Growing Numbers of China’s J-16 Fighters to Play Central Role in Taiwan Strait Security

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force has deployed the J-16 heavyweight fighter in growing numbers in recent years, with new means of employing the aircraft demonstrated over the Taiwan Strait where it has flown alongside a range of other combat and support aircraft. 

The J-16 is derived from the Soviet Su-27 Flanker design, and of over half a dozen Flanker derivatives in service across the world it is considered the most sophisticated due to its integration of an AESA radar, PL-15 AESA radar-guided missiles, and advanced stealth coatings, avionics and electronic warfare systems. 

The fighter has flown alongside J-11, J-10, and J-7 fighters and H-6 bombers near Taiwan, as well as heavier supporting platforms such as the KJ-500 airborne early warning aircraft and the Y-8 anti-submarine warfare aircraft. 

Modern variants of all these aircraft use advanced data links, which is particularly valuable for operations alongside the KJ-500 which has a very large and powerful radar and is ideally suited to providing accompanying aircraft with targeting data. 

The Taiwan Strait is approximately 130km wide, and separates the territories of the two governments which claim to rule China - one the People’s Republic of China-based in Beijing and the other the Republic of China-based in Taipei. The government in Taipei has no UN recognition and negligible international recognition but continues to be sold fighter jets and other armaments from the United States. 

The U.S. has refused to provide Taiwan with modern F-35 stealth fighters, however, leaving it to rely on modernized variants of the F-16 lightweight fighter - an aircraft that has served since the 1970s. While Taiwan does not deploy particularly modern aircraft, the PLA has deployed modern aircraft near the territory as a show of force, with the J-16 expected to play a central role in the case of a new war in the Taiwan Strait in both airs to air and strike roles. 

The J-16 reportedly made its flight on October 17, 2011, with sources varying on when it entered service with dates quoted between 2013 and 2015. 

The fighter has increasingly replaced older aircraft such as the J-7 in frontline service and has a very considerable advantage over any Taiwanese aircraft due to its much larger radar, its stealth features, and its use of the PL-15 which uses more advanced sensors and has a longer range than any enemy missile. 

The aircraft has lower operational costs and is cheaper to produce than the fifth-generation J-20 stealth fighter, and is more versatile and better suited to air to ground missions meaning it could play a more significant role in a Taiwan Straits war. 

A number of analysts have speculated that the J-20 could be reserved to deter third parties such as the United States and Japan from intervening in the Taiwan Strait - which field aircraft that are considerably more capable than those in Taiwan. 

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