People often like to decry the Chinese Shenyang J-11 as a cheap copy of the Russian Sukhoi Su-27. Here, I’ll give a low down on why such a dismissal is foolhardy.
First, let us examine the original Russian Flanker. The Su-27 was developed in the late 1970s as a direct counter to the USAF’s FX program. The idea was simple. The Soviet Union needed an aircraft with equivalent or better performance than the American McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle.
The Cold War rivals
Let that point sink in for awhile. The Su-27 Flanker was developed AFTER the F-15 had flown in 1972 and flew for the first time in 1977. It was developed, in simple terms, to beat the F-15 Eagle at its own game.
As time went by, the Su-27 proved that it deserves respect. The USAF tried and succeeded in breaking a number of aerospace records held by the Soviet YE-266, a stripped down MiG-25. They used a stripped down F-15 named the Streak Eagle to get the job done. The Soviets didn’t take it lying down and set out to recapture the crown from the Americans using a stripped down Su-27 designated as the P-42. Almost overnight, the P-42/Su-27 showed the world what it was made of as it succeeded in retaking the top spot from the American F-15 Streak Eagle.
The record breaking Streak Eagle
Streak Eagle’s Soviet competitor, the P-42
Another interesting incident happened when the crews and jets of the former Soviet air force visited Langley air force base, Virginia in 1992. Four Su-27s were pitted against F-15s of the USAF and they consistently out did the American jet in mock air combat. During the mock dogfights, the Su-27 was supposed to start in front of an F-15 with the Russian jet trying to shake his tail and the American trying to get a mock kill. During the second half of exercises, the roles were reversed. The Su-27 came up as the winner in most of these dogfights as the F-15 couldn’t shake its tail while it was shaken off the Russian’s tail many times.
Even without firing a shot, the Su-27 has shown the world that it is a high performance fighter and it could supersede the Eagle. It is said that like how the word Foxbat gave NATO planners nightmares, the new kid on the block, the Flanker, had left its mark.
Now. Lets take a look at Chinese copy of the Flanker. The Shenyang J-11.
The actual legal history of the J-11 is up for debate. Some dismiss it as an unlicensed copy. On the other hand, there are those who claim the Su-27 design was legally sold to China and that the Chinese had full rights and Russian blessing to build and modify the design for their own use.
J-11 undergoing flight tests
For our purpose, it is important to note that the J-11 is NOT a straight copy of the Su-27. The Chinese have incorporated a number of modifications to their J-11. Notably, they installed their own radar and avionics on the J-11. Chinese avionics are often based on Western designs either bought legally or stolen by espionage. Regardless of how the design was obtained, the fact stands that the avionics on the J-11 are in fact an improvement over the Russian original.
Starting from the J-11B, the Chinese have started using the indigenous WS-10A engine instead of the Russian AL-31F which traditionally powers the Flanker family. The new engine is claimed to be more powerful than the Russian one, thus improving the jet’s performance. The percentage of airframes using the new engine is rising steadily. The J-11D is rumoured to have an AESA radar and new avionics.
J-11B with WS-10 engines (Credits-On the pic)
The Chinese J-11 can deploy indigenous weapons, at the same time retaining the ability to use all the original Russian weapons that the original Su-27 is capable of using. In other words, the Chinese Shenyang J-11 actually has an expanded weapons capacity over the Russian Sukhoi original. By that measure alone, the Shenyang J-11 is actually an improvement over the Sukhoi Su-27. It retains the original’s performance and yet has an expanded weapons suite.
The J-11D (Credits-On the pic)
Let the points sink in. Here, we have a design that is actually an improvement over the original design in terms of war fighting capability. If the original was designed to counter the F-15 Eagle, and has proven itself even indirectly to be a major threat, any improvement to the base design would multiply the threat ten fold.
Bottom line, it is dangerous to dismiss the Chinese Shenyang J-11 out of hand just because it is a copy. A copy it may be but it has been tweaked and improved beyond the original design it was based on. If the original is something to be respected, the improved variant deserves at least the same level of respect. Anything less, is akin to ignoring a snake at your doorstep.
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