Despite having introduced 4th-generation fighter aircraft in considerable numbers since the 1990s, the PLAAF and PLANAF continue to operate a large number of pre-1990-era legacy fighter aircraft in order to maintain their force sizes. Most of these aircraft were derivations of the 1950s/60s Soviet fighter designs, though their capabilities have been steadily improved through incorporation of modernised avionics and weapon suites, which extend their lifespan extended well into the 21st century.
- Shenyang J-8 ‘Finback’
- Chengdu J-7 ‘Fishbed’
Shenyang J-8 ‘Finback’
The J-8 (NATO code name: “Finback”) is a single-set, twin-engine, supersonic fighter aircraft developed by Shenyang-based 601 Aircraft Design Institute and Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC). The aircraft was originally designed as an interceptor fighter to counter Soviet bombers that fly at high altitudes, and later involved into an all-weather multirole fighter with both air-to-air combat and surface attack capabilities. A range of variants have been introduced since the aircraft first flew, with gradually improved performance and capabilities.
The development of the J-8 began in 1965 at Shenyang. The aircraft was essentially an enlarged version of the J-7 (Chinese copy of the Soviet MiG-21F ‘Fishbed’), with mid-mounted large delta-shape wings, a round nose air inlet with a fully adjustable centre-body to accommodates the ranging radar, and an enlarged fuselage to accommodate two WP-7B turbojet engines. The aircraft could carry 4 PL-2 IR-homing short-range AAMs (Chinese copy of the Soviet AA-2 ‘Atoll’) for visual-range air combat in day time. Only a small number of the J-8 and its improved variant J-8A have been delivered to the PLAAF and PLANAF before their production ceased.
As the J-8 fighter could not meet the requirements of the PLA, the SAC began to develop a radically improved variant J-8II in the early 1980s. Rather than simply pursuing high-speed, high-altitude performance, the new fighter was required have decent aerodynamic performance at transonic speeds and in medium-low altitudes. The PLA also demanded the ‘beyond-visual-range’ (BVR) air combat capability using the radar-homing medium-range air-to-air missile (MRAAM), and the secondary capability for ground attack.
The J-8II that first flew in 1984 featured a redesigned fuselage with a solid nose to accommodate a larger fire-control radar antenna and two lateral air intakes. The aircraft’s propulsion was two more powerful WP-13AII turbojets. An autopilot was also added for all-weather interception and ground attack abilities. Despite these improvements, the capability of the early variant J-8II remained moderate due to its mediocre fire-control radar and a lack of beyond-visual-range capability.
A number of programmes aimed to improve the J-8II’s capability were initiated in the 1980s/90s. The ‘Peace Pearl’ Sino-U.S. cooperation programme, which proposed to upgrade the J-8II with Western avionics including the AN/APG-66(V) radar and 1553B MIL-STD data bus, was cancelled as a result of the arms embargo imposed by the U.S. and European Union in 1989. The Sino-Russia cooperation programme to incorporate the J-8II with Russian-designed fire-control radar and semi-active radar-homing MRAAM in the late 1990s also failed to receive any order.
A separate indigenous programme to add the J-8II with the in-flight refuelling capability finally led to the introduction of the J-8D in the mid-1990s. The J-8D has a fixed, non-retractable refuelling probe installed on the starboard side of the cockpit. With one refuelling, the aircraft’s combat radius can be extended from 800 km to 1,200 km, allowing it to reach the remote islands in the South China Sea.
The J-8F that entered the PLA service in 2003 was the first true ‘multirole’ variant of the J-8 family, featuring a new indigenous fire-control radar (JL-10 or Type 1492?) capable of firing the PL-12 (SD-10) active radar-homing MRAAM, a ‘glass’ cockpit, the more powerful WP-13BII turbojets (each rated at ~7,000 kg with afterburning), as well as enhanced air-to-surface/ship strike capability. Like the J-8D, the J-8F is also be fitted with a fixed in-flight refuelling probe. A tactical reconnaissance variant JZ-8F has also been developed, featuring an internal camera compartment replacing the twin-23mm cannon.
