Review: Modern Chinese Warplanes – Chinese Army Aviation – Aircraft and Units

In December last year I reviewed two Harpia books, the publisher’s sister volumes on the current state of Chinese Air Force and Naval Aviation. I then commented that “the role of Army Aviation is never quite explained, and I was left somewhat wondering what exactly they do, and how it differs from the rotary-winged units of the Air Force. I can only assume this would have been clearer if all three volumes had been read together.” This spring the third volume was released (ISBN 978-0-9973092-8-7), and it did indeed clear things up.

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The basic premise of the book is rather similar to the two earlier volumes, dealing first with the history and current trends of the force as a whole, briefly describing the markings and serial number system, then going through the platforms (aircrafts, helicopters, and UAVs) and weapons used, before fielding a brief overview of the training syllabus. A complete overview of the PLA Army aviation order of battle the occupies the next 30 pages, before describing the aviation assets of the People’s Armed Police Force, and ending with two paragraphs on the enigmatic aviation units of the Border Defense Corps.

However, it isn’t just the status of the WIG-craft of the Border Defense Corps that is enigmatic, but on the whole the Chinese Army Aviation is rather secretive and mysterious. Here the book deviates strongly from many of the other Harpia books. Usually the offerings are the ultimate guides, but since the topic is so poorly documented the Army Aviation-volume in many places notes that different details are unconfirmed. The whole chapter on training syllabus for example is rather short, spanning just over two pages as “barely any hard data is available”.

This will naturally come down to personal preference, but in my opinion when an acknowledged expert such as Rupprecht gives his best understanding of a topic, and crucially is open with where the line between confirmed and unconfirmed details run, I will gladly take that over having a book half as thick dealing only with confirmed facts.

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I will admit that I have a soft spot for Chinese aviation, with their unique and sometimes strange (at least for someone used to Western doctrines) solutions. I mean, who else create a dedicated short-range air-to-air missile for helicopter-to-helicopter combat? And then load up eight on a light transport? As such I did find it a very enjoyable read. While the OOB-chapter certainly is of great value to many analysts, I personally find the equipment chapters to be the most interesting. I was naturally happy to find that the helicopter chapter was dealing with the systems in more depth, partly because the book was “probably” the first ever to deal with the topic, as the author put it. For anyone having a problem recognising their Z-8WJ from their Z-8G, this is the book to get.

Otherwise there actually isn’t much to say. The quality of the book, including the glue binding, is top-notch as always with Harpia. Pictures and illustrations are in colour and excellent as usual. You might not get the definitive monograph as usually is the case with Harpia, but that will be the case with anything written on the topic due to the level of operational security surrounding the Chinese Army Aviation. This is still the book to get if you are interested in the topic, and highly recommended for anyone interested in Chinese helicopters and UAVs.

The book was kindly sent to me free of charge by Harpia for review.

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Review: Modern Chinese Warplanes – Chinese Air Force & Naval Aviation

Harpia is doing an update for their Modern Chinese Warplanes-book, something which is certainly needed, considering how things have changed during the last six years. The update also splits the original into several volumes according to branch. The Naval Aviation volume came out during the spring, while the Air Force one is hot off the printers. Army Aviation will then follow in April 2019.

From a Finnish (or even European viewpoint), China is largely a trading partner with a rather poor human rights record. Great power struggles in the Pacific and Thucydides traps are far away both geography-wise and psychologically. As such I will admit that my understanding of Chinese military aviation is rather limited, and the books filled a much needed void in my bookshelf.

In case anyone has missed it, China is rapidly starting to produce modern aircraft in a host of different classes, including both high-profile fighters such as the J-20 and lesser-known projects such as the Y-20 transport. On the other hand, the far-reaching organisational changes and updates to doctrine and training regimes during the last years are likely of even greater importance, and is only now (likely) reaching their final form. The books cover all of these aspects, including aircrafts currently in use (stretching from the An-2 derivative Nanchang Y-5 to the top-modern Chengdu J-20), weapons, doctrine, training curriculum, and last but not least an impressive full order of battle. The order of battle is likely the single most comprehensive and up-to-date one published in non-classified books, and explains both the current organisation as well as the roots it comes from.

As with all Harpia-books, the illustrations are of a very high-quality and (almost always) spot-on.

The big question is if the book is too up-to-date? Especially in the case of the Naval Aviation one, questions still remain which units exactly have been reformed and which are still awaiting change. Operational secrecy and increased internet censorship inside China means that information isn’t always easy to come by. Here as well Rupprecht does a good job, as his long experience with the topic gives him the ability to piece together the available snippets of information to create the bigger picture. Importantly, he also clearly indicates which parts are confirmed, which are unconfirmed, and where there are alternative theories and explanations.

