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Chinese Defense Industry Faces Homemade Jet Engine Problems

China can send a man into space and a rocket into lunar orbit but,
paradoxically, its defense industry cannot build a top-end aircraft
engine. Or an engine sophisticated enough to power advanced surface
ships and armored vehicles.

But this broad statement requires a caveat. China’s defense industry can
indeed design, develop and produce propulsion systems for relatively
simple military platforms — certain transport aircraft, patrol boats,
some types of main battle tanks and armored personnel carriers. But
high-performance combat aircraft, destroyers and similarly demanding
platforms are another matter.

Only submarines appear an exception to this general rule. Most new types
are fitted with locally developed propulsion systems, although the
technology’s origins are not known.

This technical shortcoming was most recently highlighted in a report in the Russian newspaper Vedomosti stating that Beijing
last month bought 123 AL-31FN turbofan engines from Russian
manufacturer NPO Saturn. These cost over US$500 million. The order
follows earlier tranches that since 2001 have totaled 930 engines.

The AL-31FN currently powers China’s J-10 multirole fighter and
J-11A/B air superiority fighter, as well as the J-15 carrier-based
fighter which is under development. Russia’s Klimov RD-93 engine is
fitted on the Chinese JF-17 multirole fighter and FC-1 attack fighter. A
French engine drives the Z-11 helicopter and an American one powers the
civilian ARJ-21 jet airliner.

Indicative of this trend elsewhere in the People’s Liberation Army, the
navy’s Song-class submarine has MTU diesel engines from Germany, while
the Luhai-class destroyer has Ukrainian gas turbines and German diesels.
Among ground forces, the ZBL-09 8×8 infantry combat vehicle is fitted
with a Deutz engine from Germany and the Type 99 main battle tank has a
locally produced power plant derived from German technology.

Just a handful of companies worldwide have truly mastered the
engineering challenge of developing high-performance engines, and
China’s dependence on foreign suppliers is deeply problematic for
Beijing. But a new report concludes that change may be imminent.

Gabe Collins and associate professor Andrew Erickson, in a comprehensive
study published recently by specialist website China SignPost, focus on
military jet power plants.

“The Chinese aerospace industry is driven by four strategic imperatives
as it pursues the ability to manufacture large volumes of
high-performance aircraft engines — parts dependence avoidance, Russian
supply unwillingness, aircraft sales autonomy and poor Russian
after-sales service,” the authors state.

They say that quality control remains spotty, resulting in problems with
reliability, and key weak points include turbine blade production and
process standardization. Beyond these issues, “(China) appears to remain
limited with respect to components and systems design, integration and
management … and to making logistical and operational plans at the
force level based on reliable estimates thereof.”

Progress is uneven but, the authors add, China’s dominant aerospace
conglomerate — the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), with
10 subsidiaries and 400,000 employees — has now placed a high priority
on engine development and plans over the next five years to invest 10
billion yuan (US$1.5 billion) in jet engine research and development.

This is particularly significant because
Russia looks to be an
increasingly reluctant supplier, partly because of production pressures
due to heightened domestic requirements, but also because of China’s
rising international sales competitiveness. Such reticence could
seriously impede Beijing’s push to upgrade its air force with J-10,
J-11, J-15 and J-20 fighters — the last of these a fifth-generation
fighter under development, with Moscow seemingly hesitant to provide the
117S engine it needs for sufficient power.

“We estimate that, based on current knowledge and assuming no major setbacks or loss of mission focus, China
will need two to three years before it achieves comprehensive
capabilities commensurate with the aggregate inputs in the jet engine
sector and five to 10 years before it is able to consistently mass
produce top-notch turbofan engines for a fifth-generation type fighter,”
said the study.

“If China’s engine-makers can attain the technical capability level
that United States manufacturers had 20 years ago, it will be able to
power its fourth-generation and fifth-generation aircraft with
domestically made engines. These developments would be vital in
cementing China as a formidable regional air power and deserve close
attention from policymakers.”

Collins and Erickson characterize China’s inability to domestically mass
produce advanced jet engines of consistent quality as an enduring
Achilles’ heel in its military aerospace sector. And there are important
strategic and commercial implications inherent in overcoming this

Presumably, if more priorities arise, doing so through AVIC’s new
initiative may also provide lessons that could be applied to ground and
naval platforms.