China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force has deployed two of its fighter classes to participate in the Aviadarts military aviation contest as part of the International Army Games 2021 in Russia’s Ryazan region. The fighters sent include the lightweight single engine J-10B and the heavyweight twin engine J-16. While the J-10B is no longer in production, and has relatively standard fourth generation capabilities, the J-16 is one of three post-fourth generation fighters currently being built for China’s air force and is considered a ‘4+ generation’ aircraft. Unlike the J-10B which was developed entirely in China, the J-16 is based on an airframe which China is currently the largest user of but which has its origins in Russia – the Su-27 Flanker. The East Asian state has been producing derivatives of the Flanker since the 1990s, with the J-16 currently considered by some to be the most capable in the world with many performance advantages over rival Su-27 derivatives in Russia itself such as the Su-30SM and Su-35. Among the fighter’s most notable features are its high endurance, limited stealth capabilities, advanced avionics and electronic warfare systems, AESA radar and access to AESA radar guided air to air missiles. Russia has yet to field a Flanker derivative with an AESA radar.
The J-16’s deployment to Russia closely follows its involvement alongside its Russian counterpart the Su-30SM in the Zapad 2021 military exercises which concluded on August 13th, and saw Chinese and Russian forces demonstrate unprecedented levels of interoperability using a joint command and control system. There has long been strong contention over whether Chinese or Russian Flankers are more capable overall, although aside from Russia’s advantage in engine technologies since its AL-41 powerplant entered service in 2014, the J-16 has advantages across the spectrum from composite materials to electronics. Russia is expected to begin fielding its latest variant of the Flanker, the Su-30SM2, in the coming months, which will be its second fighter to use the AL-41. The Aviadarts and Zapad events of 2021 are hardly likely to be the last times Russia and China deploy fighters to one another’s territories, with growing defence cooperation leading many experts to speculate that joint fighter programs could soon be on the horizon to capitalise on both parties’ strengths and to benefit from economies of scale.