The map of the Eastern Theatre Command Navy at the beginning of the Southern Theatre Command Navy-chapter.

But as always there is some room for improvement. The otherwise excellent maps of the areas of operation for the different theatre commands are placed after their respective chapters, leading to the slightly confusing situation where you’re reading about one theatre command while looking at a map of the bases of another one. Another issue is the appearance of the Army Aviation, which is briefly mentioned in a number of places, especially when discussing the Air Force helicopters in use. The role of Army Aviation is never quite explained, and I was left somewhat wondering what exactly they do, and how it differs from the rotary-winged units of the Air Force. I can only assume this would have been clearer if all three volumes had been read together. As it now stands (and as it would for some other China-rookie only getting a single volume) it all remains rather fuzzy, and I found myself wishing for a few sentences on how the lines are drawn between the three branches. A third issue was that in a handful of places I found myself struggling to get a picture of how exactly the designations had changed during development of aircrafts (this was especially the case with the UAVs), though to be honest I am unsure about to what extent the author is to be blamed, and to what extent the Chinese drone programs simply have been complex. As a counter-balance, the chapters on the rather confusing family of different Soviet/Russian and Chinese ‘FLANKER’-variants is simply the clearest and most straightforward one I’ve come across over the years, and a joy to read.

However, even if there are a few minor things I dislike or would have chosen to do otherwise had I been the editor, there’s no denying that this is yet another great addition to the bookshelf of anyone interested in Chinese aviation. Personally I found greatest enjoyment in the descriptions of Chinese aircraft and airborne weaponry, but I certainly can see that anyone interested in developments in the South China Sea or potential Sino-Japanese clashes would find the OOB to be of even greater value. The books are also of the usual high-quality and hold up well to regular use (and abuse), and the illustrations include both a large number of colour photographs of high-quality as well as the excellent maps and tables which one has come to expect from Harpia. Note that the differences in size of the aviation arms are reflected in the books, as the Air Force one is considerably longer at 240 pages compared to 96 for the Naval Aviation.

Recommended.

The books were provided free of charge by Harpia for review. The ISBN numbers are 978-0-9973092-6-3 for the Air Force and 978-0-9973092-5-6 for Naval Aviation.

Review: EMB-314 Super Tucano – Brazil’s turboprop success story continues

The toucan is back! Now sporting a Canadian turboprop and significant combat potential.

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As was the case with the original EMB-312 Tucano which was followed by the EMB-314 Super Tucano, Harpia Publishing’s volume on the Tucano is followed by a volume on the Super Tucano.

Compared to the first generation Tucano which was a trainer with secondary light attack capability, the Super Tucano is quite a different beast, sporting wing-mounted heavy machine guns and quite a bit sportier performance in effect making it a light attack aircraft also being able to function as an advanced trainer. After it’s introduction in Brazilian service where it replaced the Tucano in both the advanced training role and for combat operations over the Amazonas, it has went on to generate significant interest around the world amongst countries looking for a cheap aircraft for COIN or the air surveillance mission. In the later role, the aircraft has already scored a number of air-to-air kills against light aircraft operated by smugglers refusing to obey instructions, while both FARC and islamist insurgents in Africa and Afghanistan have been on the receiving end of the Super Tucanos ground-attack capability. Another interesting version is the Chilean modification in which they have fitted a third multi-function display, to effectively create a cheap lead-in trainer for the country’s F-16’s.

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The book follows the same pattern as the original one, starting with discussions on a number of different concepts for a high-performance combat derivative of the Tucano. After this follows the development of the eventual EMB-314 Super Tucano, and entry into Brazilian service. This includes both training, air display team, as well as combat operations in the jungle. Following this the export customers are discussed in alphabetic order, until the book ends with the current US OA-X light attack competition.

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The book is a real gem. I liked the original book, and I absolutely love this one! The original had some issues with the proofreading and editing, but I am glad to say that this one is both well-written and -edited. The colour artwork is also extremely nice, and include quite a number of striking paint schemes, from both Brazil and abroad, some of which are displayed with typical armament. While most are sideprofiles only, a single Afghan aircraft is displayed in a four-view colour profile. It’s also an excellent modeller’s reference, not only thanks to the large amount of colour photographs and profiles, but especially thanks to detailed discussions about differences between operators (whose got which radio set mounted, what armaments is used, are there bolt-on armour, …). A small omission is that as several of the weapons carried are rather exotic to the non-Brazilian reader used to always reading about the same variety of GBU’s and Sidewinders, a short section describing the properties of the different weapons in the arsenal would have been nice.

