Bogged down by failures, how the United States almost supplied China, its “great rival”, with the most advanced avionics for its fighter jets


In 1979, the United States (US) finally granted full diplomatic recognition to China, laying the foundation for a brief period of defense cooperation between the United States and China. China has started buying weapons from American companies, with official approval from the State Department.

Beijing saw this as an opportunity to take advantage of US technological expertise for its third-generation J-8 fighter program which had begun in the early 1960s but was hampered by domestic turmoil and lack of know-how. technical, jeopardizing the operational needs of the APL Air Force (PLAAF).

In the late 1950s, Western nations began to develop their next-generation deep-penetrating strategic bombers and reconnaissance aircraft with capabilities far exceeding the PLAAF’s most advanced fighters.

Therefore, the Chinese military needed a new high-performance interceptor fighter capable of flying at a maximum speed of Mach 2.2, reaching a service ceiling of more than 20,000 meters, achieving a rate of climb at sea level of 200 m/s and achieve a combat radius of 750 to 1,000 km.

In 1964, the Shenyang Aircraft Design Institute (601 Institute) offered a full-scale twin-engine turbojet version of the J-7—the Chinese copy of the Soviet-designed MiG-21 Fishbed—which was finally trialled-before the PLA in 1965 .

File Image: Shenyang J-8 Fighter

Production of the prototype began in 1966 and the first maiden flight took place in 1969, but flight testing of the aircraft did not end until December 1979 due to disruptions caused by the “cultural revolution”.

The J-8 was finally certified for design finalization in December 1979 and entered service with the PLAAF in 1981. Although the aircraft somewhat met the original design goals for performance, it had no distinctive advantage over the earlier J-7 due to lack of avionics and capable armaments.

Meanwhile, Institute 601 had begun developing an improved variant known as the J-8I in 1976 which first flew in 1982. Flight testing was completed in 1985 and it was approved for the design finalization.

However, even the J-81 could not meet the PLAAF requirements and the PLAAF also required the ‘beyond visual range’ (BVR) air combat capability using radar-guided MRAAMs and attack on the ground as a secondary ability. So Shenyang then began to develop a radically improved variant of the aircraft, the J-8II in the early 1980s.

The J-8II featured side engine inlets instead of the J-8I’s MiG-21 style nose inlet allowing a large radar to be fitted in the forward fuselage. Reports also suggest that its design benefited from access to the Soviet-made MiG-23 Flogger that China illegally acquired from Egypt in the early 1970s.

Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23 - Wikipedia
Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23 – Wikipedia

It first flew in June 1984 and still did not meet the needs of the PLAAF as it was limited by poor sensors, electronic warfare systems, avionics and low payload capacity of only 4 missiles air to air.

Its weapons systems were also far behind their American and Soviet counterparts such as the AIM-7 and R-40. Thus, Beijing finally decided to ask for help from the United States for its J-8 program and in 1986 President Ronal Reagan approved the Sino-American cooperation project “Peace Pearl” to help China modernize its fighter. J-8II, in an effort to counter the threat from the Soviet Union.

In 1987, the United States Air Force’s Aircraft Systems Division contracted Grumman (now Northrop Grumman) worth $502 million for avionics upgrades of approximately 50 to 55 J -8II. The package included the Westinghouse AN/APG-66 radar found on early F-16s, US-made inertial navigation systems, heads-up displays (HUDs), multi-function cockpit displays, computers and ejection seats .

Two J-8IIs were flown to the United States in early 1989 accompanied by about 40 Chinese military officers for flight tests to be carried out by American pilots. Prototype facilities were planned for two J-8lls at either Edwards Air Force Base or Mojave Air and Space Port in California in 1989.

While the United States was going to supply the avionics, the weapons were to be supplied by the Italian defense industry. A batch of Alenia Aspide BVR missiles – based on the AIM-7E Sparrow with semi-active radar guidance – were delivered to China in the mid-1980s, where the design was developed for surface and airborne launch purposes .

There is at least one photo of the J-8IIs in an anechoic chamber in the United States being used to integrate new radars and other electronic equipment onto an aircraft. These chambers dampen ambient electromagnetic radiation and ensure that the various emissions do not negatively interact with other systems on board.

However, this historic cooperation between the United States and China was short-lived as the project was canceled due to the arms embargo imposed by the United States on China following the incident of Tiananmen Square in 1989.

J-20 stealth aircraft

Eventually, China had to turn to Russia and Israel for help in developing advanced avionics suites and around 60 J-8IIs were produced between 1992 and 95.

Reports suggest that the Type 1471 pulse Doppler radar on J-8II was based on the Israeli Elta EL/M-2034, and the planes were equipped with new PL-12 air-to-air missiles with high accuracy, range of 100 km and speeds of Mach 4 putting them on par with the most advanced Russian and American armaments of the time.

There was also an export-optimized F-8IIM offered with Russian Phazotron Zhuk radar and Russian armament. The J-8 interceptor was China’s comprehensive attempt at a modern indigenous jet for air-to-air combat.

The final and most advanced Finback fighter variant was the J-8F which first flew in 2000. Currently, a handful of PLAAF units and only one PLA Navy regiment still use late model J-8s .

Today, more than 50 years after the first J-8 flew in 1969, China’s military aviation industry has made significant progress, including becoming the only third country to operate a fifth-generation stealth aircraft, except for the United States and Russia.


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