Airshow China in Zhuhai from November 1-6 featured a number of new defense-related developments. Displayed during the 11th biennial event was a full range of Chinese military aircraft, radars, surface-to-air missiles, cruise missiles and other weaponry.
China’s military industry continues to turn out numerous new air-launched and surface-launched weapons programs. Several companies displayed newer and more types of glide-bomb precision-guided munitions, air-to-surface weapons, anti-ship weapons, and new surface-to-air missiles. In almost every category of weaponry it is safe to say that the People’s Republic of China has more programs in development than the rest of the world combined.
Accompanying the spike in new weaponry is a full range of new UAV designs. This runs the gamut from very small drones of the type that can be purchased off-the-shelf in other nations to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation CH-5 Rainbow-5 resembling the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper, to a new jet-powered UAV from Chengdu Aerospace called the Cloud Shadow that has been developed specifically for export. Along with these UAVs comes another complete line of new, small UAV-carried weapons, sensor balls and electronic systems.
Chinese industry is beginning to make a very real push to sell its capability in the area of military electronics. The China Electronics Technology Corporation was a major exhibitor at this year’s event for the first time ever. In previous years at Airshow China, the exhibitors were limited to those firms that made aircraft and other air vehicles, but the electronics part of the military aerospace sector was left out. This year there was a concerted effort to prove that China’s aerospace industry is proficient in all of the disciplines involved in the design and production of military aircraft.
But the anti-climatic appearance of the Chengdu J-20 fighter on the show’s opening day on November 1, which amounted to a short fly-by in a two-aircraft formation, did little to change the impression that Chinese industry still has a ways to go to match that of other nations. The industry is pushing hard to create the image that it has pulled even with the West, but there was little evidence that this is the case—and no one gets a close enough look to make an accurate valuation.
For all of its very public efforts to show its new fighter aircraft programs—the Shenyang FC-31 in 2012 and this year’s appearance of the Chengdu J-20—and to create the image that Chinese industry is self-reliant, Beijing’s heavy reliance on Russian technology continues. Most of the fighter aircraft in the PRC are powered by Russian-made engines, Russian radar manufacturers continue to be courted by Chinese firms and many weapon systems seen at Zhuhai have a legacy that can be traced back to some Russian design as its inspiration.
The very real question is how long the PRC can continue to fund multiple companies developing and building essentially the same kind of product. China has yet to crack into the export market across the board in military systems in the same way that U.S. and European firms have. The People’s Liberation Army is still footing the bill for 80 percent or more of what Chinese defense industry produces, which may not be sustainable in the long term.