Chinese Military Aviation Ambitions

9 July 2012


The first jet-powered fighters and bombers became operational before the end of the Second World War. Under the pressure of war, the Germans developed the ME-262 fighter jet and the Arado Ar 234 bomber, while the British developed the Gloster Meteor fighter. The Germans adopted a more elegant and efficient engine design (an axial flow turbojet, in contrast to a centrifugal compressor), but the design required components that were at the very limits of the materials and manufacturing technology of the time. Some of these early jet engines had a service life of only 25-50 hours. The early British jet engines with a centrifugal compressor had a longer service life as the engine components were not subject to operating temperatures as high as that of axial flow engines.

The technology to design and produce cutting-edge fighter jet engines continues to this day to limit the ambitions of air forces and the industrial concerns that produce their jets. In a special Aerospace supplement to today’s Financial Times, a detailed article by Kathrin Hille, China: Doing it all yourself has its drawbacks, discusses China’s military aviation ambitions, which include not only the now well-known J-20 stealth fighter in development, but also a lighter weight stealth fighter, the J-60. Experts cited in the article emphasize that at least ten years of trials and testing were required for the F-22 to be put in the service, and still today the F-22 has problems. The less experienced Chinese air force will experience at least comparable development horizons for its fifth generation fighter.

Despite China’s obvious military aviation ambitions, which now must include carrier aviation as well, and despite all the accounts in the popular press of Chinese engineering prowess (presumably as revealed by new buildings and high speed trains), the Chinese cannot yet build the engines that power their most advanced fighter aircraft. According to the FT article cited above, the Chinese rely on Russian and Ukrainian sources for their engines. The Chinese J-10 and J-11 use the Russian-designed Salyut AL-31 FN engine. According to AIN Online, in Ukraine Wins Engine Contract for Chinese L-15 Jet Trainer Production, “China has ordered 250 AI-222-25F turbofans from the Ukraine to power production versions of the Hongdu L-15 advanced jet trainer.”

When one thinks of the public perception of the relative industrial plant of China and the Ukraine, one would not think that China needs to go to the Ukraine to purchase its most advanced jet engines, but this is the case in fact. The whole of China’s industrial plant is not yet capable of producing the materials and manufacturing technology necessary to the production of the kind of engine needed for the fifth generation stealth fighter (or even its training aircraft), and without the engine the jet is an empty shell.

In the long term I don’t think that there is any question that China will be able to tool its industrial plant up to the quality necessary to produce the engines that its jets require, but the fact that it is not yet at that level points both to the achievement of Soviet bloc manufacturing centers during the Cold War, as well as the extent to which China was more or less completely left out of the Cold War competition that drove military technological advances in the second half of the twentieth century. Russian-based industrial concerns are continuing to refine and improve the capacities they acquired during the Cold War, even if they lack the funds and the ambition to participate on the same level as China in global military arms procurement.

Of course, the Russians are developing the Sukhoi PAK-FA in cooperation with India, and this is certainly a global player in the fifth generation fighter competition, but I think that there is an accurate sense that Russia simply does not possess a sufficiently robust economy to follow up on its technological skills. It can produce the PAK-FA, but its ability to afford several squadrons seems questionable at best, whereas there isn’t much question that China can afford several fifth generation squadrons, but it doesn’t quite yet have the expertise to produce them on an exclusively domestic basis. This gives the Russians a certain power over China in the short term, even if the Russians choose not to use this lever. In fact, the Russians might well like the idea of a fifth generation fighter arms race between the US and China, because this occupies the US and leaves less strategic attention left over to focus on Russia’s near abroad. In the short term, again, the Russians may see it in their interest to facilitate Chinese military aviation ambitions, though it is unlikely that the Russians will see this as a long term strategic interest.

The Russians and the Chinese share a fairly long border, and even during the Cold War when the East was supposedly monolithically Red, they went to war over that border (cf. Sino-Soviet border conflict). This happened during my lifetime, and I am sure that it has not been forgotten either in China or Russia. That being said, former rivals sometimes become the best of allies, as was the case with NATO. While I do not think that this is at all likely, it is possible that the SCO could come to play a role in uniting former rivals and enemies in the face of the perception of a greater threat (presumptive US dominance over East Asian affairs).

Again, I do not think that this is at all likely, but it would certainly be strategically interesting if the SCO replaced NATO as the central strategic entity in the coming century. Since NATO no longer has a mission after the end of the Cold War, and the Western powers are essentially casting about either for a replacement role for NATO or for some alternative institution to give strategic focus and direction to Western interests, there is a kind of strategic void in the world today (and consequent strategic drift). In the West, we assume that this void will eventually be filled with a Western institution, but this is not necessarily the case. The SCO is an non-Western institution that could, in theory, fill this void.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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