The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force on April 11 was confirmed to have commissioned a new unit of J-16 heavyweight fighters into service under its Eastern Theatre Command. The aircraft have reportedly replaced J-8 interceptors under the command’s 78th air brigade, which represents a very significant improvement in capabilities. The J-16 is one of three Chinese fighters on order by the PLA Air Force, alongside the lightweight J-10C and heavyweight fifth generation J-20. Entering service around 2015, it is estimated that close to 200 J-16s have been built with the jets leaving production lines faster than any other derivative of the Russian Su-27 Flanker design on which it is based – and which is being built In three production lines in Russia itself. The J-16 is considered the most sophisticated variant of the Flanker, benefitting from Chinese areas of technological strength such as AESA radars, electronics and composite materials.
The J-16 has in the past replaced much lighter aircraft than the J-8 including the J-7, with both of these older designs that first flew during the Cold War being phased out of service. As a much larger aircraft, however, the J-16’s operational costs are significantly higher which is accommodated by the rapid growth of China’s defence budget. Other than operational costs and maintenance requirements, the J-16 outperforms the J-8 in all parameters. Some of the most notable will be its avionics and situational awareness, with the J-16’s radar being considerably larger and using technology several decades ahead of those in the J-8. Where modern J-8 variants rely on the PL-12 for long range air to air engagements with a respectably 100km range, the J-16’s sensors facilitate use of the PL-15 with an estimated 250-300km range and an AESA radar for inertial guidance. The newer aircraft has a considerably better insurance and greater manoeuvrability.
The J-8 was the only fully indigenous Chinese fighter/interceptor to enter service during the Cold War, and as a relatively unambitious project survived where the more ambitious canard delta wing J-9 fighter failed. While the J-9 eventually evolved into the J-10 which serves today, the J-8 was modernised into a relatively basic fourth generation design which is the oldest in PLA service capable of using active radar guided missiles. Approximately 75 J-8s are currently thought to be in service, although unlike J-7s which are prized for their very low maintenance needs the interceptors may well be phased out entirely rather than being reallocated to lower priority units or to training units as retired J-7s have been. Removing the J-8 from service would not significantly impact China’s air defence capabilities, but would simplify maintenance and training by removing one class of combat jet from service entirely.