The PLAAF and PLANAF operate two dedicated ground attack aircraft, the Xi’an JH-7 Flying Leopard and the Nanchang Q-5 ‘Fantan’, to conduct a range of ground strike missions including air interdiction, anti-radiation strike, and close air support against enemy troops and high-value targets such as airbases, surface ships, C4ISR hubs, and logistics centres.
Xi’an JH-7 Flying Leopard
The JH-7 was originally developed in the late 1970s as the H-7 tactical bomber, and later evolved into a naval fighter-bomber primarily intended for the anti-ship missile strike role. An improved variant JH-7A was introduced in the early 2000s as a multirole interdiction and attack aircraft. The aircraft was also available to the export market under the designation FBC-1 Flying Leopard.
In the late 1970s the PLA demanded a multirole light bomber aircraft with air-to-ground and air-to-air capabilities. The aircraft must be able to carry 3,000—5,000 kg weapon payload for maritime strike and interdiction missions against medium- and large-size surface ships, front-line naval and air bases, communication hubs, the beach front, and massed troops. The requirements called for an aircraft capable of supersonic speed at low level in all-weather, day/night conditions, with enough range (ferry range >2,800 km, combat radius >800 km) in order to take off from second-line airbases inland. The requirements also demanded that the aircraft has a maximum speed of Mach 1.5 at high altitude and Mach 0.9 at low altitude (<500 m), and be able to use afterburning to achieve excellent short-field performance.
These requirements were well beyond the performances offered by the fighter and attack aircraft being produced by China at the time, but were made possible by the acquisition of advanced British jet engine technology. While Chinese military jets were still powered by obsolete turbojet engines of the 1950s/60s-era Soviet designs, most Western combat aircraft began to be fitted with turbofan engines that offered better performance and fuel efficiency. In the mid-1970s China acquired some examples of the British Rolls-Royce Spey RB168 Mk.202 (‘Military Spey’) turbofan engines, originally developed to power the Royal Air Force’s F-4K Phantom II fighters. Chinese engineers studied the engine carefully and planed to produce a local production copy through reverse-engineering.
The H-7 programme suffered from some serious delays in its early years due to the disputes between the air force and navy over the aircraft’s design and requirements. In the end the original plan to develop a single platform that could fulfill the needs of both services was dropped in the early 1980s. Instead, 603 Institute and Xi’an Aircraft Company (XAC) introduced a design primarily intended as maritime strike bomber. The aircraft, re-designated JH-7 to reflect this change of role, made its maiden flight on 14 December 1988.
A small number (~20) of the JH-7 was delivered to the PLA Naval Air Force (PLANAF) 6th Division based at Dachang Airbase in Shanghai in 1992. However, the certification of the aircraft’s design did not take place until 1998, when all technical problems and design flaws were resolved. An additional 20 examples in the formal production variant with some minor improvements were delivered to the Navy between 2002—2004.
The JH-7 has high-mounted wings with compound sweepback, dog tooth leading, and two small over-wing fences at approximately two third span. Two pilots sits in tandem in the two-seat cockpit, with the rear seat slightly higher than the front seat to give the weapon operator a better filed of view. Each seat has its own back-hinged canopy. The cockpit and internal fuel tanks are protected by armour plates.
Fixed weapon includes a twin-barrel Type 23-III 23 mm cannon with 200 rounds in a ventral installation. Up to 5,000 kg dispensable payload can be carried on the seven external hardpoints (one under fuselage, four under wings, and two on wing tips), with the centreline fuselage station and two inboard wing stations pumped to carry a 1,400-litre drop tank each. In a typical maritime strike mission, the JH-7 would carry four YJ-81 subsonic anti-ship missiles and two PL-5 IR-homing SRAAMs, and a 1,400 litre drop tank. The aircraft would fly at low altitudes to avoid the detection of the enemy ship’s air search radar, and launch the sea-skimming YJ-81 missiles at a distance of 30—40 km off the target ship.
