Why China Has Deployed J-7 Fighters to Test Taiwan’s Defences

Amid rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait, a number of sources have drawn attention to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) deployment of J-7 lightweight fighter jets for flights near Taiwan and possibly to test the territory’s defenses. 

An island encirclement exercise on June 17 included four J-7s alongside other PLA aircraft including J-16 heavyweight fighters and Y-8 electronic warfare aircraft, with a military source quoted by Hong Kong media stating that the aircraft was deployed to test the reaction from Taiwan's air force and public. “The four J-7s made short flights after taking off from an airbase in Shantou, Guangdong province… 

It was aimed at testing the Taiwan air force’s response, seeing whether all their aircraft have resumed flying,” the source stated. While some analysts have speculated that J-7’s deployment may have been related to the PLA’s conversion of old variants of these aircraft into expendable drones, a number of other explanations exist. 

Although the J-7 is based on the Soviet MiG-21 Fishbed second-generation fighter - a world leader in its time which entered service from 1959 - the variants in active service in the PLA today are considerably more capable and are considered fourth-generation fighters in terms of the sophistication of their avionics, sensors, and construction materials. The J-7G, which is the most advanced variant, ended production only in 2013, while the JL-9 fighter-trainer is closely derived from the J-7 design and remains in production today. 

The J-7G boasts much higher use of composite materials, a full glass cockpit, a new double delta wing, three multi functional HUD displays and HOTAS, helmet mounted sights, a radar cross section reducing fuselage, and conformal fuel tanks among other advanced features which set it apart from the Cold War-era J-7. 

Several hundred of the aircraft are currently in service, and while they are being phased out of frontline service and diverted to training units, for replacement by J-10C and J-16 ‘4+ generation’ fighters, they still play an important role in China’s defense. 

Deploying the J-7 alongside the J-16 and the Y-8 could provide an opportunity for operators of these very different aircraft to train in joint missions and increase interoperability, as well as allowing the PLA to express its faith in the continued viability of the J-7 design. 

Indeed, newer variants of the J-7 are in many ways more modern than any fighter in Taiwan’s air force, which relies on 1970s variants of the F-16 and F-5, 1990s variants of the Mirage 2000 and the indigenous Ching Kuo fighter which was also developed in the 1990s. 

The age of Taiwan’s fleet, and issues with maintenance particularly for the Mirage 2000s which were built in France and have more questionable quality, have led to high crash rates and forced Taiwan to ground portions of its fleet on several occasions. The J-7 is expected to continue to see service for several years to come and is prized for its combination of modern fourth-generation technologies with a very low operational cost and low maintenance requirements.

  Replacing the fighters with newer heavier aircraft - particularly the very heavy J-16 - imposes a manifold increase in both maintenance requirements and operational costs for Chinese fighter squadrons, although the increase in combat performance are also very substantial. 



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