China's most dangerous war planes

After decades of relying on Russian-made planes, China is modernizing the People's Liberation Army Air Force with a new domestic-built fleet.

Fox Van Allen
Fox Van Allen is a Los Angeles-based writer for CBS Interactive covering technology, tech lifestyle and gaming topics for GameSpot, CNET, ZDNet and TechRepublic. He has previously worked as a news and feature writer for a number of other sites, including Techlicious, Tecca, WoW Insider (Joystiq) and Blizzard Watch. In his spare time, Fox is an amateur skydiver, retro gaming and arcade enthusiast, 8-bit pixel artist, podcaster and Twitch live streamer.
Fox Van Allen
1 of 27 Xinhua/Liang Xu

Meet the People's Liberation Army Air Force

In the past, The People's Republic of China sourced most of its heavy military hardware from the former Soviet Union. These days, as a larger player on the global military scene, China is leaning on its own manufacturing might to modernize its force.

While the tech in some of these planes may pale in comparison to those maintained by the United States Air Force, China's war planes are impressive in their own right. Here are the most important -- and newest -- planes in China's fleet.

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The Chengdu J-10

This is the Chengdu J-10, a multirole fighter aircraft and the workhorse of China's air force. Each of the 400 "Vigorous Dragons" currently in service were built by Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group in China using a large number of Russian-sourced parts.

This J-10 supports a crew of two, though China also makes a J-10A single-seat variant.

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The J-10 armament

The J-10 has 11 hardpoints, or fixed weapons stations: six under its wing, and five under its fuselage. These hardpoints can carry air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles, or an external fuel drop-tank for increased range. J-10 planes can also drop laser-guided, glide and satellite-guided bombs.

The main gun on the J-10, meanwhile, is an imported Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-23, a 23 mm autocannon first developed by the Soviet Union in 1965.

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This is one fast fighter

The J-10 has a service ceiling of roughly 59,000 feet, meaning it can climb as high as 11 miles above sea level.

It has a top speed of Mach 2.2 (1,688 mph), allowing it to keep up with all but the fastest of US Air Force planes.

5 of 27 Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

Yu Xu: China's first female J-10 pilot

In July 2012, Flight Squadron Commander Yu Xu (seen here at the 2014 Airshow China in Zhuhai) gained nationwide fame the first female pilot of a J-10 aircraft, one of only four qualified to do so. She gained even more fame as a member of the August 1st Air Demonstration Team, China's answer to the US Navy's Blue Angels.

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A national tragedy

Tragically, Yu Xu was killed in a November 12, 2016 training accident when the J-10 she was piloting collided with another J-10.

Xu has since been hailed as a hero by the Chinese media and public.

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China's fourth-generation fighter, the J-11

This is the fourth-generation, China-built J-11B fighter jet, as seen during the biannual Changchun airshow. It's seen as a competitor to the F-15 and F-16 jets operated by the US Air Force.

Approximately 253 of these jets have been built for the People's Liberation Army Air Force. Each costs $30 million.

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A dangerous interception over the South China Sea

Though the US has never been at war with China, American military pilots have had a number of run-ins with these warplanes.

In August 2014, a J-11 jet intercepted a US Navy P-8 recon plane over the South China Sea. According to military reports, the planes came within 50 feet of each other, with the Chinese J-11 at one point displaying its underside. The US Defense Department interpreted the maneuver as a show of the plane's weaponry.

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J-11 warplane on the attack

Indeed, the J-11 does carry a fearsome arsenal of China- and Russia-made weaponry. The plane has a main 30 mm cannon (Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-30-1) and 10 hardpoints for carrying missiles.

The plane can also drop freefall cluster bombs.

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Live-fire training

In this photo, a J-11 pilot fires a live air-to-surface missile at a simulated ground target over the South China Sea during a July 2016 training exercise.

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China's first carrier-based jet

This is the Shenyang J-15, China's first domestic attempt at creating a carrier-based fighter jet. The plane made its first takeoff in May 2010.

The plane is 72 feet long with a wingspan of 48.25 feet. This is reduced to 24.25 feet when the wings are folded, as in this picture.

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J-15: A carrier plane of questionable design

China's state-run media is bursting with pride over its new J-15 planes, but international military analysts are less enthused. The plane can only launch using a ski jump, such as the one here on China's first ever aircraft carrier, the Liaoning (CV-16).

Weight limitations on take-off reduce the number and size of weapons the jet can carry compared with rival planes. Its Russian-sourced engines, meanwhile, are underpowered compared with America's F-35s.

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China's first aircraft carrier

At 999 feet long, the now-combat-ready Liaoning carries 24 J-15 multirole fighters -- fewer than half the number that can be carried on US carriers. The lack of a American-style steam catapult requires use of the ski-jump deck, requiring planes to use more fuel on takeoff and limit their maximum takeoff weight.

The Liaoning is slower than US Nimitz-class carriers, too. The Center for Strategic and International Studies reports that the ship has a top speed of only around 20 knots (23 mph) due to "poor design and maintenance" of its Soviet-supplied power plant.

