Chinese military aircraft are to be painted with “low observable” coatings and standardised markings under new guidelines, a move observers say will assist with operations near Taiwan and in the East and South China seas.
The guidelines require markings including the national flag and service insignia to be gradually standardised on both active and future warplanes, the official PLA Daily newspaper said earlier this month.
The move comes two years after the Chinese navy started experimenting with its J-16 strike fighter, using a dark grey low-visibility coating instead of blue-grey, and replacing its service insignia with a new design, according to military magazine Ordnance Industry Science Technology.
Some of the navy’s only active aircraft carrier-based fighter jets, the J-15s, have also been given new coatings and markings, according to the People’s Liberation Army’s official website.
PLA Daily said the move aimed to give Chinese warplanes a combat advantage as they “will be less likely to be detected by both the naked eye and military radar”. It said the new guidelines would be gradually implemented this year.
Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Dong said the move would help the air force improve patrols and combat-readiness as it carried out more drills near the Taiwan Strait and in the East and South China seas.
China’s air force and navy have sent warplanes including Su-35 fighter jets, H-6K strategic bombers and advanced KJ-2000 airborne early warning aircraft to conduct “encirclement” drills around Taiwan since 2018, as Beijing applies pressure on the self-ruled island that it sees as part of its territory. But none of the aircraft seen in photographs of the exercises had low-visibility coatings or standardised markings, as used on the navy’s J-16s and J-15s.
“Aircraft used by the PLA Air Force have different coatings and markings because they are still in a transitional period,” Wong said. “Its counterparts like Taiwan have learned from Western countries like the United States to standardise coatings and markings and designs [since the 1990s].”
Beijing insists that Taiwan, which split from the mainland in 1949, remains part of China and they will eventually be reunited – by force if necessary.
The PLA also regularly sends aircraft to monitor freedom of navigation operations by the US Navy in the South China Sea. Beijing has territorial disputes in the resource-rich waterway with countries including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
A military insider in Beijing said the US move to send hundreds of its new-generation F-35 stealth fighter jets to South Korea and Japan had also pushed the PLA to upgrade the coatings on its aircraft.
“These coatings are a highly technical area, and China puts a tremendous amount of resources into research on this every year,” said the insider, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue. “The coating that’s used on China’s first stealth fighter jet, the J-20, is more advanced than they used on the Lockheed Martin F-22s, but it’s not yet at the level of the F-35s.”
Hong Kong-based military expert Song Zhongping said military aircraft used to have a bright red national flag and service insignia that made them more detectable on radar systems, or even with the naked eye.
“The red they used is striking, but it’s not in line with the ‘low observable’ requirement for all fighter jets,” said Song, who is a military commentator for Phoenix Television.
“All fighter jets must have stealth and low-visibility capabilities, and the coatings and markings on them are part of how they can do this and meet requirements for combat.”
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