China is getting rid of its 'grandpa' fighter jets, but they may make a comeback for a one-way mission against Taiwan
Feb 21, 2023, 6:37 AM
A squadron of Chinese J-7 fighter jets in 1999. Sovfoto/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
- China's last J-7 fighter jets may leave active service this year, according to Chinese state media.
- J-7s, copies of the Soviet MiG-21, were introduced in the 1960s and have been called "grandpa jets."
- China's air force may convert some J-7s into drones, which could be used in an attack on Taiwan.
The Cold War fighter that was once the mainstay of China's air force is finally being retired.
The last of the Chengdu J-7 — a Chinese copy of the 1960s-era Soviet MiG-21 — may be completely phased out of active service this year, according to the state-sponsored Chinese newspaper Global Times
But that doesn't mean they won't fly again. There are indications that China may turn J-7s into suicide drones for use in a massive attack on Taiwan.
The decommissioning of the J-7, which began in 2018, also marks a transition for Chinese airpower. China has been fielding advanced Chinese-designed aircraft
such as the J-16 fighter and the J-20 stealth fighter, as well as newer Russian imports such as the Su-27 and Su-30.
At the same time, China has about 350 J-7s and J-8s (a J-7 derivative) used by the Chinese air force, plus another 24 J-8s operated by the Chinese navy, according to The Military Balance 2022, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. (Between its air force and navy, China now has the world's third-largest aviation force
, according to the Pentagon.)
A J-7 fighter at the People's Liberation Army Aviation Museum in Beijing in December 2013. MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images
This would be the equivalent of the US military operating F-35 stealth fighters alongside 1960s-vintage F-4 Phantoms. "The retirement of the J-7s would mark the full shift to fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft for the PLAAF," Rod Lee, research director for the US Air Force's China Aerospace Studies Institute, told Insider.
Interestingly, Global Times described the J-7 as "the first supersonic fighter jet developed by China that can reach Mach 2." The article neglected to mention that the J-7 is a copy of the Soviet MiG-21 (NATO codename: "Fishbed") that China partly reverse-engineered.
In 1961, the Soviet Union agreed to supply its new MiG-21 design to China, including technical documents, raw materials, and a few airframes and engines, aviation expert Andreas Rupprecht notes in his book, "Dragon's Wings."
But as the rift between Moscow and Beijing grew
, the Soviets didn't turn over everything. China promptly began to reverse-engineer the design, which made its first flight in 1966.
The early J-7 (NATO code name: "Fishcan") was a disappointment, according to Rupprecht: "It had a very limited internal fuel capacity and thus limited range. With only one gun, its firepower was less than adequate. It was troubled by poor reliability, and its ejection seat had severe flaws."
In addition, the J-7 had manufacturing defects and a cockpit that didn't fit Chinese pilots.
Nonetheless, political pressure for China to develop its own supersonic fighter led to mass production by the 1980s — just as the third-generation MiG-21 design was being rendered obsolete by fourth-generation fighters
such as the F-16 and MiG-29.
The J-7 did receive continual updates to its airframe and avionics, with more than 2,400 models produced in 54 variants
by the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation. (Production ceased in 2013.)
The J-7 also became prominent as the F-7 (NATO code name: "Airguard"), an export version to nations looking for a cheap, simple fighter without too many strings attached. Pakistan became the biggest non-Chinese user and still operates 66 F-7s, according to The Military Balance. Other users have included Albania, Egypt, Iraq, Zimbabwe, and Iran.
In 2021, China flew four J-7s in exercises near Taiwan
. This surprised observers, who questioned why old J-7s — which the Taiwanese have dubbed "grandpa jets" — were flying alongside modern J-16 fighters. This led to speculation that the J-7s had actually been converted into drones.
"The retired J-7s could be reserved for training and testing, or they could be modified to become drones and play new roles in modern warfare," Global Times said.
US experts concur. China may be converting the J-7 and other older aircraft into unmanned combat air vehicles, or UCAVs, according to the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
"The cost of converting legacy aircraft into UCAVs is relatively low, but they retain many of their manned-variant characteristics," Daniel Rice, a non-resident fellow at the Mitchell Institute, wrote in a recent paper. "Converted airframes have the same performance, maneuverability, and payload capacity as the original platforms. They also reduce the risk of casualties in combat."
UCAVs make it possible for China's air force "to use relatively cheap, capable, low-risk airframes as a first-in asset to either strike or soften Taiwan's air defense systems," Rice added.
Robot J-7s would still have to face modern Taiwanese and American fighters and air defenses, but for a 60-year-old warplane, it would be a dramatic finale.
China has developed 54 variants of the J-7 during the jet's 60 years in service, and there may be one last conversion in the works.