One of the very few editorial issues I found: a series of red semicolons. A mildly amusing flaw rather than a real nuisance.

The biggest downside is that the book is too contemporary. Compared to the EMB-312 book’s 256 pages, this one comes in at just under 100 pages. This is only natural, considering the much longer history of the former aircraft, but the fact that the Super Tucano very much is a contemporary product also means that already has there been deliveries which aren’t covered in the book. OA-X which has the potential to be a huge gamechanger for the EMB-314 is also an ongoing project, ending the book on something of a real-world cliffhanger. Still, if I can choose between getting this book now and not waiting a decade or two for the “ultimate volume”, I won’t think twice about it. The book includes lots of interesting details, and I will likely return to re-read a number of chapters in the not too distant future.

Highly recommended!

The book was kindly provided for review by Harpia Publishing.

Review: Carrier Aviation in the 21st Century

Carrier aviation has always had a tendency to interest people. After all, flying aircraft of ships sounds crazy enough than one wouldn’t think it was a viable plan of operations if not for the very fact that a number of navies does so on a regular basis. Interestingly, quite a number of important changes have taken place when it comes to worldwide carrier operations in the last decade or so. This includes several new carriers being commissioned, and new aircrafts coming into service, making much of what is written on the subject out of date.

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Enter Harpia’s Carrier Aviation in the 21st Century – Aircraft carriers and their units in detail. The book goes through all navies currently sporting a commissioned carrier and fixed wing aircraft, and with “currently” that means the end of 2017. In short, the Royal Navy and Queen Elizabeth is included, but the Thai Navy is not following the retirement of their Harriers. Navies with more or less suitable ships but not having fixed wing aircraft, e.g. the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, are left out.

Readers can, and most likely will, have opinions about this line. Some will undoubtedly feel that it is a stretch to include Brazil considering the state of the NAe São Paulo (ex-Foch) or the Royal Navy considering that shipboard F-35 operations are yet to commence. Others will likely argue for a inclusion of a number of big-deck helicopter carriers and amphibious ships which arguably sport more shipbased aviation than some of the smaller ‘Harrier carriers’. Personally I would have liked to see some discussion around the feasibility of F-35B operations from a number of ships that have been speculated to be more or (usually) less ready to handle the V/STOL bird, such as the Japanese Izumo-class, the Australian Canberra-class, and the Dokdo-class of the ROKN. Still, I get that the line has to be drawn somewhere, and the basis of who’s included and who’s left out is clearly stated, which is nice.

One interesting feature of the book is that it puts the carriers and their aircraft into context. While chances are you have read a text or two about the INS Vikramaditya and its MiG-29K’s before, the book does not only (briefly) discuss the history of Indian naval aviation to put the latest program(s) into context, it also explains the contemporary doctrine and what role the carrier plays in today’s Indian armed forces, the likely composition of a carrier battlegroup, and not only lists but describes all embarked aviation units, fixed and rotary winged.

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More or less the same is the case with each and every country-specific chapter of the book. I say more or less, because every chapter is written by a country-specific expert (hence the ‘editor’ after Newdick’s name), and the setup and sub-headings vary slightly. While purists might find this irritating, I personally find it good that the authors have been given some leeway, as the unique situations in different navies are better served by getting more custom fit descriptions compared to being shoehorned into a ‘one size fits all’ template. I was a bit worried upon opening the book that the variances would be so big that the book wouldn’t feel like a coherent work, but having read it I don’t feel that is the case.

Over all the book is a very enjoyable read, though the Italy-chapter does suffer from the same kind of language-issues that I mentioned in my review of Harpia’s Tucano-book. However, I am also happy to say that the good points of the Tucano-book carries over as well. These include highly enjoyable pictures and top-notch full-colour illustrations, as well as excellent build-quality of the book. In fact, I am yet to manage to break any single one of my Harpia-books, and that include bringing an earlier review book along for a camping trip in the archipelago.

