First J-11BGH Fighters with AESA Radars Join Chinese Naval Aviation: What Makes Them So Dangerous?

The first Chinese naval aviation unit has received newly modernised J-11BGH fighters, an extensive modernisation of the J-11B from the late 2000s with fifth generation level sensors and avionics which is gradually being applied to airframes across the Chinese People’s Libration Army (PLA). 

Although PLA Air Force units have been deploying modernised J-11B fighters as the J-11BG fighters for some years, modernisation of PLA Navy J-11BH aircraft - the H denoting airframes slightly modified for naval service - to a similar standard likely designated ‘J-11BGH’ was only confirmed on March 17. Over 200 J-11B fighters are thought to be in service across the Chinese fleet, with the aircraft forming the backbone of the PLA’s heavyweight fleet, of which almost 40 percent are in the PLA Navy. 

Aside from their advanced avionics and weapons the J-11B is prized for its excellent speed, endurance, operational altitudes and manoeuvrability and for the ability to carry very large sensors and missile loads.

Upon entering service around 2008, the J-11B represented the most capable fighter in the Chinese fleet with its performance drastically reducing Chinese interest in acquiring further competing heavyweight fighters from Russia. While the aircraft would remain in production until 2018, plans for a successor the J-11D are thought to have been cancelled or delayed despite reaching an advanced prototype stage, with the new aircraft having used a higher composite airframe, AESA radar and fifth generation level avionics making it very likely the most advanced non-stealth heavyweight fighter in the world. 

The PLA appears to have instead decided to focus on modernising the J-11B fleet with avionics and sensors comparable to those of the J-11D without investing in the construction of new airframes, with budgets for new acquisitions of heavyweight fighters increasingly focused on the more capable fifth generation J-20 jet. The J-11B fleet was also confirmed in January 2022 to be phasing out original Russian sourced AL-31 engines for indigenous WS-10 turbofans as part of modernisation efforts. 

The first images of the J-11BGH confirmed that enhanced J-11 fighters carry the same PL-10 short range air to air missiles as the J-20, which are considered top contenders for the title of the most capable missiles of their kind in the world with the ability to engage targets at very extreme angles. The aircraft are also reported to use the PL-10’s long range counterpart the PL-15, which has an estimated 200-300km range and uses an AESA radar for guidance resulting in it also being considered among the most capable missiles of its kind. They are speculated to also be able to use the longer ranged and much larger PL-XX which has a range of over 500km, the longest in the world, and is specialised in neutralising support aircraft such as tankers. 

Use of the long ranged PL-15 and possibly the PL-XX are facilitated by integration of a large AESA radar which provides a detection range against large enemy aircraft estimated at 400km. Such radars are considerably more difficult to jam or interfere with than a passive electronically scanned array radars and provide more options for electronic warfare. 

Combined with new cockpit displays, navigation systems and data links, these upgrades effectively revolutionise the capabilities of the J-11B. With the J-11B being a relatively new fighter it is not expected to begin being phased out of service for decades, with the older J-11A, Su-30MKK and Su-30MK2 which are based on the same ‘Flanker’ heavyweight airframe design all expected to leave service first. The result may well be that the majority or even the entirety of the J-11B fleet is modernised to the J-11BG standard, including the PLA Navy’s fleet of over 70 aircraft being modernised as the J-11BGH.

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