The “Long Pole in the Tent”: China’s Military Jet Engines
Image Credit: Flickr (Mxiong)

The “Long Pole in the Tent”: China’s Military Jet Engines


The PLA Navy surprised many foreign observers yet again when an indigenously-produced J-15 fighter became the first known fixed wing aircraft to take off from and land on the aircraft carrier Liaoning since its refitting and commissioning. Yet a critical question remains unanswered: how rapidly and to what extent will the J-15 and other Chinese military aircraft be powered by indigenous engines?

As in so many other areas, China’s overall development and production of military aircraft is advancing rapidly. Yet, as with a tent, it is the “long pole” that is essential to function and undergirds performance. In the case of aircraft, the most critical and difficult-to-produce component—the “long pole”—is the engine. Given the wide array of market-tested alternatives, nobody will buy a unit in which this central component is flawed. Hence, China’s currently significant efforts to make progress in this area. Still, the outcome and impact of these efforts remain uncertain.

As part of a larger effort to consolidate and enhance the industry, China’s jet engine makers, led by Aviation Industry Corp. of China (AVIC), are expected to invest 100 billion yuan (US$16 billion) in jet engine development in the near term, and perhaps up to 150 billion yuan (nearly US$24 billion) by 2015. According to Reuters, “Some Chinese aviation industry specialists forecast that Beijing will eventually spend up to 300 billion yuan (US$49 billion) on jet engine development over the next two decades.” With this level of capital investment, which is many times larger than previously-reported levels, China is finally deploying the financial wherewithal needed to enable major breakthroughs. For context, the Pratt and Whitney F135 powering the F-35 Lightning II, which is the world’s most advanced and powerful tactical aircraft engine, is estimated to cost around US$8.4 billion to develop (at least in terms of officially-reported funding sources). On this basis, China has deployed funds sufficient to potentially support the parallel development of several advanced high-performance jet engines and large turbofans.

China’s defense aerospace industry has shown the ability to successfully manage parallel projects, as it is simultaneously developing at least four different types of tactical fighter and strike aircraft, including two low observable fighters, the J-20 and the J-31. No other nation is working simultaneously on so many distinct modern tactical jet programs. Yet this very progress also highlights an additional reality of China’s military aircraft sector—while airframe design and construction capacity have advanced significantly in recent years, China remains unable to mass-produce a jet engine capable and reliable enough to give its new fighters truly 5th-generation performance characteristics such as the ability to cruise at supersonic speeds without afterburners. Even if the J-20 and J-31 prototypes are flying with Chinese-made jet engines, this by no means demonstrates that such engines have a sufficient service life and can be produced on a scale suitable for equipping a large tactical aircraft fleet.


[...] poor leftover from USSR. You could continue about the lack of quality of the defence from China. The ?Long Pole in the Tent?: China?s Military Jet Engines | The Diplomat China's Noisy Subs Get Busier — And Easier to Track | Danger Room | [...]

March 15, 2013 at 20:32

UAVs at 10% of the American price to be more accurate

March 15, 2013 at 20:31

Indeed we are all over the US. We know the US and her technologies and tactics well. Our loyalty always remain with China. But we too agree with the Chinese leadership that the Americans are not our enemy unless they choose to be. The Chinese detest war and fighting. It has been so for the past 3 millenia – such that the military profession was viewed as a "barbarian" profession, compared to court administrators, poets, painters, musicians and craftsmen.

however, if it requires, then we all must sacrifice for the greater good. Have a good day Gentlemen.

[...] every platform has technological and/or capability limitations. Both stealth fighter prototypes suffer from a lack of high-performance turbofan engines, a critical weakness in Chinese aviation technology. The PLA Navy’s (PLAN) ‘new’ aircraft [...]

December 29, 2012 at 12:30

To sorachart
I believe you are the only person who is sensible & logical here.

December 24, 2012 at 07:15

Since the 1980s, China has been sending thousands of their students to the top universities all over the world.  I believe that these engineers and researchers are able to think and innovate.  If you are implying that they are brain dead, then the top universities around the world are simply worthless.  Give these hard working Chinese scientists some credit.  The Chinese want to buy Western technology, as many nations around the world do, but the embargo makes it impossible.
It would be unforgivable for the Chinese government to allow the country to fall so far behind other nations.  If stealing is only the way to go, then so be it. 

December 21, 2012 at 00:57

China's developing UAV's too….

[...] we are pleased to bring you a one-stop shop of in-depth analysis, highlighted by our latest work, The ‘Long Pole in the Tent’: China’s Military Jet Engines, which just came out in The Diplomat. … [...]

December 15, 2012 at 07:23

Extremely difficult but possible. The US did manage to sabotage Iran's effort to go nuclear. Such undertakings require time, resources, and skills that only governments and large business entities can spend.

December 14, 2012 at 04:18

What a pathetic dialogue.  First, why dignify the John Chans of the world with a reply?  His agenda isn't so much to defend China as to egg an audience.  Second, let's recognize that China has no choice but to develop an indigenous jet engine because it basically has no allies (outside of loony North Korea and other like dictatorships) willing to sell or enter into joint ventures.  Sure, the PRC will eventually succeed with a credible fifth generation fighter, and by that time hopefully the US (the lesser of the 2 evils) will have moved onto the next paradigm of aerial warfare, such as unmanned aerial vehicles, nanocraft and the Batman airplane.

December 13, 2012 at 07:40

where is the honor in stealing what is not yours john
china already messed up with smaller nations for too long just because of your history which is pure baloney
and the world knows that what do you call your cctv reporters claim that philippines is part of china?
is that truth or misinformation

John Chan
December 12, 2012 at 00:28

The only people has nuked another people is the White, and the only people nearly brought the humanity into Armageddon was the White again.
For the moment over 90% of nukes are owned by the White, and the ones caused nuclear disasters are again the White and its lackey the Fascist Japanese.
China is indeed different, it has not made to the above notorious honour list, and it has “no first use” policy on nuclear weapons too despite the danger it faces; why doesn’t your beloved White follow China’s lead to declare their “no first use” promises for the humanity sake? Are they that barbaric beyond help?

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