Chinese Military Aircraft Industry
Vol 10 Issue 5 Nov - Dec 2016
What are the larger aims of the Chinese aerospace approach?
Monday, December 5, 2016
China is today a near super power that has moved aggressively onto the world centre stage. Their more visible expansion into South China Sea by reclamation of Islands; the construction of US$46 billion China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor (CPEC); the very active role in Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), BRICS and United Nations; and near leader in Cyber-warfare are being watched closely by the world. However, Chinese aerospace approach represents one of the most comprehensive attempts to enter the top levels, and a serious long term challenge to the established western companies. China is aggressively trying to market its aircraft to Pakistan, Iran, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and many African nations. Pakistan already operates the jointly developed Chinese designed J-17 Thunder. In the recent Zhuhai Air show concluded on 6 November 2016, Chinese stealth fighter aircraft Chengdu J-20 made its public debut when two aircraft did a symbolic fly-past. Some have likened the new fighter to Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor jet, and a big step forward in Chinese combat capability and a desire to close the technology gap. The aircraft is expected to enter service by 2018. The Y-20, China’s first heavy transporter jet, the hotly anticipated AG-600 seaplane, the largest of its kind in the world, the Xian H-6K bomber and the new Changhe Z-10K attack helicopter were showcased. The message was clear that China can offer aerospace equipment to other nations and has desire to surpass the United States. The state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) is today ranked 159th in Fortune Global 500 list.
Military Aircraft Industry Evolves
China has come a long way since Communist colleague Soviet Union initially helped China set up its Aviation industry in the mid-1950s. As a part of the major reforms initiated by reformist Deng Xiaoping, China Aviation Industry Corporation (AVIC) gradually became a consortium of many stand-alone aircraft manufacturers of communist era. The main factories now are at Chengdu, Guizhou, Shanghai, Shenyang and Xian. Thrust has been on self-reliance and also to export arms which will amortise the costs. MiG-21 variants, J-7A, F-7IIA, F-7B, F-7M and F-7III were earlier developed and exported to over 10 countries. Make-in-China began about two decades earlier than India. Since 1988 through a sub-contracting arrangement they began production of the McDonnell Douglas MD-80. Shanghai plant produces Y-10 jetliner, Boeing 737 tail section assembly & Boeing 777 vertical stabilizers. Later they began producing Airbus A320 and Boeing 757-200 components, such as vertical and horizontal tails. Guizhou factory makes trainers, turbojets, UAVs, missiles and launchers. The plant at Xian produces large and medium-sized transport airplanes that meet CCAR-25 and FAR-25 standards. MA600 turbo-prop airliner version of An-26 is also produced here. Currently they are developing the 90-seat MA700 turbo-prop airliner with support of Ukraine. Xian also built the fly-by-wire JH-7A Flying Leopard twin-engine fighter-bomber in 2004. The H-6 twin-engine bomber was the Chinese-upgraded reverse engineered variant of the Tu-16 Badger for Peoples Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) which was also sold to Egypt and Iraq. Chengdu plant makes the more advanced J-10 light-weight multi-role fighter. It also makes the very light FC-1 Xialong (PAF designation JF-17 Thunder) jointly with Pakistan. Shenyang plant is the fighter aircraft production hub. Initial years it produced J-4 to J-7 aircraft which were Chinese variants of the MiG-15, 17, 19 and 21. J-8 was an indigenously developed 3rd generation fighter aircraft. AVIC employs over 535,000 engineers and workers.
World Class Fighter Aircraft
In 1995 China began building Russian Sukhoi Su-27 SK air-superiority variant J-11 under license production agreement for 200 aircraft from Russian-supplied kits. Chinese were reportedly caught by Russians reverse engineering the design. China later revealed an indigenous J-11B with upgraded airframe and Chinese radar, avionics and weapons. Carrier version of the same was also developed as J-15 which was a copy of the Russian Su-33. J-16 was the Chinese version of Su-30MKK sold to them by Russia earlier. It had minor changes to the vertical stabilizer. The Chengdu J-20 is a stealth, twin jet, fifth-generation fighter aircraft that made its first flight on 11 January 2011, and joined service in 2016.The J-20 has long and wide fuselage and low observable intakes resembling that of the F-22 Raptor allowing similar stealth signature. Canard design allows High degree of instability and good supersonic performance, and improved short-field landing performance. WS-10G engines are equipped with jagged-edge nozzles and tiles for greater stealth. The prototypes were initially powered by Chinese WS-10 or the Russian Saturn AL-31F engines. China is meantime working on an advanced indigenous turbofan engine similar in performance to the Pratt & Whitney F-119 codenamed WS-15, but initial aircraft will use the AL-31S variant. Meanwhile China and Russia have signed a contract for 24 Su-35 in November, 2015, which also use the AL-31S engine. Meanwhile the Americans are optimizing the Northrop Grumman E-2 Hawkeye to detect the J-20.
Shenyang J-31 is a twin-engine, mid-size fighter with certain stealth features like forward swept intake cowls and first flew in October 2012. This aircraft featured a different radome, speculated to house AESA radar. Like the F-35, the J-31 has two internal weapon bays that can each carry two medium range missiles, plus there are three hard points on each wing. China also claims to have an engine, the Guizhou WS-31, similar to the Russian RD-93 currently installed on the JF-17. They are working on an improved variant named WS-13G with 100KN thrust for use on the J-31. Chinese are touting J-31 to be an equivalent of the Lockheed Martin F-35 and are offering to those who cannot get/afford the expensive F-35. J-31 will have a naval variant and will be available to foreign customers. Pakistan is reportedly interest in acquiring 30 to 40 of these aircraft. New variants that flew at the Zhuhai Airshow revealed a stealthier cockpit, a next-generation helmet mounted sight, holographic cockpit displays, EOTS, aerodynamic revisions and more powerful engines. The J-31 can carry 8000 kg payload, with four internal points (2000 kg). J-31 also set an arms race in Asia, with India developing an FGFA jointly with Russia and an indigenous AMCA. Mitsubishi, Japan’s ATD-X and South Korea with KAI KF-X are others. US military down plays the capabilities and considers the J-31 to be a match to the newer variants of F-15, F-16 and F-18 and comparison with F-22 and F-35, would depend on many factors especially radar and other sensors. China thus became the third nation in the world to develop and fly a full-size stealth combat aircraft, after the United States and Russia.