China’s New J-11B Variant with AESA Radar Tested in South China Sea Combat Drills

The Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy has deployed newly received enhanced variants of the J-11B heavyweight fighter - the J-11BGH - for mock combat exercises over the South China Sea. China Central Television (CCTV) reported that simulated combat included over 10 fighters in four-versus-two and two-versus-two battles, and involved both free aerial battle and offensive and defensive tactical manoeuvres. The PLA Navy under the Southern Theatre Command has been the first to receive new variants of the J-11B, and is responsible for security in both the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea more broadly. The area has seen significant tensions since the U.S. launched the Pivot to Asia initiative and escalated its military presence there in the early 2010s. The J-11’s very high endurance and ability to accommodate a large and powerful sensor suite makes it ideal for maritime operations, and fighters have been forward deployed to new airbases on outlying islands to provide a much valued air defence capability. The J-11B is a much improved derivative of the Soviet Su-27 Flanker heavyweight fighter, and entered service in the late 2000s with new engines, a much higher use of composite materials, and more modern avionics.

The J-11BGH is a modernised variant of the J-11B integrating new avionics including an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, which makes the aircraft compatible with a new generation of armaments developed for China’s latest fifth generation fighters including PL-10 and PL-15 air to air missiles. The new sensor suite provides the fighters with a far longer detection range, while the PL-15 provides an engagement range estimated at between 200 and 300km as opposed to just 100km for the older PL-12 missile which is the primary standoff anti aircraft armament of the standard J-11B. The first J-11Bs upgraded with AESA radars were reported in 2019 and served in the PLA Air Force, with the J-11BGH being a similar modification while the ‘H’ denotes further changes to the design for use in the Navy. With the J-11 series having ceased production in 2018, continued upgrades to the more than 200 airframes built are expected as the fighter remains one of the most capable in the Chinese fleet. The J-11BGH upgrade has been implemented as the U.S. Navy begins to upgrade its own top fighter the F-18E/F Super Hornet with AESA radars and new AIM-120D air to air missiles - although these remains much shorter ranged than the PL-15. Termination of J-11 production came as the PLA has increasingly focused on its fifth generation heavyweight fighter program - the J-20 - which is a direct successor to the J-11. 

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