China’s Air Force Activates 15th J-16 Fighter Brigade: Base Guards Shenzhen, Hong Kong and Key Nuclear Submarine Facility

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s 125th Air Brigade has been confirmed to have begun commissioning J-16 ‘4+ generation’ heavyweight fighters into service, replacing J-7E third generation lightweight fighters that previously operated under the unit. This marks the fifteenth unit to deploy J-16 fighters, which other than the J-20 fifth generation fighter, are in production on a far larger scale than any other heavyweight fighter in the world with close to 300 estimated to have been produced over the past decade. The J-16 is a heavily enhanced derivative of the Soviet Su-27 fourth generation air superiority fighter first delivered to China in 1991, which was considered the most capable fighter of the Cold War era in terms of air to air capabilities. Although sharing the same layout as the Su-27, the new Chinese fighter is considered by far the most sophisticated derivative of the design operational anywhere in the world, alongside the J-15B fielded by the People’s Liberation Army Navy, with its airframe making high use of advanced composite materials and stealth coatings, as well as state of the art electronics and weaponry. The aircraft’s development benefitted significantly from research and development into the J-20, which first entered service in 2017 and is considered one of the two most sophisticated fighters in the world alongside the American F-35. 

The J-16 is a close contender for the title of the most capable pre fifth generation fighter operational anywhere in the world, with its very long range and large highly sophisticated radar complemented by its deployment of the world’s longest ranged class of air to air missile. Known as PL-XX, the missile’s actual designation is unknown, but it was first seen with an operational J-16 unit at the beginning of December 2023, and is estimated to provide an engagement range of between 500 and 600 kilometres. Engagements at such ranges are facilitated either by targeting data from forward deployed assets such as J-20 fighters, which can operate closer to enemy positions using their stealth capabilities, or by KJ-500 airborne early warning and control aircraft – the latest variant of which the KJ-500A is considered the world’s most advanced.  The J-16’s more widely used primary armament, the PL-15, is also used by the J-20, and has a range estimated at between 200 and 300 kilometres while notably using an AESA radar for guidance, with the J-16’s own radar considered powerful enough to facilitate targeting at such ranges against most targets. Under the 125th Air Brigade J-16s are now based at Nanning Air Base under the Southern Theatre Command, placing the aircraft in an optimal position both to guard key economic hubs in Shenzhen and Hong Kong as well as to provide air defence to Longpo Naval Base on Hainan Island. The facility houses the backbone of the Navy’s strategic nuclear arsenal and is thus expected to be a priority target for Western air and missile strikes in the event of a major war. 

With the J-7 having entering service from around 1965, approximately half a century before the J-16, the transition between the two aircraft represents a very dramatic shift for the 125th Air Brigade, despite the J-7E variant having avionics, weaponry and airframe materials modernised to a 1990s technological level. This transition was made all the more drastic by the fact that the J-16 is over three times the size of its predecessor, meaning its maintenance needs and operational costs will be significantly higher. The J-16’s much greater weapons range, radar over ten times the size, and far higher endurance, means it can provide air defence across an area several tens of times as large.

The transition of the 125th Air Brigade from operating J-7s to J-20s notably closely follows the reported transition of the nearby 131st Air Brigade based at Luliang Air Base from operating J-10Cs to operating J-20s in 2023, and also follows confirmation in December that J-20s had been deployed to Foshan Air Base to replace the 4th Air Brigade’s J-11 fighters. Deployment of the Air Force’s two top fighter classes in multiple units in the vicinity indicates that a high priority has been allocated to strengthening air defences in the region. The J-16 has been reported to be participating in exercises alongside J-20s more than any other fighter class has, with the two aircraft having similar ranges and being highly complementary. A significant advantage the J-16 retains are its lower maintenance requirements and its ability to deploy the PL-XX, with its twin seat configuration also being optimal for operating as an airborne command centre or operating guided air to surface weapons.

Much longer ranged aircraft with larger sensors suites allow both the 125th and 131st air brigades to make much more significant contributions to air defence duties across much of the contested South China Sea, and as well as to operations in the Taiwan Strait. Conversion of both units comes as part of a broader trend towards the Air Force favouring heavier longer ranged fighters, which have formed a fast growing proportion of the fleet since the 1990s. The 125th’s confirmed transition also follows the release of footage by the Defence Ministry in November showing J-16s from an unknown other unit under the Southern Theatre being scrambled to intercept foreign military aircraft operating in the South China Sea, with the fighters launching infrared flares within visual range as a direct warning after their targets ignored radio warnings and continued to approach Chinese territory. Deployment of the J-16 has allowed Chinese air units to be much more asserting in defending the country’s territorial interests, at a time of high tensions with the United States and multiple U.S.-aligned states such as Japan.