China’s Fighter Export Prospects Remain Uncertain

 - November 16, 2016, 12:55 PM
The Russian RD-93 engine that powers the JF-17 and the FC-31 was on show at Zhuhai. (Photo: Reuben F. Johnson)

The non-appearance of the Shenyang FC-31 fighter at the recent Zhuhai Air Show is another indication that the type is failing to fulfill both technical and sales expectations. However, the aircraft’s Russian Klimov/Sarkisov RD-93 engine was shown for the first time. This led some observers to believe that this was part of a joint Russian-Chinese initiative to sell the FC-31 to Pakistan, since the same engine powers the Chengdu JF-17/FC-1 fighter that China has co-developed with Pakistan.

Some Chinese industry officials said previously that the FC-31 would be a  “breakthrough export program.” But sources within the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) delegation at Zhuhai stated there is no realistic prospect of the service acquiring the FC-31 for now.  “We need all of the resources that we have at the moment for the JF-17 program,” said one PAF officer. “The FC-31 failed to make an appearance this year at Zhuhai as it did in 2012, which may be at least partially due to the fact that there are no near-term customers for it,” said an Indian military aerospace analyst. 

The FC-31’s flying display during its debut at the 2014 Zhuhai airshow suggested that it was underpowered. Shortly thereafter, there was an announcement from Russian industry that the Klimov engine design bureau would develop an enhanced-thrust version of the RD-93 engine to correct that shortcoming. The current RD-93 is a reconfigured version of the Mikoyan MiG-29’s RD-33 engine that has the accessory pack moved to the underside of the engine. 

Meanwhile, Pakistan is focusing on how to improve the JF-17 by modifying the airframe and changing some of the onboard systems for more advanced options. One of these could be the replacement of the current Chinese-made NRIET KLJ-7A radar with another model, potentially even an AESA.

While China’s military industry is trying to sell its products to foreign customers, its own air force continues to purchase front-line aircraft from Russia. The PLAAF has been trying to procure the Sukhoi Su-35 Super Flanker for more than 20 years. The deal that is in place now was agreed only after protracted negotiations. The contract that was finally signed was for 24 aircraft, a concession by the Russian side, which had initially insisted that the Chinese purchase at least 48 aircraft.

News from the Russian delegation at Zhuhai was that the first four Su-35s could be delivered by the end of this year. But, some Russian specialists at this year’s show who are familiar with the subject were skeptical. Said one: “There is a concern that the Chinese purchase of the Su-35 is only so that their industry can gain access to the [NIIP] Irbis radar and the [Saturn/Lyulka 117S] engine, in order to copy them. This fear has never gone away and only continues to grow as the delivery date gets closer.”

According to other members of the Russian delegation at Zhuhai, there are active efforts by Chinese industry to increase the resources that they devote to improving their own indigenous designs of both airborne radar sets and jet engines.  Any subsequent effort to reverse-engineer the systems onboard the Su-35 will give a major boost to those efforts.

Some of the same Russian officials question whether China will ever become a major exporter of combat aircraft that are original designs, or if the country will continue to be dependent on a "technological umbilical cord" from Russia to sustain its innovation.