A new variant of China’s J-11B fighter aircraft, which has been in service with the PLA Air Force for decades, made its public debut in late 2019. Since then, the improved version has been sighted multiple times.
With the emergence of new photos, some Chinese analysts speculate that more original J-11Bs will be upgraded to the latest variant in the near future.
During the Spring Festival holidays, a brigade affiliated with the PLA Northern Theater Command Air Force reportedly conducted night-time combat alert drills.
Later, a Shanghai-based news website said the brigade was actually using the upgraded variant of the J-11B, which was visible in footage aired by state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV).
Three upgraded J-11Bs were seen to be attached to the “Eagles in East Liaoning”, an elite unit of the PLA Northern Theater Command Air Force.
— Zhang Heqing张和清 (@zhang_heqing) February 10, 2022
The “Eagles in East Liaoning” unit was one of the first in the PLA to operate the original J-11B fighters. Their switch to the improved variant of J-11B could indicate that more fighters will be upgraded in the near future, according to Eastday.com.
The J-11B Flanker had entered batch production in late 2020. While the nature of upgrades was discussed widely in strategic circles, details are still classified.
Further, the speculations about PLAAF scaling up the production of upgraded J-11B come a few days after reports indicated that the engines of the Chinese stealth fighter J-20 ‘Mighty Dragon’ were being upgraded to increase the thrust and improve capabilities.
Additionally, in December last year, the PLA Air Force had revealed an upgraded version of the carrier-based aircraft, Shenyang J-15 which had then completed test flights.
In fact, not just fighter jets, but helicopters are also seeing modifications. The Z-2O chopper of the PLAAF is set to be upgraded into newer variants, as previously reported by the EurAsian Times.
These observations point towards a concerted attempt by China at upgrading its fleet and adding enhanced variants of existing aircraft to it.
The latest version of J-11B Flanker may have been equipped with an upgraded active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar replacing the pulse-doppler version as speculated by analysts.
The J-11 aircraft has had a tumultuous past in China. Beijing is accused of breaking co-production agreements with Moscow, causing the second batch of the “indigenously made and lawfully licensed” J-11A/Su-27SK to be halted.
The J-11’s experience spurred Beijing to push ahead with the development of an improvised and more domesticated version dubbed as the J-11B, which uses Chinese avionics instead of Russian ones to reduce reliance on Russia.
The Chinese subsystems on the J-11B include a type 1474 radar, 3-axis data system, power supply system, emergency power unit, brake system, hydraulic system, fuel system, environment control system, molecular sieve oxygen generating systems, digital flight control system, and a glass cockpit.
The J-11Bs already in service have black radar domes, but the upgraded ones have white domes.
“Some of the photos of the new J-11B variant show that the aircraft still has a pitot tube on the center front of its radar dome, and usually the pitot tube has compatibility issues with an AESA radar, so if the aircraft is indeed equipped with an AESA radar remains to be determined,” Fu Qianshao, a Chinese military aviation expert, had earlier told the Global Times.
If the J-11B Chinese fighter received AESA radar, it would be a significant development in terms of changing the aircraft’s tactical equation.
More sensitive, multi-directional, multi-frequency AESA radar applications extend the range and signal quality, allowing aircraft to observe and attack enemy targets from considerably further away, National Interest stated in a previous report.
Whatever be the exact specifications of the upgraded variant of the J-11B, one thing is clear: it is going to add more value to the PLA Air Force and more number of aircraft being upgraded would mean that their lifespan would be enhanced significantly and they would serve the air force until China comes with more advanced fighter jets that would replace the older ones.