Singapore Air Show

Dragon threatening to become the next bear

 - November 30, 2006, 10:44 AM

For the better part of the last 20 years an increasing number of defense policy makers and military analysts assumed that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was gradually replacing the Soviet Union (and later Russia) as the single largest potential adversary that the U.S. and other Western aligned nations would have to face in the 21st century.

Since the fall of the Soviet empire this perception has only increased as Russia’s defense industrial plants steeply reduced production for Moscow’s armed forces and switched to becoming mainstay suppliers for the PRC and India. This process saw China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) become the world’s largest purchaser of Sukhoi Su-27/30 fighter aircraft and the accompanying procurements of Salyut-produced AL-31F jet engines, NIIP radars, Vympel air-to-air missiles and so forth.

Playing Catch-Up

Initially, massive procurements from Russia in the early 1990s were looked upon as the PRC’s attempts to play catch-up and build something resembling a 20th-century defense industrial base. The primary shortcoming of the PRC’s defense industry had been the apparent lack of design teams that could produce anything resembling a next-generation weapon system. China’s Chengdu and Shengyang complexes–its primary fighter aircraft design and manufacturing centers–had failed to develop anything more than variations on the Russian Mikoyan MiG-21 (first designed in Moscow in the late 1950s) and the disappointing F-8 series of fighter designs.

By signing an historic deal with Moscow for the purchase and then license-production of the Sukhoi Su-27 and Su-30, Chinese aircraft firms received the infusion of technology and know-how that they desperately needed. These deals included not only the skills and techniques of aircraft design, but also the establishment of a facility to service and support the aircraft’s AL-31F jet engine, the N001 radar and the avionics suite. In the process, Chinese technicians traveled to state-owned military factories and repair/overhaul plants in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus to receive in-depth training in the servicing and operation of these aircraft.

By 1996 the transfer of Russian defense technology to the PRC had become almost a torrent. Su-27s and their major components were still being license-assembled and maintained in the PRC, but the outright purchases of Russian weapon systems were being paralleled by Chinese initiatives to gain access to designs, technological processes and facilities that could be imported into China and turned into a new, unique weapon system of “indigenous Chinese design.”

Made in China

The F-10 (referred to as the Jian-10 or J-10–Jian being the Chinese word for fighter) built by Chengdu has been intended as a next-generation multirole fighter for the PLAAF. Its role is similar to that of the Lockheed Martin F-16 in that it supplements the larger and longer-range Su-27 (the J-11) and Su-30 in the same way that the Lockheed fighter is the lower end of the high/low combination in conjunction with the U.S. Air Force’s Boeing F-15s.

However, on closer inspection, the F-10 appears to be anything but a homegrown Chinese invention. The main design concept was a derivative of the 1980s-era Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) Lavi, but much of this original configuration has been changed in the final product.

Chengdu designers also had input from Pakistan, which allowed Chinese reverse-engineering specialists access to its fleet of F-16A/Bs. The aircraft’s powerplant is a single-engine variant of the Su-27’s AL-31FN, developed by Salyut in Moscow.

According to Chinese industry sources, the AL-31FN will be replaced in subsequent production lots by the Chinese WS-10A, but a date for that change has not been set. And the WS-10A itself is alleged to have been designed only after Chinese intelligence illegally procured U.S.-developed engine core technologies.

The radar and avionics for the J-10 are also not of indigenous origin, as the design team has been considering variants of the Russian Phazotron N010 Zhuk and RP-35 or an advanced version of the IAI Elta EL/M-2035 radar. The Elta is one of the major subsystems also originally developed for the Lavi, but which the Israelis have been marketing as a good fit for newer lightweight fighters, as well as for upgrades of older F-16s and MiG-29s.

The SD-10 is also a patchwork of imported components. The seeker is a variant of the 9B-1103M developed by the AGAT Research Institute in Moscow as an active seeker for the Vympel R-27 (AA-10) AAM. But Russian designers close to the program said the seeker is a unique design and not just a straight copy of the 9B-1103M. “We also believe that the Chinese copied components from the RVV-AEs [the export derivative of the R-77/AA-12] sold to them in the early 1990s and added this into the configuration of the SD-10,” one Russian specialist told Aviation International News.

Foreign Dependence

However, Russian and other foreign specialists who have worked with the PRC’s aerospace industry insist there is nothing lacking in the intellects of the Chinese designers. “What the Chinese lack is not intelligence or creative skills,” said one Russian aerospace scientist who knows their industry well. “What they are still low on is the maturity that comes from the experience of having designed several generations of aircraft. This limits them to essentially integrating technologies and techniques acquired from several nations to create a synthesis composed of those differing pieces.”

This view is shared by some Western firms that have struggled to place piece work with Chinese industry. “Chinese firms show skills at integration,” a foreign industry observer based in Beijing told AIN, “but the constant lament of Western firms is that they encounter difficulties with the Chinese failing to establish centers of competence that would provide skilled personnel so they could progress to the next step on their own. The overall problem is the industry is not organized in a way that would free it from the need for significant foreign assistance.

And that assistance has been substantial. A panel created by the U.S. Congress in 2002 to examine China’s external security and economic relations ranked Israel as “second only to Russia as a weapons-system provider to China and as a mechanism for transferring sophisticated military technology,” followed not far by France and Germany. The panel’s report also said, “Recent upgrades in target acquisition and fire control, probably provided by Israeli weapons specialists, have enhanced the capabilities of the older guided missile destroyers and frigates” in the Chinese navy’s inventory.

The U.S. Defense Department also addressed this issue just last year in its annual report to Congress, entitled, “The Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2005,” stating that as China’s defense industries continue to mature, the country is purchasing from abroad systems–such as the Su-27 and Su-30 Flanker combat aircraft–and domestically the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) F-10, which was set to enter service last year–to meet near-term requirements. “The PLA has also acquired advanced air-to-surface missiles that will allow its air forces to attack surface targets, afloat and ashore, from greater distance and with more precision,” said the Pentagon experts. “Newer aircraft are also being equipped with advanced air-to-air missiles and electronic warfare technology that give these aircraft technological parity with or superiority over most potential adversaries.”