The past two years have seen a number of developments with the military aircraft programs of the People’s Republic of China’s aerospace industry. The twofold focus of these efforts has been to expand the export portfolio for PRC-made weapon systems, while at the same time pushing the development of indigenous programs that would reduce Chinese dependence on foreign (mostly Russian) critical technologies and subsystems–although this could be a rocky road if it ends up competing directly with Russian industry in export markets.
The results on both scores have been mixed. The message coming from the central government in Beijing continues to be that the PRC’s industry has to evolve from the previous ratio in which 80 percent or more of all defense industrial production was purchased by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to one in which that percentage drops in favor of an increase in foreign orders.
Aviation Industry Corporation of China (Avic), the mammoth state-owned conglomerate that controls almost all of the PRC’s aerospace enterprises, is the largest amalgamation of its kind in the world and has–at any one time–more military aircraft programs in development than the rest of the world’s industries combined.
However, Avic and the other branches of China’s defense industrial sector suffer from the fact that they have no commercial products being sold around the world that can generate income to support the number of facilities and the cadre of engineering talent that is needed to maintain a military aircraft industry.
“Boeing in the U.S. can afford to build fighters because it has a much larger airline aircraft business that forms the basis for the company’s financial bottom line,” explained a U.S.-based defense analyst. “Dassault in France can have a fighter program like the Rafale because they have a highly successful business jet division. The Eurofighter partner companies all have a stake in Airbus and other commercial ventures, and so on, but China has no such ‘financial relief valve’ for its industry.”
In addition to the PRC’s aerospace sector suffering from paying a huge bill every year to maintain a large number of military aerospace programs, the PRC’s onerous security regime allows for very little interaction between the civil and military industrial sectors. This has not permitted Avic and the other PRC defense industrial groupings to benefit from innovations developed in the commercial world.
One of the leading PLA theoretical journals, the General Armament Department’s Journal of the Academy of Equipment, published an article earlier this year that highlighted faults in the procurement system in the PRC, saying it has very “weak integration” (集成整合能力较弱 - jicheng zhenghe nengli jiao ruo) and inadequate “information sharing between military and civilian enterprises,” and that China’s defense innovation system is less developed than in other nations because of the “absence of incentives for communication and cooperation between the civil and defense industries.”
Avic’s answer to try to address the issue of the imbalance between PLA orders and export orders is to continue to develop a new generation of export-only weapon systems that can compete with U.S. and European firms in foreign markets. Foremost among these is the new J-31/Project 310 fighter, which has been developed at the Shenyang Aerospace Corp. (SAC) in Liaoning province.
Now being labeled as the “advanced fighter concept,” Avic representatives at September’s Aviation Expo China held in Beijing stated that the J-31 is a stealthy platform that is “intended to compete with the [Lockheed Martin] F-35 program,” and that Chinese industry ideally would like to “develop the aircraft together with a foreign partner.”
These statements were a near carbon-copy of those delivered that same week by a senior PLA commentator, Admiral Zhang Zhaozhong. The admiral told the state-run People’s Daily newspaper that the J-31 was never built with an application for the PLA in mind and also that the aircraft would not be offered in a carrier-capable variant for the PLA Navy’s aviation arm (PLAN AF).
The PRC’s other major fighter producer, Chengdu Aerospace Corp. (CAC) in Sichuan Province, is continuing to improve on Avic’s one successful export fighter program, the JF-17/FC-1, which is being built in cooperation with the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex in Kamra, Pakistan. CAC is in the process of working on a Block 3 variant of the aircraft that will address issues of strengthening certain elements of the aircraft structure and improvements in the avionics suite.
During the Dubai Air Show in November 2013 officials from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and the JF-17 program office in Islamabad stated that the Block 3 airplane was at this point a design concept with a set of mission requirements but that “no decisions have been made about the choice for changing out any of on-board systems for the aircraft.”
The JF-17 will also now be produced in a two-seat version, but the PAF officials at Dubai stated that the two-seat aircraft is being developed as a result of interest from potential export customers in having a trainer variant and not to address any requirements for Pakistan. The PAF is addressing almost all of the training needs by using simulators and will continue to build single-seat aircraft.
Another program that Avic has been promoting for export is the Hongdu L-15 jet trainer, similar in design to the Russian Yakovlev Yak-130 but powered by the Ukrainian-made Ivchenko/Progress AI-222-25 jet engine. The PLAAF has placed a small order for the aircraft but for now the main focus of the program’s marketing executives (from Avic’s sales arm, the China Aero Technology Import-Export Corp.–Catic) has been on export sales. An unconfirmed sale has reportedly been made “to an African nation” and Catic has also been offering the aircraft to prospective customers in South America.
There have also been consistent statements by both Pakistani and Catic officials of a planned sale for 36 of the other leading Chengdu program, the J-10, but there has been a series of delays due to economic conditions in Pakistan. Avic officials in the past have also questioned whether Pakistan’s interest in the J-10 is sincere or if Islamabad is “simply trying to play the ‘China card’–frightening the U.S. with the [the] specter of a J-10 export sale in an effort to get Washington to offer up more free F-16s.”
The J-10 has also been briefed to Peru and other South American nations, as well as to potential customers in the Middle East.
Despite the success that Avic may be having with these aircraft sales abroad, the PRC’s aerospace sector remains dependent upon Russia and Ukraine to supply engines for all of these programs. The J-31 is powered by two of the same RD-93 engine that is fitted in the JF-17 in a single-engine installation. The J-10 uses a special variant of the Sukhoi Su-27 engine designed to fit this aircraft, designated the AL-31FN and designed and produced by the Salyut plant in Moscow.
For the past several years Avic’s jet engine division has been telling its Russian and Ukrainian suppliers of plans to replace their engines with indigenous Chinese designs but still today there is little progress in this area. Unofficial reports in the PRC state that Chinese designs have suffered from blades in the engine hot sections warping during high-g maneuvers conducted during flight test and other failures. “These are signs of Avic still not having the ability to create and machine alloys that can endure the sustained high temperatures produced by a jet engine’s combustion cycle,” said one Russian engineer.
In November 2012 during Air Show China Avic did finally display its Minshan engine–the announced replacement for the Ivchenko/Progress AI-222-25–but Ukrainian representatives stated that it has inferior performance and higher fuel consumption than their model. They also commented that the full-authority digital engine control (Fadec) unit on the Minshan “looks several times larger than it needs to be for an engine of this size and demonstrates a lack of expertise in this area.” Not surprisingly, Chinese industry also continues to shop abroad for this and other technologies to try to compensate for the lack of progress in several disciplines.
For these and other reasons, Chinese representatives state that there is no fixed calendar date for their industry to stop using foreign-made engines. Estimates range to five years or more into the future and some Russian specialists state that they believe it could be as long as another decade.
This is perhaps where the interests of Chinese and Russian industry will collide in the future. If Avic continues to seek more export markets it will inevitably collide with the Russians in foreign competitions–at which time Russian industry will have to decide if it wants to keep supplying engines to a nation that can now displace it in foreign markets.