8 billion in sales, according to the organizers.

But the exhibition, also known as Airshow China or Zhuhai Airshow, also grants the military enthusiast a closer look at some of the equipment being developed by the Chinese military. …

Dennis M. Gormley, a senior lecturer in military affairs at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, is the author, with Andrew S. Erickson and Jingdong Yuan, of “A Low-Visibility Force Multiplier: Assessing China’s Cruise Missile Ambitions,” published in April by the National Defense University Press. In an interview, he discussed highlights of the air show and China’s military development:

What is the purpose of an event like Airshow China?

Air shows primarily promote military commerce. In China’s case, these biennial events offer it an opportunity to suggest that it is catching up to the United States. Of course, air shows do not divulge the true capabilities of what is seen on the ground and in the air. That would require substantially greater access to the items on display.

Photos and video footage of China’s J-31 stealth fighter jet have been garnering a lot of attention among Chinese military enthusiasts and the media. What is the significance of this plane in terms of China’s military development and the regional military balance?

Let’s keep in mind that we know very little about the J-31, other than like many other recent Chinese aircraft, it appears externally to be a copycat of U.S. aircraft, in this case, the F-35. Press reports suggest that China intends to offer the J-31 for sale in the Asia-Pacific region, but other than Pakistan I’m not sure there’s much of a market. China is still struggling to achieve improvements in turbofan engine technology. For example, advanced U.S. military aircraft like the F-16 undergo engine overhauls roughly every 1,300 hours. China’s do so every 300 to 350 hours. In my view the PLAAF is still inferior to both the U.S. Air Force and Taiwan’s air force. What worries me more is China’s still growing inventory of ballistic and cruise missiles, which together with even an inferior air force, will present stiff challenges for the United States and Taiwan were a war to occur. …