By Robert Karniol, The Straits Times/Asia News Network
Published: 20 July 2011
SINGAPORE — 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 problem.
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.