Alternatively, the aircraft could carry up to twenty 250 kg low-drag general-purpose (LDGP) bombs for surface attack missions. In this configuration, each of the two inboard wing stations is fitted with a pylon integrated dispenser system that can carry up to six 250 kg LDGP bombs. Each of the two outboard wing stations is fitted with a smaller pylon that carries four bombs.
The JH-7 is fitted with a Type 232H Eagle Eye mono-pulse fire-control radar. The radar feeds to a fire-control computer, which is connected to the integrated INS/GPS navigation system, anti-ship missile fire-control system, and head-up display (HUD) via a HB6096 (ARINC429) data bus. This makes possible accurate delivery of weapons over long distances in the sea. The aircraft is also the first Chinese indigenous combat aircraft to be fitted with a self-defence ECM suite consisting of all-aspect radar warning receiver (RWR), active/passive jammer, and chaff/flare dispenser.
The propulsion consists of two British Rolls-Royce Spey Mk202 turbofan jet engines, each rated at 54.29 kN (5,536 kg, 12,250 lbs) dry or 91.26 kN (9,305 kg, 20,515 lbs) with afterburning. The aircraft has no in-flight refuelling ability.
603 Aircraft Design Institute and XAC proposed an improved variant designated JH-7A in the mid-1990s, and the aircraft made its maiden flight in 2002. China also acquired an additional 50 ex-RAF surplus Spey Mk.202 engines from Britain in 2001 to power the initial batch of JH-7As, before the indigenous WS-9 Qinling turbofan engine (reverse-engineered copy of Spey Mk.202) became available.
The first batch of the JH-7A was delivered to the PLANAF in early 2004, followed by additional batches for the PLAAF in late 2004, with a total of 80—100 examples have been delivered. As well as some minor modifications in the aircraft’s aerodynamic design, the JH-7A also featured improved avionics and the ability to deliver precision guided weapons.
The JH-7A is fitted with a JL-10A pulse-Doppler multi-functional fire-control radar with 11 working modes including medium-range interception, close-range air combat, surface/sea attack, navigation, etc. The X-band radar has a maximum detection range of 80 km and tracking range of 40 km, with the “look-down, shoot-down” capability. The original analogue FBW has also been replaced by a dual-redundancy digital FBW system, which is correlated with the aircraft’s radar to enable the terrain-following capability over the land and the ability to deliver the precision strike weapons. The JH-7A also features an improved ‘glass cockpit’, with a head-up display (HUD) and two large LCD multi-functional displays (MFD).
The number of the external stores stations on the JH-7A has been increased from seven to eleven, with six under wings, two on wingtips, one under-fuselage centreline, and two forward under-fuselage located near the air intakes. The aircraft is able to deliver a range of precision guided weapons, including the YJ-91 (Kh-31P copy) anti-radiation missile, the KD-88 TV-guided air-to-surface missile, and the 250 kg laser-guided bomb (LGB). The two forward under-fuselage stations can carry various navigation and targeting pods for all-weather, day/night operations. Additionally, the JH-7A can also carry EW/ECM pods to escort fighter-bomber formations when penetrating enemy air defence.
Nanchang Q-5 ‘Fantan’
Due to a lack of suitable replacement, the PLAAF continued to operate the 40-year-old Nanchang Q-5 (NATO code name: Fantan) attacker aircraft for air interdiction and close air support missions. The Q-5 was originally developed by the Nanchang-based Hongdu Aircraft Industry Group (HAIG) in the 1960s based on the airframe of the Shenyang J-6 (Chinese copy of the MiG-19 ‘Farmer’) interceptor fighter aircraft. The aircraft has been subsequently developed into a family of over 10 variants.
The Q-5A was developed in the early 1970s as a light bomber to carry a single free-fall thermal nuclear bomb. The Q-5B was a naval bomber carrying two torpedoes or anti-ship missiles. The Q-5I introduced in the late 1970s had its internal weapon bay removed in order to increase the aircraft’s internal fuel capacity. The improved Q-5IA and Q-5II variants featuring upgraded avionics and self-defence ECM suite were introduced in the mid-1980s. The Q-5III (or A-5C in its export name) was developed for the export market A-5C, with over 100 examples delivered to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma and Sudan.