The J-8H was reported to be an improved variant of the J-8D, featuring some limited BVR combat capability through its KLJ-1 pulse-Doppler fire-control radar (with ‘look-down/shoot-down’ capability) and the PL-11 semi-active radar-homing MRAAM. The H model was reportedly developed in the late 1990s and has been serving with the PLAAF in a small number since 2002. The production of the J-8H stopped after the more capable J-8F became available. Older J-8B and D airframes in service have also been upgraded to the H or F variant standard through mid-life modernisation.
The fixed weapon on the J-8 includes a twin-barrel Type 23-III 23 mm cannon with 200 rounds in a ventral installation. The aircraft has seven external hard points (one under fuselage and six under wings). The centre fuselage hard point has a GDJ-4 pylon integrated dispenser system, which can carry up to six 250 kg low-drag free-fall bombs, or a 1,400 litre drop tank. The under-wing hard points can carry up to six air-to-air missiles, or unguided rocket launchers, or 250 kg free-fall bombs. The two outboard wing hard points are also pumped to carry 800 litre drop tanks.
For a typical interception mission, the fighter carries four air-to-air missiles (two SRAAM and two MRAAM) under the inboard and middle wing hard points, two 800 litre drop tanks under the outboard wing hard points, and a 1,400 litre drop tanks under the centre fuselage hard point.
For a typical ground attack mission, the fighter carries six 250kg low-drag free-fall bombs using the integrated dispense pylon under the centre fuselage hard point. The under wing hard points could each carry a 250 kg bomb or a unguided rocket launcher pod carrying twelve 57 mm or seven 90 mm unguided rockets. Later variants are also configured to fire the Russian-made Kh-31A anti-ship missile or precision guided weapons such as the LT-2 laser guided bomb (LGB) or LS-6 satellite guided bomb.
Chengdu J-7 ‘Fishbed’
The J-7 is a Chinese copy of the Russian Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 (NATO code name: ‘Fishbed’) interceptor jet fighter. Over 1,000 examples in different variants have been built by three aircraft manufacturers in Shenyang, Chengdu, and Guizhou since the production first began in the late 1970s. As well as serving with the PLA, the J-7 was also exported to Albania, Bangladesh, Burma, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe.
The MiG-21/J-7 was designed as an interceptor fighter with secondary capability for ground attack. The aircraft’s simple controls, engine, weapons, and avionics were typical of Soviet-era military designs. The fighter has a small sized airframe with a rugged and powerful engine inside. With its delta wings the aircraft has an excellent fast-climbing performance, but any form of turning combat would led to rapid loss of speed. The pilot is buried deeply in the cockpit and has a poor cockpit visibility. The aircraft has a short range, and can only carry IR-homing SRAAMs for visual range combat, making it only suitable for point air defence.
J-7I/II / F-7A/B/M/P ‘Fishbed-C’
The basic variant J-7 was a direct copy of the Soviet MiG-21F-13 (NATO code name: ‘Fishbed-C’). The aircraft first flew in January 1966, with a small number delivered to the PLAAF. Between 1966 and 1968, PLAAF J-7 fighters shot down six U.S. high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) over China mainland. These scores were achieved with the aircraft’s 30 mm cannon and unguided air-to-air rockets. The J-7s also made several attempts to shoot the U.S. UAVs with their PL-2 (K-13/AA-2 copy) IR-homing SRAAMs but none was successful.
After the J-7 production was relocated to Chengdu Aircraft Factory in Sichuan Province in the late 1960s, several modifications were made to the J-7 design, including adding a second cannon inside the left wing-root and replacing the original three-position nose inlet centre-body with a fully translating design. The resulted J-7I was introduced in 1976, with a small number delivered to the PLAAF. Its export variant F-7A featuring an improved 58.8 kN thrust WP-7B turbojet engine replacing the original 56.39kN thrust WP-7 was supplied to Albania and Tanzania in the 1970s.
The further improved J-7II featuring a new ejection seat, rear-hinged canopy, redesigned drag chute bay, and WP-7B engine was introduced in 1978. This variant became an instant success and was equipped by both PLAAF and PLANAF in significant numbers. The aircraft was also sold in the international market under the designation F-7B, with added cability to fire the French Magic R.550 as well as Chinese PL-2 SRAAM. 90 examples were exported to Iraq and 22 examples to Sudan in the 1980s.
