Tuesday, May 4, 2010

KIEV | Recent activity in Russia by Chinese aircraft-engine-industry employees and intelligence officers highlights Beijing’s continuing dependence on Russian jet-engine technology.

A large group of Chinese collectors were seen at the recent biennial Russian Aeroengines trade show in Moscow. The aircraft-engine-technology trade show this year had a smaller turnout than in previous years following Moscow’s consolidation of almost all of the aviation-engine design and production facilities into one large, state-mandated firm.

“By far the largest delegation from any country was a group of about 30 Chinese specialists who had all obviously come to this show with specific assignments for targeted collection of technical data on Russian jet-propulsion systems,” said a Russian aerospace-industry analyst who spoke to The Washington Times.

“They broke up into groups of two or three persons each and then systematically launched out at the displays of jet-engine hardware or models that they were tasked to learn all they could about.”

China’s jet-fighter program has advanced in recent years as part of Beijing’s major military buildup, with recent fielding of a new indigenous jet and development of a more advanced fighter announced in November.

Aerospace and military trade shows often are used by specialists from foreign industry and intelligence services to gather data on new design concepts and technologies from Russian industry, the analyst said.

“But this ‘field trip’ that these Chinese specialists were on was just over the top. For one, it was too many people — like ants on the march,” the analyst said.

The analyst noted that at this year’s trade show, the Chinese were especially aggressive. “It was all too obvious that they had been well-briefed on what their targets were for collecting information.”

China’s active partnership with Russia in defense technology began in the early 1990s with the purchase of an initial batch of Sukhoi Su-27 fighter aircraft, at the time Russia’s most advanced warplane. Later orders for Su-27s and eventually an agreement to produce the jet in China under license at the Shenyang Aircraft Works (SAC), along with purchases of a more advanced model, the Su-30MKK, followed throughout the next decade.

Since the 1990s, Russian defense industrial know-how has been turned over to the Chinese through such trade, creating a renaissance within China’s defense sector and resulting in the production of what are viewed widely as world-class weapon systems.

But production of current-day jet engines that are reliable and operate at acceptable levels of military efficiency still eludes most of China’s aerospace sector. Two of the newest fighter aircraft developed and produced at the Chengdu Aerospace Complex (CAC) in Sichuan province — the FC-1 and the J-10 — are both powered with Russian-built engines. The engines are manufactured in Moscow and St. Petersburg in special configurations for Chinese aircraft and then delivered to CAC as finished products, so there is minimal technology transfer to Chinese industry with these engines.

The J-10 is based on Israel’s canceled Lavi fighter-aircraft design, which included U.S. technology. The J-10 recently was made the new aircraft for China’s Bai-Yi demonstration squadron — the equivalent of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds.

China’s propulsion technology is one of the few industrial sectors where Beijing has been unable to match the production skills of the Russians, mainly because of the difficult demands of aircraft-engine manufacturing.

In addition to jet-fighter engines, China also is working on turbofan engines for its growing arsenal of cruise missiles. For example, in October, China unveiled its first long-range land-attack cruise missile, the DH-10.

The weapons are part of what the Pentagon calls “area-denial” weapons that would be used to attack U.S. aircraft carriers that likely would be sent to waters near Taiwan in any future conflict over the island.

The military goal appears to be among the highest priorities for Chinese weapon designers.

“There were so many Chinese huddled around the mock-up of the Saturn TRDD-50 [cruise missile] engine at this show it reminded me of bees buzzing around honey,” said one of the Russian participants in the show who spoke to The Times.

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