China is removing ‘grandpa’ fighter jets, but could be reinstated for one-way missions against Taiwan

Chinese Chengdu J-7 fighter

A Chinese J-7 fighter squadron in 1999.Universal Images Group via Sovfoto/Getty Images

  • China’s last J-7 fighter could retire from active service this year, according to Chinese state media.

  • A copy of the Soviet MiG-21, the J-7 was introduced in the 1960s and has been called the “Grand Page Jet”.

  • China’s Air Force may convert some J-7s into drones that could be used to strike Taiwan.

The Cold War fighters that were once the mainstay of the Chinese Air Force are finally being retired.

The Chengdu J-7, a Chinese version of the last 1960s Soviet MiG-21, may be retired from active service entirely this year, according to the state-run Chinese newspaper. global times.

But that doesn’t mean they can’t fly again. There are indications that China may turn the J-7 into a suicide drone for use in a major strike against Taiwan.

The decommissioning of the J-7, which began in 2018, also marks a shift in China’s air power.China is waging war Advanced Chinese designed aircraft Such as the J-16 fighter, the J-20 stealth fighter, and new Russian imports such as the Su-27 and Su-30.

At the same time, China has about 350 J-7s and J-8s (J-7 variants) used by the Chinese Air Force, plus 24 J-8s operated by the Chinese Navy. According to Military Balance 2022 announced by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. (Between the Air Force and Navy, China currently 3rd largest air force in the world, according to the Pentagon. )

Chinese Chengdu Jian-J7 fighter jet

A J-7 fighter on display at the People’s Liberation Army Aviation Museum in Beijing, December 2013.Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images

This is equivalent to the US military operating F-35 stealth fighters alongside vintage F-4 Phantoms from the 1960s. “The J-7’s retirement marks a complete transition for the PLA Air Force to fourth and fifth generation aircraft,” said Rod Li, director of research at the U.S. Air Force’s China Aerospace Research Institute. he told Insider.

Interestingly, the Global Times described the J-7 as “the first Chinese-developed supersonic fighter capable of reaching Mach 2”. The article neglected to mention that the J-7 is a copy of the Soviet Union’s MiG-21 (NATO codename: “Fishbed”) partially reverse-engineered by China.

In 1961, the Soviet Union agreed to provide China with a new MiG-21 design. This included technical documentation, raw materials, and some airframes and engines.

but as a rift between Moscow and Beijing, the Soviets did not turn everything over. China immediately began reverse engineering the design and made its maiden flight in 1966.

Early J-7s (NATO codename: “Fishcan”) were a disappointment, says Rupprecht: plagued by unreliability and a serious flaw in the ejection seat. “

Additionally, the J-7 had a manufacturing defect and the cockpit did not fit Chinese pilots.

Chinese F-7 fighter

A Chinese soldier guards an F-7 fighter at an air force base in Tianjin, July 2002.Reuters/Andrew Wong

Nevertheless, political pressure for China to develop its own supersonic fighter led to mass production by the 1980s. 4th generation fighter Such as F-16 and MiG-29.

The J-7 has received continuous updates to its airframe and avionics. 2,400 models produced in 54 variants By Chengdu Aircraft Corporation. (End of production in 2013)

The J-7, also known as the F-7 (NATO codename “Airguard”), was an export version to countries looking for a cheap, simple fighter, and not too many conditions were attached. Pakistan has become the largest non-Chinese user, still operating 66 F-7s, according to The Military Balance. Other users include Albania, Egypt, Iraq, Zimbabwe and Iran.

In 2021, China flew Four J-7s during exercises near TaiwanThis surprised observers who questioned why the old J-7s, which Taiwanese call “grandpa jets,” were flying alongside modern J-16 fighters. This led to speculation that the J-7 was actually converted into a drone.

“Decommissioned J-7s can be kept for training and testing or converted into drones to play new roles in modern warfare,” the Global Times said.

Pakistani F-7 fighter

A Pakistani F-7 during a multinational exercise in December 2009.US Air Force/Sgt.Michael B. Keller

US experts agree. China may be converting older aircraft, such as his J-7, into unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), according to the Mitchell Aerospace Institute.

Daniel Rice, an adjunct fellow at the Mitchell Institute, said in a recent paper, “The cost of converting a conventional aircraft into a UCAV is relatively low, but retains many of the characteristics of a manned aircraft.” The airframe will have the same performance, maneuverability and payload capacity as the original platform, while also reducing the risk of combat casualties.”

UCAV will allow China’s air force to “use a relatively inexpensive, capable, low-risk aircraft as the first asset to attack or mitigate Taiwan’s air defense system,” Rice said. added.

The robotic J-7 will have to face off against modern Taiwanese and American fighters and air defense systems, but it will be a dramatic finale for a 60-year-old fighter.

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master’s degree in political science.follow him twitter and LinkedIn.

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