Chengdu continued to improve the J-7II in the 1980s by incorporating it with some Western avionics, with the introduction of the J-7IIA and J-7IIH models. Chengdu also co-operated with British GEC-Marconi (now BAE Systems) to incorporate the J-7II airframe with Western avionics including head-up display, Skyranger fire-control radar, fire-control computer and EW/WCM suite. The resulted F-7M for the export market turned out to be a huge commercial success, with 164 examples sold to Bangladesh, Iran, Myanmar and Zimbabwe. An additional 120 examples in the further improved F-7P variant (with the ability to fire the U.S. AIM-9 Sidewinder AAM) were delivered to the Pakistani Air Force.
The J-7C/D variants are Chinese reverse-engineered copies of the Russian MiG-21MF (NATO code name: ‘Fishbed-J’) all-weather interceptor fighter. Despite sharing the same designation with previous J-7 models, the J-7C/D was largely a new design, with 80% of its parts being newly developed. The aircraft is generally similar to MiG-21MF in aerodynamic design, though its avionics, armaments, and engine were all Chinese-made.
J-7C was the first Chinese-made fighter to be fitted sophisticated avionics suite for all-weather, day/night operations. The enlarged nose inlet cone accommodated a JL-7 multi-purpose pulse Doppler (PD) fire-control radar, with a maximum detecting range of 30 km. The aircraft was powered by an improved WP-13 turbojet (4,100 kg dry and 6,600 kg with afterburning) developed by Guizhou Liyang Aero Engine Company. Like MiG-21MF, J-7C had an enlarged dorsal spine to accommodate additional fuel.
The J-7C was developed as an alternative to the Shenyang J-8 ‘Finback’ interceptor fighter. With the latter becoming successful, the J-7C was no longer required and as a result only a small number (some 20 examples) were delivered to the PLAAF. An improved variant designated J-7D was introduced in the late 1990s with some limited improvements in avionics and engine. Again the variant was only produced in a small number, with about 20 examples delivered.
J-7E/G / F-7MG/PG
The J-7E was a further development of the J-7II, with redesigned wings and upgraded avionics. The aircraft was also sold in the international market under the designations of F-7MG, and is serving with the Pakistani Air Force under the designation F-7PG. The J-7E production began in the early 1990s and stopped in 2002. A further improved domestic variant designated J-7G was introduced in 2002.
The J-7E first flew in May 1990 and the aircraft entered operational serve with the PLAAF and PLANAF in 1995. By utilising modern design and production technologies such as CAD/CAM and composite materials, the 1950s-era design was built in the 1990s quality standards. The J-7E features a new “double-delta” wing plan-form, which offered additional fuel capacity and enhanced manoeuvrability compared with the conventional slender delta wings. Other improvements included an Liming (LMC) WP-13F turbojet (44.1 kN dry and 66.7 kN with afterburning) and modern EW/ECM suite. The export variant F-7MG also featured a British Marconi Electronic Systems Super Sky Ranger fire-control radar capable of tracking up to 8 targets while engaging one of them simultaneously .
The J-7G introduced in 2002 features an I/J-band KLJ-6E Lieying (“Falcon”) pulse-Doppler fire-control radar allegedly based on the Israeli EL/M2001; a new one-piece front windscreen replaced the original three-piece design for better cockpit visibility; Type III IFF, an indigenous zero-height, zero-speed ejection seat, and improved electronic countermeasures (ECM) suite. The aircraft entered the PLAAF service in 2004.
Guizhou JJ-7 / FT-7
The JJ-7 is the two-seat fighter-trainer version developed by Guizhou Aviation Industry Group Co (GAIGC) in 1981. The JJ-7 was developed from the J-7II airframe and resembles the Russian MiG-21U ‘Mongol-A’ in design and general performance. As the second cockpit reduces the size of the main internal fuel tanks, the aircraft has an enlarged dorsal spine behind the cockpit to provide additional space for extra fuel. The aircraft has been widely operated by the PLAAF and PLANAF for advanced jet flight training, and has also been exported under the designation FT-7P/B/N/PG.