TAIPEI — As China becomes the first export customer of the Russian-built Su-35 multirole fighter aircraft, some observers have raised the question of whether Beijing intends to reverse engineer the plane as it did with an earlier sale with Russia.
A US $2 billion deal for 24 fighters was reported Thursday in the Russian daily Kommersant newspaper and TASS news agency.
Chinese interest in the fighter dates back to 2006, but was not confirmed by Russian officials until the 2012 Zhuhai Airshow. The Su-35 first appeared at the 2014 Zhuhai Airshow, leading to speculation a contract was imminent.
Beijing has yet to confirm the deal and is normally secretive about military sales, but China’s media outlet, Global Times, quoted Fu Qianshao, a Beijing-based air defense specialist, as calling the signing a “crucial step for military trade” with Moscow.
The production of the aircraft for the Chinese started even before the final contract was signed, said Vasily Kashin, a China military specialist at the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.
“So, it will not stand in a queue, and we possibly will see the first deliveries late next year and the final ones at some point in 2018, maybe late 2017,” Kashin said. The deal does not include any technology transfers, but the Russians have agreed to use some of the “Chinese cockpit equipment,” he said.
There are fears China’s decision to procure only 24 fighters indicates an intention to reverse engineer and copy the fighter, as it did with the Su-27SK. In 1995, China secured a $2.5 billion production license deal from Russia to build 200 Su-27SKs, dubbed the J-11A. In 2006, Russia killed the contract after 95 aircraft when it discovered China had reverse engineered the aircraft and was covertly manufacturing an indigenous variant, the J-11B, with Chinese-built avionics and weapons.
There are also fears China will want the Su-35’s sophisticated engine, the Saturn AL-117S, for its J-20 stealth fighter. The engine is also outfitted on Russia’s T-50 stealth fighter.
“I assume the reason why they are buying 24 … is to get hold of some of the embedded technologies,” said Roger Cliff, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “The basic airframe of the Su-35 isn't much changed from the Su-27 and Su-30, which China already has, so presumably they are going after other things such as thrust-vectoring, the Su-35's passive electronically scanned array radar, or its infrared search-and-track system.”
Douglas Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace, London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the Chinese are looking at the small number of Su-35s as an “opportunity to compare and contrast.” The Shenyang J-11D, now in development, could be viewed as an Su-35 equivalent, and the Chinese Air Force will now have the opportunity to weigh both aircraft side-by-side.
“Alongside access to engine technology, one area where China still benefits from external technology, the weapons package for the Su-35 will also be of interest,” he said.
Kashin said getting a chance to dig inside an Su-35 is a real opportunity for China. The Su-35 is the ultimate development of the Su-27 family, with improved airframe, new engines, avionics and radar, and now the Chinese are testing the J-11D version with active electronically scanned array radar and other improvements.
“In the mid-term, the development of this family is much more important for Chinese air power than their stealth aircraft programs,” the J-31 and J-20 stealth fighters, Kashin said. “Exercising with one regiment of Su-35s will help them understand what direction can be chosen for the future of their heavy fighters fleet, what they can do themselves, when they have to go to the Russians for help, etc.”
Cliff, author of the new book, “China’s Military Power: Assessing Current and Future Capabilities,” said he was more skeptical of China reaping as much as many fear from the Su-35.
“Just buying examples of technologies, however, doesn’t immediately convey the ability to make them oneself,” he said. The best example of that is the AL-31 engine that goes into the Su-27 and Su-30.
“China has had access to that technology for over 20 years and apparently is still struggling to make its own high-performance turbofan engines.”