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The gorilla in the room when writing about carrier aviation worldwide is the completely outsized role of the US Navy. In short, the US Navy fields more and larger carriers and carrier air groups than the rest of the world together. How do you tackle this, without the book feeling unbalanced? The USN does indeed get a longer chapter than the rest of the countries. However, US carrier aviation is also remarkably homogeneous, being built around two clear templates: the Nimitz (and now Ford) with a carrier air wing and the smaller amphibious ships with their aviation elements, and the number of flying platforms has shrunk considerably compared to the classic cold war wings. This means that there is no need to give ten times the space for the USN compared to e.g. the French just because they have ten times the number of carriers. This makes the book feel balanced, and laid the last of my worries to rest. The sole issue I foresee is that developments in carrier aviation is moving rapidly in several countries at the moment (USA, UK, China, India, …), and that means that parts of the book run the risk of becoming outdated quite fast. Still, that will be the case with any book on the topic released during the next five to ten years (at least), and there is certainly enough ‘longlasting information’ to make sure that the package as a whole isn’t going anywhere soon.

Compared to the Tucano-review which I was very excited for, I was somewhat more lukewarm to the prospect of what felt like yet another carrier book. However, the book surprised me, and certainly grabbed my attention. The chapters are deep enough to include plenty new information to me, and of such a length that it is easy to pick up and read through a single chapter if you suddenly have a need for a quick rundown of the current status of Spanish carrier aviation (yes, such things do happen to me occasionally). Harpia’s telltale illustrations and tables are also found in abundance.

Highly recommended for anyone looking for an update of carrier aviation worldwide!

The book was kindly provided free of charge for review by Harpia Publishing.

Review: EMB-312 Tucano – Brazil’s turboprop success story

One of my avgeeky soft spots is high-performance turboprops, so when Harpia announced that they were doing a book on the Tucano, it immediately caught my attention.

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Today the idea might be considered rather mainstream, but when the Tucano was born it still took quite a bit of outside the box-thinking to go for the idea of a near-jet experience in a prop plane. It is this combination of daring can-do attitude from the company and designers coupled with the engineering ingenuity it took to make it all work that lies at the heart of why I like this class of aircraft. However, truth be told I knew preciously little about the Tucano, and even less of the backstory of how Brazil suddenly appeared as a recognised exporter of high-performance training and COIN aircraft.

João Paulo Zeitoun Moralez starts at the beginning, detailing how the idea of a Brazilian aviation industry was born, and how a small team of engineers started producing basic indigenous designs in parallel to license production. Then when the opportunity presented itself, Embraer was ready to push a brave new design for a sudden Brazilian training requirement. Interestingly enough, the book details how the aircraft evolved through multiple concepts, and the political game behind it. After this the subsequent marketing push and Brazilian service is described, before attention briefly turns to the Short’s S.312 for RAF (as well as Kuwait and Kenya). After this comes a go-through of all 16 countries to which the aircraft was exported (one of the chapters being dedicated to US civilian operators), before discussing the roadmap and development work that led to the EMB-314 Super Tucano. The book is then rounded up with some impressive appendices, featuring technical specifications for both EMB-312 and S.312, colour profiles, ORBAT’s, and production lists listing individual fuselages. Note that the EMB-314 Super Tucano is not covered in the book, as it will receive its own volume in the (near?) future.

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The book sports plenty of photographs, both of the aircraft in action and close-ups of stores and other details. The photographs are almost exclusively in colour.

It is easy to be enthralled by the book. As a mechanical engineer turned project lead, I found the description of the work leading up to the operational debut highly fascinating. The topic is often glossed over in similar works in favour of more pages dedicated to operational use, but there certainly is an interesting story to be found here as well.

It is the completeness that really makes the book shine. Going through all stages from the birth of the Brazilian aviation industry up until and including the operational service for all operators to the very end of last year. One thing worth mentioning is that the export orders are given in alphabetical order and not chronologically, starting with Angola and ending with Venezuela. This means that it’s easy to look up a given country, but when reading through the first time it does at times feel like you are lacking parts of the puzzle. E.g. the Iraqi aircraft were mentioned in both the Egyptian and the Iranian chapters, before you eventually get around to getting their own story in the chapter on Iraq. I can see why they have done it this way, and it sure helps next time I pull the book out of the shelf to look up Peru, but for general readability I would perhaps have preferred them in chronological order.

The appendices are also of high quality, with the full-colour artworks including both early concepts (black and white), prototypes, and 60(!) operational aircraft representing all 16 operators. These are absolutely top-notch, both when it comes to the artistic work and the aircrafts picked, as they show an interesting mix of standard and special paint jobs.

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The book after a cover-to-cover read. The binding is still in near-mint condition.

The book feels big without being oversized when read. The size is just below A4, and with 256 semi-gloss pages it weighs in at just over a kilogram. When first opening the shrink wrap I felt slightly worried that the spine wouldn’t keep together, but I am happy to say that it held together without any problem despite my reading not being of the most gentle kind, including quite a bit of carrying around from place to place and leaving it flung open for prolonged times.

