China’s development of fighter jets relies on Russian systems

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RIO DE JANEIRO China is continuing to make significant gains in developing submarine technology but is still dependent on Russia for its aircraft know-how, defense specialists at a recent conference here on the transformation of Brazil’s military said.

Foremost among its underwater systems is the new Jialong deep-water submersible that reached its own record depth of some 15,000 feet in the Pacific Ocean on last month. The craft is designed to be the world’s deepest-diving submersible and descends at a rate of 120 feet per minute.

Such submersibles are a key element for all nations seeking to develop submarine forces. The craft are able to chart currents and create highly accurate surveys of the ocean floor, literally creating topographical maps and ocean flow patterns that are indispensable for submarines seeking to mask their presence.

“The significance of this development,” said a naval technology specialist in Brazil, “is that the Chinese now show that they can do more than just build facsimiles of Russian submarines and the torpedoes to equip them with - it is more than just copying. It means that they have the entire oceanographic research and scientific infrastructure and defense industrial facilities to support the most effective use of these submarine assets standing behind them.”

But while China is showing remarkable progress in this area, the combat aircraft sector still depends on Russia for the supply of several major subsystems - most notably fighter aircraft jet engines.

In July, the Russian state arms exporter, Rosoboronexport (ROE), announced a sale of 123 Salyut AL-31FN jet engines to China for $500 million. The engine is a specialized variant of the engine used in the Su-27 and Su-30MKK/MK2 fighter aircraft purchased by China in large numbers from Russia and operated by the country’s army, air force and navy.

The engines are modified for use in a single-engine Chinese-developed Chengdu J-10 fighter jets.

The other fighter aircraft developed at the Chengdu plant, the JF-17/F-1, is jointly manufactured in Pakistan. It also uses a Russian RD-93 engine, which is used on Russia’s other major fighter jet, the MiG-29.

Based on open-source technical publications and other statements by Chinese military and industrial officials, the Chinese appear to be making progress toward achieving autonomy in production of jet engines.

However, analysts’ best estimates are that the country is five to 10 years away from achieving the technical capability needed for create the kind of engine used in advanced, fifth-generation fighters.

“Whenever you are designing a new fighter what you worry about, first of all, is the time required for developing a new [jet] engine core - the hot section of the engine - because that is the ‘long pole in the tent,’ ” said a retired three-star general formerly responsible for U.S. Air Force fighter aircraft development.

“Chinese designers undoubtedly understand this,” the retired general said, “which is why they are still buying from the Russians - even though they have their own engine development well under way. This is not only because this is a time-consuming proposition but also because the development of a [next-generation] engine can cost as much as the development of the rest of the aircraft.”

Russian officials, quoted in Moscow news reports, said China’s military is seeking to purchase an unspecified large number of the next-generation 117S jet engines.

The 117S engines reportedly are used in at least one of the prototypes of the newest fighter aircraft Chengdu Machine No. 2001, or the J-20 as it has been labeled by several publications.

Photos on the Internet reveal that Russian jet engines are installed in at least one of China’s J-20 prototypes, while a second J-20 test aircraft appears to be using the Woshan (WS)-10-series Taihang engine.

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