Which country has the most powerful air force? Is it the United States, Russia, or China? As part of our Chinese military series, we are looking at the top 5 most powerful Chinese aircraft.
Top 5: Il-78 Tanker
As China resolutely safeguards territorial sovereignty, it needs to send its fighters further. Islands such as the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea or the Nansha islands in the South China Sea are just out of range of land-based aircraft. The distance from China’s air bases on Hainan Island to the Nansha islands is 670 miles, or just under twice the combat radius of the J-10 fighter.
In steps the Il-78 tanker, which is a Russian Il-76 cargo aircraft converted into an aerial tanker and carries enough fuel to fill the tanks of a J-10 fighter 20 times over. Trailing three long refueling hoses behind it, the Il-78 can refuel three fighters in midair at once. This allows China to maintain its territorial integrity.
Top 4: H-6 Bomber
It is China’s first — and so far only — heavy bomber. Originally built under license from the Soviet Union in the late 1950s, the original design is obsolete, but China has continually updated the airframe to keep it useful and even assigned it new roles.
Originally designed to drop free-fall nuclear bombs, the lack of alternative airframes has meant the H-6 bomber has grown into other roles, including conventional bomber, missile carrier, and even aerial refueling tanker.
The PLA Air Force is thought to have roughly 80 H-6s in the role of nuclear bomber and cruise missile carrier, and 10 as aerial refueling aircraft. The PLA Navy Air Force, the air arm of the Chinese Navy, has about 30 H-6s for use in the reconnaissance and anti-ship role, where they are armed with YJ-83 “Eagle Strike” anti-ship missiles.
Top 3: KJ-2000
The KJ-2000 is China’s main airborne early warning and control aircraft. Like the American E-3 Sentry, the KJ-2000 is a large, wide-bodied aircraft with a rotating disc-shaped radar mounted on top, capable of detecting aircraft at more than 300 miles.
Airborne early warning and control aircraft are essential for modern air forces operating in tense regions and those with large amounts of airspace to defend. In the case of China, KJ-2000 can be used to expand China’s surveillance network beyond the range of ground-based radars into areas such as the South and East China Seas.
Top 2: Hypersonic weapon
Our number 2 most powerful aircraft is not really an airplane, but it is powerful and could tip the skies in China’s favor when it is fully developed. What are we talking about? Well, China is actively conducting research and development into hypersonic weapons.
A new type of weapon systems capable of delivering a payload or vehicle at speeds between Mach 5 and 10, or 3,840 to 7,680 miles an hour. Hypersonic weapons are extremely fast and difficult to shoot down.
On August 7th of this year China conducted a second test of the WU-14 Boost Glide Hypersonic Glide Vehicle (HGV). The test was conducted from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in Shanxi province The test failed, but that not exactly unexpected—due to the extreme stresses of flight at hypersonic speeds, those researching hypersonic weapons — including the United States — have experienced a high rate of failure. It did, however, come on the heels of a successful January 9th test, also launched from Taiyuan.
Hypersonic weapons have a variety of advantages. The sheer speed of a hypersonic weapon means it can travel farther faster, delivering its payload within minutes of launch. Hypersonics are difficult to shoot down with current air defense systems and can also use their speed to get inside the decision cycle of an adversary, striking their targets before a foreign government can effectively respond to them.
Top 1: J-20
The J-20 is a large twin-engine combat aircraft currently in development. The J-20 is China’s most ambitious aircraft project ever, and though still in development it’s an impressive achievement for a country with a relatively youthful aerospace industry.
The J-20 is a large, delta-winged aircraft with a long, broad fuselage ending in two turbofan engines. The fuselage is accentuated by large forward canards adjacent to the air intakes and a twin tail. The prototypes are believed to be powered by domestically produced Xian WS-15 engines, although those are almost certainly temporary until more powerful engines can be produced.
The J-20 is China’s response to the F-22s and F-35s that are currently in use and in production for the US Air Force. The J-20 is the first combat aircraft developed by China that qualifies as “state of the art” by Western measures. It also shows that China has mastered “stealth shaping” technology – an essential prerequisite for developing stealth aircraft. The J-20 has the potential to alter the regional balance in Asia by rendering nearly all regional air defense systems ineffective.
China’s growing air force is more than impressive, it’s formidable, but China is only looking to defend its country from would be aggressors. Leave a comment below and let us know which aircraft impressed you the most.