The single issue which stuck in the back of my mind is that while the facts, storytelling, and illustrations are all very good, the editorial work is unfortunately not quite at the same level. There are a few typos, and some sentences give a feeling that they are either translated or written by a non-native English speaker (big caveat that I myself is not a native English speaker, so this last one might be my mind playing tricks). These aren’t anything close to deal breakers and doesn’t detract from the interesting story, but I was somewhat surprised that, given the high quality of the other areas of the book, the editorial work felt more 95 than 100 %.

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Some of the more colorful Tucanos in RAF service.

Having said that, I am not going to lie: I absolutely love this one. Last time I reviewed a Harpia-book it was the Russia’s Warplanes-volumes, which I liked very much, but which were more of reference works than books to read cover to cover. This one is a comprehensive story of a single plane, and as such the reading value is significantly higher. The varied countries it has seen operation with is also adding to the interesting story, and a large number of those countries have used it operationally in combat. As mentioned earlier, the artworks are also absolutely fabulous, and certainly catches my imagination. Now, didn’t Hobby-Boss release a Tucano in 1/48 last year…?

The book was provided free of charge for review by Harpia Publishing.

 

Review: Russia’s Warplanes (Vol. 1 & 2)

If last month’s review was a unique book covering a rarely seen topic, this month’s double have it tougher when it comes to defending their necessity – do we really need yet another book on the same MiG’s, Sukhoi’s, and Tupolev’s?

Spoiler alert: Yes, we do.

But let’s take it from the beginning. As the subtitle indicate, the topic is the aircrafts and helicopters of today’s modern Russian Armed Forces and export derivatives of these. You will not find the MiG-21 here, but instead what is probably the most up to date go-through of all Su-30 versions found throughout the world. The books are complementary volumes, were Volume 1 deals with tactical combat aircraft (up to Su-24 and -34), transport and attack helicopters, reconnaissance, surveillance, and special missions platforms (including aircrafts, helicopters, and balloons!). Volume 2 takes on strategic bombers, maritime aircraft, transports, tankers, and trainer aircraft. In addition, volume 2 also covers developments regarding the aircraft presented in volume 1 which took place during the year between the two volumes (August 2015 to August 2016). It also feature a chapter on the Russian air war in Syria.

The books are divided into chapters according to the role of the aircrafts, and each aircraft get their own sub-chapter. In cases where significant changes has been made, new generations get their own sub-chapters, such as the MiG-29 being split into the early air superiority line and the multirole MiG-29K/29M/35 line. All data is given in running text, with no data tables or similar. This makes the book highly readable, with clearly structured sub-sections making it possible to easily find any data point you might be looking for. It is certainly possible to read the books cover-to-cover, though I find it more enjoyable to head straight for the aircraft I am currently interested in. The books do provide an excellent one-stop shop for well-researched information on the Russian Air Force of today, making them invaluable when you suddenly feel like checking up the capabilities of that Il-20M spotted at pictures of Hmeymim air base.

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While the stars of the book certainly comes as no surprise to anyone, the Su-27/30/33/34/35-family e.g. occupy 30+ pages of the first volume, the books leave ample room for less well-known systems as well. The trainer versions of the Tu-134 get their own sub-chapter, and I didn’t even know about the existence of Russian tethered balloons before I read about them here! In short, if it flies and there is a reasonable connection to the Russian armed forces, it is represented in the books.

As with the book on Russia’s air-launched weapons, it certainly feels well-researched. Without losing the big picture, Piotr Butowski provide valuable insight into details. This is the first time I have encountered the fact that Sukhoi differentiates between the Vietnamese Su-30MK2V and the Venezuelan Su-30MK2V by writing the former with a Cyrillic Ve (Су-30МК2В) while the later is written with a Latin V (Су-30МК2V), just to give a small example on the level of detail.

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I actually struggle to find any major faults with the two volumes. Compared to the earlier review, these come in at a solid length of 252 and 251 pages respectively. The soft-cover books hold up well (though my examples did have a corner being slightly damaged in the mail), and I have experienced no issues with the binding despite at times leaving the book opened for some time. I like the fact that the books provide both a suitably deep (obviously a subjective measure) overview of the famous aircraft in use, but perhaps even more I value the fact that I now have a trusted source for easily looking up more obscure systems such as UAV’s and some of the newer sub-variants of older designs. The fact that the books are so new certainly provide added value, as they cover the recent period of modernization of the Russian Air Force.

Highly recommended!

Both books were provided free of charge for review by Harpia Publishing. The contents of this review has not been discussed with or revealed to Harpia before posting.