Early Q-5 Variants
In the mid-1980s, HAIG worked with Italian and French manufacturers to upgrade the Q-5 aircraft with Western avionics, including inertial navigation system (INS), head-up display (HUD), ranging radar, laser rangefinder, air data computer, mission computers, and MIL-STD-1553B data bus. The resulted Q-5M and Q-5K made flight in the late 1980s, but both projects were cancelled in 1989 due to the arms embargo imposed by the United States and the European Union.
In the 1990s, HAIG introduced the Q-5D which was upgraded with indigenous avionics. The aircraft made its first flight in the late 1990s and entered service with the PLAAF in the early 2000s to to replace the ageing Q-5I and Q-5IA. The Q-5D features HUD, GPS/INS navigation, RWR, TACAN, and chaff/flare launcher.
The PLA’s requirement for ground attack aircraft with precision strike capabilities led to the introduction of the Q-5L in 2007. This variant features an under-chin laser target designator and can carry two indigenous 500 kg laser-guided bombs (comparable to the U.S. Paveway-I) under the wings. A conformal fuel tank is mounted under the fuselage to give the aircraft extended range. A small number of the aircraft has been operational with the PLAAF 5th Air Division.
With the JJ-6 fighter-trainer being phased out of service, HAIG developed a two-seater trainer variant Q-5J for pilot training using its own funding. The aircraft has a redesigned forward fuselage and enlarged tail fin to improve stability. The first flight of the Q-5J took place on 28 February 2005 and the aircraft is now in service with the PLAAF.
The Q-5 is a single-seat, twin-engine aircraft with a downward-sloping profile nose that provides the pilot with better visibility. The wings are mid-mounted, sharply swept-back, and tapered. The tails are also swept-back and tapered. Two WP-6 turbojet engines are mounted side-by-side in rear of the fuselage with two hydraulically actuated nozzles. The semicircular lateral air intakes have small splitter plates. The cockpit and internal tanks have armour protections. The cockpit is fitted with a 3-piece windscreen and a rear-hinged canopy.
Later variants of the aircraft are powered by two WP-6AIII turbojet engines, each rated at 29.4 kN (2,998 kg, 6,609 lb) dry and 36.8 kN (3,752 kg, 8,273 lb) with afterburning. The aircraft can only fly at near sonic speeds when carrying up to 1,000 kg weapon load in its internal weapon bay with no external payloads. When carrying a pair of 760 external fuel tanks, the aircraft can only fly at subsonic speeds. The Q-5 usually adopts a “lo-lo-lo” flight profile, which gives a maximum combat radius of 400km, or 600km when using a “lo-lo-hi” profile. The flight manual of the Q-5 also instructs that the flight speed should not exceed 0.98 Mach when flying at low altitudes.
Fixed weapon includes two 23 mm Type 23-2K cannons with 100 rounds per gun in the wing roots. The aircraft has 10 external stores stations to carry up to 2,000 kg dispensable payload. There are two tandem pairs under the fuselage each rated at 250 kg, and six under the wings each rated at 500 kg. Fuselage stations can each carry a 250 kg free-fall bomb or a forward looking infrared and laser targeting (FLIR/LT) pod. Inboard wing stations can carry 6 kg or 25 lb practice bombs, or a pod containing eleven Chinese 57-2 (57 mm), seven 68mm, or seven Type 90-1 (90 mm), or four 130-1 (130 mm) rockets.
Centre wing stations can each carry a Chinese indigenous 500 kg LGB. Normal bomb carrying capacity is 1,000 kg (2,205 lb) and maximum capacity is 2,000 kg (4,410 lb). Instead of bombs, centre wing stations can each carry a 760 litre drop tank or ECM. Outboard wing stations can each be occupied by a 400 litre drop tank or SRAAMs such as PL-2, PL-2B, or PL-7.