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The J-15: A cheap knockoff?

China's J-15 is, largely, a subpar knockoff of Russia's Su-33 carrier-based fighter, shown here. China's air force was in negotiations to purchase Su-33 planes from Russia, but those plans fell apart in 2006 when it was revealed that China's J-11 was a knockoff of the Su-27 planes Russia had previously sold the country.

"The Chinese J-15 clone is unlikely to achieve the same performance of the Russian Su-33 carrier-based fighter," Russia Col. Igor Korotchenko (retired) told newspaper Ria Novosti.

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J-20: China's first stealth fighter

China's newest warplane, the Chengdu J-20 fifth-generation stealth fighter, is arguably one of the country's most impressive. The jet became operational on December 12, 2016, making China only the third country in the world with its own domestically built stealth fighter. (Russia and the US are the others.)

The plane is designed, per the chief editor of Chinese military magazine World Military Affairs, to attack large surface ships such as aircraft carriers.

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The underside of the J-20

This picture, taken during the 11th China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition at Zhuhai Airshow Center on November 1, 2016 in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province of China, shows off the underside of the new J-20 fighter.

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A smarter stealth design

Stealth designs significantly reduce planes' radar signatures... as well as their stability. To counter this, the J-20 has small, wing-like canards toward the front of the jet, helping its pilot maintain control and improving its supersonic performance.

The plane has a maximum speed of Mach 1.7, or 1,305 mph. Each is expected to cost $110 million to build.

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J-20: Built with stolen US technology?

In April 2009, The Wall Street Journal reported that hackers had compromised the $300 billion Joint Strike Fighter project responsible for creating the USAF's F-35 Lightning II, shown here. There is much speculation that China was behind the breach, and used the stolen information to build its own stealth fighter.

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China's next stealth fighter, the J-31

The J-20 isn't the only stealth fighter being manufactured by the country. Aviation Industry Corporation of China is also creating this multipurpose medium fighter, the J-31, touted as a direct competitor to the US F-35 Lightning II.

Colloquially known as the "Falcon Hawk," this plane will be primarily sold to countries prohibited from purchasing F-35 planes. China's own air force has not made a decision about whether it will purchase the planes, leading to rumors that the plane may underperform expectations.

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Is this the most advanced Chinese plane ever? Maybe!

With production models expected to make their first flights in 2019, the J-31 may be China's most advanced warplane. It features helmet-mounted sights, holographic cockpit displays and a high-tech stealth coating.

The plane is capable of reaching speeds of Mach 1.8, or 1,367 mph.

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JH-7: The Flying Flounder

One of China's most tested war planes, the Xian JH-7, known to NATO as Flounder, is a domestic-built, two-seat fighter bomber. It has a maximum speed of Mach 1.75 (1,122 mph) and a combat radius of nearly 1,100 miles.

The JH-7 entered service in the mid 1990s. The JH-7A, a redesigned version with a lighter, stronger airframe, arrived in 2004. A JH-7B variant with a new avionics system and more advanced weapons is currently being designed.

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JH-7 on a training mission

The JH-7 comes loaded with a 23mm twin-barrel GSh-23L autocannon with 300 rounds and 9 hardpoints capable of carrying air-to-air missiles, air-to-surface missiles, anti-ship missiles, and anti-radiation missiles.

And true to its status as a "fighter bomber," the JH-7 can also carry unguided, laser-guided and satellite-guided bombs.

Here, one of the PLA's female pilots maneuvers a JH-7 during a flight training exercise over China.

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China's fearsome new bomber, the H-6K

No discussion of Chinese warplanes would be complete without mentioning the country's fleet of H-6K bombers, shown here. Each is a heavily modified version of China's older H-6, which itself is a licensed version of the Soviet Tu-16.

The plane first entered service in October 2009, making China the fourth country to build its own strategic bomber.

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This plane holds a LOT of bombs

The H-6K is loaded to bear with anti-ship missiles, but its primary mission is to drop bombs. Each bomber is capable of holding 20,000 lbs worth of freefall weapons.

It is also capable of nuclear strike. An H-6 was used to test nuclear weapons at China's Lop Nur site.

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First look inside a H-6K cockpit

Many of China's new planes are closely guarded secrets, shown off only in limited fashion during air shows.

This 2015 screenshot of Chinese President Xi Jinping, taken from Chinese television, was the first publicly released shot of the J-6K cockpit. It confirms the plane has a glass cockpit, at least five multifunction displays, and ejection seats for its crew of four.

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KJ-2000: China's key radar plane

This odd-looking aircraft is the KJ-2000, an airborne early warning (AEW) craft. The Mainring, as it is known by NATO, has powerful 360-degree radar systems that can track ships and other planes at long range (roughly 292 miles).

The KJ-2000 can track 100 targets simultaneously.

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KJ-2000 at night

This KJ-2000, along with a number of other Chinese PLA Air Force planes, recently participated in the Red Sword 2016 systematic confrontation training exercise to boost troop combat abilities.

The KJ-2000 has a max speed of 528 mph and a maximum range of 3,400 miles. There are currently five in service.

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