Based on what China has been doing, it has no intention of eliminating previous generations of aircraft, and Beijing doesn’t seem to have enough faith in the J-20’s future either.

As of April 2019, China has completed receiving all 24 4++ generation Su-35 fighter jets with full weapons and equipment. According to the contract signed in 2016, the total value is $2.8 billion, equivalent to about 116 million USD per unit. The Su-35s are considered the most modern in the Chinese Air Force, losing only to the J-20 in stealth.

On the other hand, China has put its most advanced J-20s into service since 2017, and it is developing the J-31 that is supposed to be export-oriented. Each J-20 has an estimated value of $110 million. The Chinese claim that the J-20 is a fifth generation stealth fighter, on par with the US F-35. But, the Chinese are still buying Russia’s Su-35, and maybe they will buy more. Moscow is offering to sell more Su-35s to Beijing – and according to Asian media, it is very likely that China will agree.

As for the United States, after the introduction of the fifth generation stealth fighter F-22 and F-35, the Department of Defense no longer ordered fourth generation fighters. It was thought that China would do the same thing. However, with China, its approach is completely different.

The Chinese military currently owns about 3,000 aircraft – roughly the size of the US Air Force, of which about 1,700 fighters. However, most of these are obsolete machines from the Cold War, including 700 Chinese-made based on the famous Russian MiG-21 in the 1960s.

According to analysts, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force owns the most heavy fighters in the world. The Chinese heavy fighters are mostly Soviet replicas of the Su-27s. Based on the Su-27, the Chinese have successfully developed replicas such as the J-11, J-15 and J-16, while also operating Russian Su-30s and Su-35s. They are even more numerous than other Russian class aircraft.

In 2017, China put the Chengdu J-20 into service. It was the first Chinese-made heavy air superiority fighter. And it was also developed from the Su-27. The J-20 was also China’s first stealth fighter and the first fifth generation fighter in service from a country other than the United States.

As of 2019, Beijing has about 50 J-20s, and it seems impossible to produce large numbers of complex and expensive fighters in a short time. Beijing’s introduction of the fifth generation stealth aircraft to service as a counterweight to the US F-22 and F-35. On the other hand, the Chinese Air Force still faces logistical challenges, namely how to maintain a large number of old aircraft.

Based on what China has been doing, it has no intention of eliminating previous generations of aircraft, and Beijing doesn’t seem to have enough faith in the J-20’s future either.

Despite being a fourth-generation fighter, the Russian Su-35 has several advantages over the Chinese J-20. For example, the Su-35 outperforms the J-20 in terms of payload, super maneuverability. It uses excellent engines, as well as has a complete electronic warfare system.

Although the J-20 has an advantage in long-range air battles, thanks to its stealth. However, even if the J-20 performed better than the Su-35, the PLAAF still had strong reasons to buy Russian jets. The reason: The Su-35 is easier to handle and is cheaper, if not taking into account the value of the bundled weaponry. The Su-35 provides the PLAAF with a wider range of combat capabilities – including the electronic warfare systems, air-to-air missiles and cruise missiles deployed by the Su-35, to make the fleet more flexible and more difficult to cope with. And more importantly, China will have the technology base to apply to its defense programs, first of all the J-10C and J-11D programs.

Since 2006, the Su-35 has been offered to China, but China was not interested in buying in bulk but only wants to buy a small batch of Su-35s, from 4 to 6, or even some systems mounted on the Su-35 such as the Irbis radar or AL-41FS engine.

The Russian side announced that it was ready to sell to China, but not less than 48 aircraft, and only when the test results of China’s domestic engines were not very positive, China accepted the offer to buy the Su-35. At that time, observers doubted that China’s action was to get the engine, copy it and put it on the J-20.

The engine has always been a crucial part of every fighter, and this is a dilemma for Chinese companies. The Chengdu J-20 and Shenyang J-31 5th generation aircraft were developed with the ambition of counterbalancing modern American aircraft. But China’s jet engine manufacturing capabilities have not kept pace with other sectors of the aerospace industry, and models like the J-20 or J-31 are still incomplete due to the lack of good enough engines.

China still has to depend on Russian jet engines to equip its fighters, even though they may no longer be suitable. Currently both the J-20 and J-31 are using Russian jet engines, specifically, the J-20 uses the Saturn AL-31 and the J-31 uses the Klimov RD-93. The analysts said that both fighters have limited performance due to aging engines. With the AL-31s engine that the J-20 is equipped with, it will be difficult to maintain supersonic cruise speed, one of the key features if it wants to be on par with the American F-22.

China has two options for getting advanced jet engines: either purchased from Russia or developed by itself. Beijing’s priority is, of course, self-development, and the goal of engine building has become the focus of the Chinese aviation industry.

However, building jet engines for fighter jets is difficult, and poses major design challenges due to the thrust required when accelerating. In fact, building jet engines is still the weakness of the Chinese aviation industry.

The jet engines under development, the Xian WS-15, will be for the J-20 and the Avic WS-13 for the J-31, will require more time and testing. Advances in WS-13 and WS-15 jet engine research programs may explain why China is so interested in Russia’s Su-35 project. The Su-35 is Russia’s most modern fighter, powered by Saturn AL-41F1S jet engines, which are deeply upgraded from the AL-31.

From these analyzes, it is reasonable to believe that the purchase of the AL-41 engine is the shortest way for the PLAAF to obtain the desired jet engine for its J-20 series. It is unlikely that Russia will sell the new engines as a stand-alone product, the PLAAF will have to purchase Su-35 fighters, and acquire the AL-41F1S engine as part of the system.

In addition, it should be noted that economic and political factors can also play an important role in the agreement between China and Russia, especially in the context of increasingly close bilateral relations.

It would make sense to consider buying more S-35s to be China’s support for Russia – a country with an economy struggling with US and Western sanctions, but still possesses a formidable military research and development prowess.

It is also said that, Russia is a major weapons supplier to India another rival of China. Its imperative for Chinese military to know what are the capabilities of Indian armed forces. Even though China has surpassed India long time ago with their robust defence industry and spending on defence. Nevertheless its best to keep two regional powers military power in check.

At the present time, Beijing’s decision to purchase the Su-35s can be explained by the same reasons. The two great powers had raced in the past but are now closer and closer together.

However, in the future, with ambitions that are difficult to hide, China will certainly have to rely on its own resources, instead of looking from outside.

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