A Work in Progress: A model of China's Shenyang J-31 fighter was displayed at the 2012 Airshow China in Zhuhai. China's aviation industry still has problems producing fighter engines, Western experts say. (Wendell Minnick/Staff)
TAIPEI — Whether Chinese aviation companies belong in the Defense News Top 100 will remain a puzzle as long as transparency remains clouded. But the recent arrest of Chinese citizen Su Bin in Canada for allegedly stealing secrets related to US C-17 Globemaster, F-35 and F-22 military aircraft indicates a hunger for US aviation technology.
There is no question that China is developing a C-17 clone, the Xian Y-20, and two stealth fighters, the Chengdu J-20 and Shenyang J-31. Chinese requirements for a heavyweight cargo lifter like the C-17 are high. According to Chinese media reports at the end of July, China’s National Defense University issued a report stating the military would need 400 Y-20s to match US force projection capabilities.
Western aviation specialists said China’s aviation industry still has problems producing advanced engines for fighters and working with high-end composites. No more evidence is needed than China’s attempts to produce two new narrow-body commercial passenger aircraft, the 174-seat C919 and the 95-seat ARJ21, under development by the government-owned Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China (Comac).
“The C919 program has announced additional delays — the targets are now to conduct the first flight before the end of 2015 and for the aircraft to enter into service in 2018, as opposed to 2016 when the program was launched in 2008,” said Roger Cliff, an Atlantic Council specialist on Chinese air power.
Cliff said Comac engineers have a limited ability to specify requirements for systems and subsystems. “That is the same as saying that Comac engineers have a limited ability to design aircraft,” he said.
Skepticism is also being raised over the ARJ21, which still has not been certified by the US Federal Aviation Administration.
Cliff, who co-authored the Rand book “Ready for Takeoff: China’s Advancing Aerospace Industry,” said this all raises questions about the design capabilities of China’s military aviation sector.
“Just because Comac engineers can’t design aircraft doesn’t mean that AVIC [Aviation Industry Corp. of China] engineers can’t, but Comac engineers are largely drawn from AVIC, and the C919 is a high-profile national project so one would have expected them to be able to recruit some of the best people in AVIC. At a minimum, therefore, Comac’s limitations suggest that the number of capable aviation engineers in China is highly constrained.”
Michael Raska, a research fellow in the Military Transformation Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore, said the Chinese defense aviation industry still appears to possess limited capabilities for cutting-edge defense research and development, and Western aviation primes continue to outpace China when it comes to most military aircraft and technologies, particularly in propulsion, navigation systems and defense electronics, and high-end composites.
“Indeed, the high entry and technological barriers coupled with technical challenges in acquiring extensive knowledge and experience, as well the limited number of cutting-edge technological enterprises, preclude Chinese defense aviation manufacturers to make significant strides toward disruptive/revolutionary innovation,” he said.
Raska, who co-authored the book “China’s Defense Aviation Industry,” said these barriers can be seen in the research and development and production of select advanced materials and composites needed for their fifth-generation fighters, including high-end aluminum alloy products, aramid fiber, carbon fiber, high-performance steel, nitrocell, titanium alloy and tungsten alloys.
“Only a few Chinese companies are qualified suppliers of technologies required for the production of high-performance materials that are essential for the next generation of engines, target detection systems, navigation systems, and many other subsystems used in diverse weapon platforms,” he said.
Raska said that high-end aluminum alloy products, for example, require a large hydraulic press that is both costly and difficult to manufacture. China has only five domestic companies that can make this type of press machine. Similarly, in the production of aramid fiber used in armor plates in tanks or engine cases on aircraft, China still relies on imports for roughly 70 percent of its consumption, including 30 percent for defense. China’s only two domestic makers of aramid fiber, Suzhou Zhaoda and Tayho, commenced production in 2010 and 2011, respectively. Most of China’s domestic makers of carbon fiber are also new, without the necessary long-term experience to stabilize product quality.
“Overall, China is still more of a fast follower, always playing technology catch-up, or else will be a niche innovator when it comes to defense aviation research and development,” Raska said.
Sources said there are two major Russian companies providing titanium and other high-end metal products for China’s aviation industry, VSMPO-AVISMA Corp. and the Metallurgical Plant Electrostal, both of which exhibited at the biennial Airshow China, Zhuhai, in 2012.
The only other company that exhibited at Zhuhai and works with titanium is US-based Titanium Metals Corp. (TIMET). TIMET has an office in Shanghai and has received the SQLO China Manufacturer Approval certification. More will no doubt be learned about Chinese aviation manufacturing capabilities at the next Airshow China in November. ■