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Most Recent Trends in the Development of the Chinese Aviation Industry and Their Strategic Implications

Wednesday, 01 May 2002 12:00 AM

On April 13, the Hong Kong-based newspaper Wen Hui Pao published a photo with this comment:

In Sanya city, in the south part of Hainan Island, seven fuselages of PLA Air Force (PLAAF) J-6 fighters are exposed for sale at the local junkyard. The owner of this yard is asking 38,000 yuan [about $4500] for each fuselage.

The J-6, a copy of the Soviet MIG-19, was produced in China in 1960-1979. By late 2000, PLAAF fighter divisions still had about 2,000 of these ancient fighters. However, it is understood that by spring 2002, hundreds of J-6's have been decommissioned, scrapped and finished at junkyards all over China.

These relics have been aggressively replaced by fourth-generation fighters, meeting world standards of at least the second half of the 1990s:



In accordance with an agreement signed during the July 2001 Moscow summit between Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the PLAAF will obtain the second group of about 40 SU-30's in 2002-early 2003. The Chinese side is preparing to begin assembling SU-30 fighters in Shenyang as early as 2003.

The SU-30 MK is close to the U.S. F-18 fighter in performance. Remarkably, each SU-27SK or SU-30MK uses two AL-31 engines, provided by the Ufa Engine Plant in Ufa, capital of the Bashkortostan Republic in the western Urals.

The increased presence of SU-27's and SU-30's was registered as early as spring 2002 over the Taiwan strait, East China Sea (close to Japanese territorial waters), and the northern part of the South China Sea. The advanced air-to-ship missiles carried by the SU-30 could become a serious threat for Taiwanese, U.S., and Japanese naval vessels.


The J-10 will be represented at the 2002 Zhuhai International Air Show near Macao, in November. As expected, serial production of the J-10 will begin – at a rate between 30 and 50 units per year – by that same date, at Chengdu Aircraft Industry Corp., in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province.

In its major performance indicators, the J-10 rivals the U.S. F-16 fighter. Each J-10 uses one AL-31 FN engine, "an improved and miniaturized version of the AL-31 engine." Recently Chengdu Aircraft and Moscow-based Salyut Corp. signed an agreement on delivery of 300 AL-31FN engines.

According to the Hong Kong media, the J-10's cost – evidently without a Russian engine – is less than $1 million!

d) Development of the

e) The

Each FBC-1 is equipped with 2 Rolls Royce Spay MK 202 engines. In early 2002, Xian Aircraft completed development of the JH-7A fighter-bomber, an improved copy of the FBC-1. Simultaneously, China received from Rolls Royce 90 Spey MK 202 engines.

f) By 2005, the PLA intends to start development of a

Shenyang Aircraft Industry Group probably will become the lead enterprise to capture this Chinese "fifth-generation fighter program."

Remarkably, all the aforementioned Chinese enterprises – aircraft industry corporations in Shenyang, Chengdu, Guizhou and Xian – have close business ties to one another, and belong to the Chinese 1st Aviation Industry Group Corp., also known as AVIC-1 (literally, Aviation Industries of China No. 1).

This group corp, established in mid-1999 along with AVIC-2, unites the best of China's aviation industry potential and concentrates on fighters and passenger aircraft. AVIC-2 – no competitor to AVIC-1 – focuses on helicopters, small aircraft for individual use, trainers, small cargo aircraft etc.

By late 2001, AVIC-1, based on its own resources and the expanded technological potential of all of China, was capable of producing almost all the sub-assemblies of the listed fourth-generation fighters, except for modern turbofan engines meeting 1980s-90s standards.

Until recently, the Chinese aviation industry was capable of developing/producing turboprop engines only, but recent news (31 March 2002) indicates Chinese defense aircraft engineers at Research Institute 608 and Plant 320 have indigenously developed a military turbofan engine, which recently passed acceptance tests in Zhuzhou (near Changsha), Hunan province.

Turboprop engines – meeting 1960s-70s standards – are still used in PLA fighters. The J-7 (copy of a 2nd-generation Mig-21, earlier produced in Chengdu) and J-8 (earlier made in Shenyang and close to Russia's 3rd-generation Mig-23 and SU-15 fighters).

And the best Chinese indigenous passenger aircraft – the 60-seat MA-60 under production in Xian – also uses turboprop engines.

In late 2001, the authoritative Beijing journal Zhongguo Touzi (China Investment; 2001, #12) published an article by Ma Deyou, chief of the High-Tech Industries Department within the State Planning and Economic Development Commission (SPEDC): "To Accelerate the Development of Chinese High-Tech Industries (in 2001-2005)," containing "The list of the 12 most important technologies to be developed in 2001-2005, with maximal support of the Chinese government."

Of these 12 items, only #7 is related to aircraft technology (the rest focuses on information technology, oil refining, railways, shipbuilding industry, etc.): "New-generation turbofan aircraft technology for the local lines.

