A Chinese-made J-7 fighter-interceptor jet crashed into a civilian residential area earlier this month, injuring four people on the ground. The pilot successfully bailed out seconds before impact near an air force base in Guangdong province Dec. 4. Such news is considered routine in the West. But the Chinese government usually responds by being secretive — except for this incident.
The story was given special treatment by state-run media, and it was promptly and widely reported throughout China. Even the always cheery PLA Daily, the official People’s Liberation Army newspaper, took the initiative and announced the crash, as did the Chinese Defense Ministry website.
For China, the J-7 represents the longest and most expensive PLA reverse engineering project. With an estimated 350 aircraft still flying, the J-7 is also the second-most numerous type of aircraft currently in service in the air force and navy.
The J-7 was directly reverse-engineered from the Soviet-design MiG-21 that was built in the 1950s. Moscow gave the Chinese sample planes and technical data in the early 1960s in exchange for China’s support for Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s international gambits, including the deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba.
However, the Chinese complained that the data given by Moscow was incomplete and many parts accompanying the first sample planes were defective.
Nevertheless, the Chinese engineers stuck with the MiG-21 design and arduously sought to replicate it. After many years of trial and error — mostly during the tumult called the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s — the J-7 finally became operational in the early 1980s.
The Chinese called their replica the J-7 and began serial production for its army. A foreign export version, known as F-7, was sold to China’s many “brother countries” in the Third World, including Albania, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.
The J-7 remains an inexpensive second-generation combat aircraft with a maximum speed of Mach 2 and a combat radius of 530 miles. Its primary role is air-to-ground assault.
One of the most likely reasons behind China’s rare openness on the J-7 crash is an intensification of internal debate within the Chinese military high command about the present and future role of the J-7.
Over several decades of reverse-engineering the jet, many current PLA leaders shared the experience of the process. They have vested interests in preserving the plane for Chinese pride and favor keeping the remaining units in the service much longer, despite the fact that the J-7 appears out-of-date and needs to be replaced. Production stopped in 2006.
After China acquired the much more advanced Russian Su-27 jets in the 1990s, an aircraft the Chinese also reverse-engineered and named the J-11, many new PLA leaders increasingly view the J-7s as an embarrassment for China’s air power.
The J-7 is prone to mechanical failures in mid-air, resulting in frequent crashes, according to various published sources. Thus exposure in the media of J-7’s mishaps and crashes will push the army’s J-7 community to swallow its pride and let it go out of the service quickly.
Taiwan tests carrier-killer missile
The Taiwanese military successfully test-fired its newest and most powerful anti-ship cruise missile, the Hsiung Feng-III, at the end of October, according to the Taiwanese newspaper Times Weekly.
The test missile was fired from a Taiwanese Cheng Kung-class frigate and hit its designated target seven minutes after launch.
The missile, the Hsiung Feng-III, is believed to be the fastest supersonic Mach 2-class anti-ship missile in the world, surpassing the only other type in its class, the Russian-made Sunburn anti-ship missile that the Chinese navy has deployed. The missile has a rocket-ramjet engine, and it is equipped with an X-band monopulse planar array active radar that allows it to hone in on targets.
According to Taiwanese news reports, the test speed of the Hsiung Feng-III reached Mach 3, making it unmatched by any similar missile in the world. The original test distance was set at 87 miles, but the actual distance between the firing ship and the target was reportedly 250 miles, a significant feat.
Taiwanese military leaders think the Hsiung Feng-III provides the island with a deadly deterrence weapon against China’s lone aircraft carrier, the refurbished Liaoning, that was commissioned in late September and is viewed widely as a symbol of China’s rising naval power.
• Miles Yu’s column appears Thursdays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.