The Shenyang J-8 entered service in 1980 as China's first third generation combat aircraft and its first combat jet to use a fully indigenous airframe design. Combat aircraft built for the People's Liberation Army Air Force's such as the J-5, J-6 and J-7 fighters and H-5 and H-6 bombers were all based on Soviet designs either produced under licence or reverse engineered - all of which dated back to the 1950s before the Sino-Soviet Split reached its peak and ended defence cooperation between the two powers. The Chengdu J-7 second generation fighter, based on the Soviet MiG-21 which dated back to 1959, was until 1980 relied on as China's prime platform for air to air combat - leaving the Soviet Union and the United States effectively two generations ahead as both superpowers begun to induct their own fourth generation aircraft. With the country lacking a sophisticated military aviation industry at the time, China's inability to acquire Soviet or Western arms, which at that time had an effective monopoly on the latest fighter technologies, meant that Beijing had little choice but to develop an indigenous platform if it wanted to modernise its capabilities. Relying heavily on the few foreign technologies it could obtain, namely those reverse engineered from Soviet MiG-23 fighters acquired illegally from Egypt - much to Moscow's chagrin - the PLA Air Force inducted its first J-8 interceptors in 1980. The interceptor entered service twenty years after the world's first third generation fighter, the F-4 Phantom, had entered service in the United States Air Force - and six years after the F-14 had entered service as the world's first fourth generation combat jet.
With many of the technologies fielded by the MiG-23 too sophisticated to reverse engineer even with complete fighter airframes available for study, China focused on developing an interceptor for beyond visual range combat without the Soviet jet's advanced dogfighting capabilities. While the program initially seemed far from promising, with the airframe appearing highly similar to the MiG-21 and J-7 but slightly elongated, the jet would over several years evolve considerably to field state of the art combat capabilities allowing it to eventually contend not only with its U.S. and Soviet analogues - but also with fourth generation aircraft. Deploying a high payload - around double that of the French Mirage F1, a high maximum speed of Mach 2.4 - higher than an F-22 or Su-35, and with a formidable rate of climb rate and some of the world's most capable air to air missiles, the J-8 would over time evolve into one of the most potent third generation platforms ever to enter service.
A key advantage the J-8 has had over rival platforms, similar to that enjoyed by the J-7 over the Soviet MiG-21, is that China invested a great deal in modernising its capabilities into the 1990s and even the 21st century - by which time the American F-4 and Russian MiG-23 had been retired following the commissioning of fourth generation replacements. The result was that the J-8 airframe was through extensive modernisation pressed to perform to its peak potential in ways its U.S. and Soviet analogues of the same generation never were. As China's defence industry rapidly modernised from the 1990s, this was reflected strongly in the capabilities of the J-8 which advanced considerably. Still in service today as the highly sophisticated J-8F, the airframe would remain in production until 2010 - which alone says a great deal about the platform's capabilities.
By the early 21st century, the J-8 could well be classified an advanced fourth generation interceptor - with capabilities well ahead of early fourth generation platforms such as the F-16A. Modernised variants of the J-8 such as the J-8IIM were almost unrecognisable from the original interceptor in their capabilities, with the interceptor's external appearance also having undergone extensive modifications including the addition of a new fuselage and air intakes. The PLA acquired the U.S. made AN/APG-66(v) radar installed on block 15 fourth generation F-16 fighters, and these were subsequently introduced onto the J-8 fighters before being replaced by Doppler radar based on the Israeli Elta EL/M 2032 and eventually by more advanced indigenous radars on later production variants. Other significant fourth generation enhancements included WP-13B turbojet engines, digital fire control systems, a glass cockpit, and multifunctional displays allowing the jet not only to engage multiple hostiles simultaneously, but also to target enemy warships and serve in a maritime strike role. With the latest production variants able to deploy highly sophisticated Chinese manufactured munitions, including the PL-12 air to air missile with a considerable 100km engagement range - superior to that of the AIM-120B deployed by the vast majority of high end American fourth generation jets such as the F-16C and F-18C, the J-8 serves today as a third generation fighter only in name - with capabilities putting it on par with fourth generation fighters and a sophistication unmatched by any other third generation design.
Continued in Part Four