The Chinese market has great demand for these airliners, and needs to complete development [and begin series production with minimal or no use of foreign parts] of 30-70-passenger liners, absolutely meeting international standards and fully satisfying CAAC [Civil Aviation Administration of China]-FAA [U.S. Federal Aviation Administration] requirements. The first such new-generation aircraft should enter service in 2006." (end of quotation)

The High-Tech Industries Department within SPEDC is, according to information available, the supreme organization inside China's government determining the major directions of China's technological development in the midterm (in 2002-2005 and, very likely, in 2006-2010). That is why the above report is of extreme importance.

This decision primarily provides government financing for domestic turbofan engine development – both for civilian and military purposes. One of the authors (Nemets), who worked as senior engineer at the aforementioned Moscow Salyut Plant in 1982-86, knows perfectly well that:

(b) Turbofan engines for regional passenger aircraft with 80 seats or less are compatible with engines for heavy fighters and long-range fighter-bombers.

The U.S. journals Aviation Week & Space Technology and Flight International, in October 2001-March 2002, published at least six reports confirming that the ARJ-21 project is under way.

Based on these messages, one can conclude that the Xian Aviation Corp. will conduct the ARJ-21 project jointly with some foreign company. The following variant is the most probable: The ARJ-21 would be based on the technology of the 728JET, a regional passenger aircraft developed by West Europe's Fairchild Dornier corp.; its turbofan engine would be based on Rolls Royce BR710 engine technology with 14,000-17,000-lb. thrust.

The long-term and close ties between Xian Aircraft Industry Corp and Rolls Royce Corp. should be emphasized here. And, according to Hong Kong sources, Xian Aero-Engine Corp. (also subordinated to AVIC-1) already received the technology from Rolls Royce for manufacturing Spay 202 MK turbofan engines.

As the Chinese newspaper Renmin Ribao (the People's Daily) reported on April 18, China and Russia on April 17 signed an agreement on cooperation in developing a new generation of civil aircraft. This is the first such agreement between China's Commission of Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense (COSTIND) and the Russian Aircraft and Space Agency, or Rosaviakosmos, in the past decade.

Four working groups will implement the cooperative program. Each will deal with a specific area: aircraft, engines, equipment and avionics materials.

The agreement, which will allow China to participate jointly with Russia in the development of a new generation of civil aircraft, was signed at the Dvigateli-2002 (Engines-2002) International Exhibition in Moscow. (End of Renmin Ribao report)

At the same time, according to Xinhua News Agency, a Russian delegation headed by Deputy Prime Viktor Khristenko signed agreements in Beijing on the expansion of Sino-Russian cooperation in space and aircraft technology. The two agreements are definitely closely related.

The Beijing-based China Daily, on April 23, published the following report (excerpted):

The 2002 Russia High-Tech Fair – the largest Sino-Russia scientific and economic activity this year – opened yesterday in Shenyang, capital city of Northeast China's Liaoning province. Some 250 enterprises from Russia and more than 20,000 representatives from domestic business and scientific fields in 60 cities are expected to hold discussions on cooperation in high-tech fields during the four-day fair – primarily in machinery manufacturing, aerospace, forestry, natural resources, food and environmental protection industries.

A total of 18 high-tech projects were inked on the first day of the fair, involving a contractual investment of US$42.9 million. This included setting up a joint venture with a registered capital of $30 million in Shenyang, dealing with the development of new aircraft vehicles. The city also signed contracts with Russian counterparts on the export of digital control systems and computer monitor manufacturing. (End of China Daily report)

On April 24, Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency generally confirmed this message. Evidently, AVIC-1-subordinated Shenyang Liming Engine Manufacturing Corp. – traditional engine suppliers for the Shenyang Aircraft Industry Corp. – became the Chinese partner in the joint venture.

Eventually, it is possible to make the preliminary conclusion that the new joint venture in Shenyang would provide AVIC-1 with the essential technology of (a) AL-31 engines – used both in the J-10 (from Moscow Salyut Plant) and in the J-11/SU-27SK (from the Ufa Engine Plant) and (b) turbofan engines for 30-80-seat passenger aircraft, within the ARJ-21 project.

China is thus acquiring an independent aviation industry meeting international standards of at least the 1990s – with Russian assistance as well as that of some "West European friends." As a result, AVIC-1 will be capable of annually producing many dozens of regional passenger aircraft for civilian and military needs and also – in case of a "local military conflict under high-tech conditions" (as the standard Chinese expression goes) – many hundreds of advanced and cheap-enough fighters.

Dr. Thomas J. Torda has been a Chinese linguist specializing in science and technology with FBIS, and a Chinese/Russian defense technology consultant with the Office of Naval Intelligence.

You may contact Dr. Torda at

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On April 13, the Hong Kong-based newspaper Wen Hui Pao published a photo with this comment: In Sanya city, in the south part of Hainan Island, seven fuselages of PLA Air Force (PLAAF) J-6 fighters are exposed for sale at the local junkyard. The owner of this yard is...
Wednesday, 01 May 2002 12:00 AM
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