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PRC Military Continues to Depend on Ukrainian Defense Technology

 - February 17, 2016, 11:50 AM

The recent signing of a contract for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) to acquire 24 Sukhoi Su-35 Super Flankers highlights the continuing reliance that Beijing’s military has on Russian defense technology, despite more than two decades of steady cooperation in the defense industrial sphere. “The two main objectives for the Chinese in signing this deal with the Russians were to get their hands on the [Saturn] 117S jet engine and the [NIIP] Irbis-E radar,” said a Ukrainian defense industry head with many years of experience in working with both Russian fighter aircraft programs and the PRC’s defense sector.

Less noticed, however, is the extent to which PRC industry also relies on a list of technologies and programs that are developed and built in Ukraine. Russia has competencies in a number of areas, particularly in the production of finished, full-integrated weapon systems, said the Ukrainian director, “but many of the specialized systems that they are seeking for the advancement of their programs come from here in Ukraine and not from Russian defense firms.”

Several examples are:

• After years of license-assembling the export version of the Su-27, the Su-27SK, at the Shenyang Aircraft Works in northern China, Beijing began turning out its own, reverse-engineered copy of the aircraft, designated the J-11B. The aircraft and many of its systems were manufactured in the PRC, but the Chinese program continued to rely on imported subsystems. One of those is the NIIP N001 radar set that was designed in Russia. However, one of the production centers for this radar dating back to Soviet times was the Novator plant in Khmelnitskiy, Ukraine. Ukrainian designers originally provided an upgraded version of this radar to Shenyang, as well as other technical assistance, on the J-11B program.

• More recently, a Chinese firm invested in the production of a new, small transport aircraft, the Antonov An-178, a twin-engine jet-powered design with an 18-ton payload. The aircraft fills a niche in the PLA’s requirement to have a smaller aircraft that can operate in remote areas on shorter runways.

• The An-178, as well as some Chinese aircraft programs, also depends on jet engines that are produced by the Motor Sich aeroengine production enterprise in Zaparozhye, Ukraine. The Hongdu Aviation L-15 jet trainer that is produced in the PRC is powered by a Motor Sich AI-222-25 engine, and the company is now in the process of providing an afterburner-equipped version of the engine to the Chinese aviation firm in Jiangxi province.

• Other Ukrainian electronics firms have been consulted or have received requests from Chinese industry for assistance in the design of radar-homing seeker heads and electronic warfare systems. Particularly high on the wish list for Chinese industry, said one Ukrainian defense electronics systems designer, is the know-how necessary to design active electronic scanning arrays (AESA) for different applications. This includes the ability to design and build transmit/receive (TR) modules.

• Another area where PRC firms have been interested in learning more from Ukrainian industry is digital control systems. Chinese versions of their own, home-grown examples of full-authority digital engine control (FADEC) modules that have been displayed publicly show a lack of fluency with this technology, as well as the inability to miniaturize components in this kind of a system.

Ukrainian designers familiar with several Chinese programs have stated that one of the central problems that PRC industry faces is the effect of its own security practices.  They quote examples of specific Chinese weapon systems in which the different Ukrainian or Russian firms working on specific subsystems were never told what the final product was supposed to look like or how it should function, and the individual enterprises were never given what turned out to be vital design information on the other sections of the weapon system that they were not working on.

“This compartmentalization is reproduced throughout the defense sector in the PRC,” said the Ukrainian defense enterprise head. “The system is almost guaranteed to make no progress and the Chinese are [very] unlikely to share information with other [Chinese] defense firms, or the full picture of their program. Where they need assistance, they come to us with the same request.”

Lack of progress in these and other disciplines is seen as part of the reason for a recent overhaul of the PRC’s aero-engine sector. Some 40 Chinese aero-engine firms are to be merged into a single conglomerate that would in some respects mirror that of the Russian Unified Aero-engine-Building Corporation (ODK). This is supposed to generate synergies and eliminate the lack of information exchange that has characterized much of the PRC’s military aerospace industry to date.

Firms expected to be folded into this new entity are the AVIC Aviation Engine Corporation (the former Xi’an Aero-Engine Corporation), the Sichuan Chengfa Aero Science and Technology Corporation, the AVIC Aero-engine Controls enterprise, the Liyang Aero-engine Corporation and the Liming Aero-engine Manufacturing Corporation.