China’s Jet Engine Future

Recent Features


China’s Jet Engine Future

Rapid improvements in China’s military jet engine capabilities have major implications for the global defence industry.

Following is a guest entry from Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson, co-founders of China Sign Post.

China's military jet engine capability is increasing at a rapid pace, with implications not only for China's independent military capabilities, but also for the global defence industry. Yet China also faces major impediments in achieving its strategic aim of establishing itself as an independent manufacturer in one of aerospace's most complex engineering technologies: high-performance turbofan engines. Our recent paper, Jet Engine Development in China found that China's progress is uneven but that the resources being devoted to the task will likely result in significant strides that will have profound strategic implications.

Strategic Implications

China's lack of a domestic, mass-produced high-performance jet engine for combat aircraft is an enduring weakness for the Chinese military and has slowed the development and production of new, more modern aircraft. To address this, the Chinese Aviation Industry Corporation (AVIC) is to invest 10 billion RMB ($1.5 billion) into jet engine R&D over the next 5 years.

The Chinese aerospace industry is pursuing the ability to manufacture large volumes of high-performance tactical aircraft engines with four strategic imperatives in mind:

Avoiding parts dependence: As China develops more of its own tactical aircraft, it will not want supplies of parts to be determined by non-Chinese suppliers, primarily Russian.

Secure supplies: China cannot be certain that its demand can be met by Russian suppliers over the coming decade, as Russian engine makers deliver engines both to the modernising Russian Air Force and to other foreign buyers of Russian aircraft.

Aircraft sales autonomy: China is a growing exporter of complete combat aircraft, but is vulnerable to foreign veto of its arms sales if an engine supplier feels China is in direct competition with its own aircraft. For example, in August 2010, the CEO of MiG expressed unhappiness at the potential for the export sales of Russian MiGs to be undercut by Chinese jets supplied with the same Russian-made engines as the MiG.

Avoiding poor after-sales service: Russian after-sales service often leaves much to be desired and China is keen to be self-sufficient.

Remaining Challenges

It is crucial to understand the scale of the task facing the Chinese aerospace industry. Developing indigenous high-performance jet engines for military aviation is one of the greatest aerospace engineering challenges, and one only a small handful of corporations worldwide have truly mastered. Although the technology can be transferred, it cannot easily be modified – engines face temperature, pressure and G-force challenges that only the most advanced materials, properly machined and operated as an efficient system, can handle. China's progress to date is uneven:

Design capabilities: To reach the pinnacle of development and performance, China must model and refine a total system that is capable of complex component manufacturing and that performs well as a unified whole. Given the range of performance parameters and unpredictable dynamics for jet engines under development, this is no small ask. As China has traditionally relied heavily on copying and emulating foreign designs, this may be an area of particular weakness.

Consistent quality: Engine production demands highly advanced production and automation to ensure consistent quality and economies of scale. Current Chinese military jet engine production has exhibited problems with maintaining consistent quality as production is scaled up, which will be key requirement in order to supply domestic demand and possibly fulfil export orders in the future. It is critical that manufacturers instil a strong organisational honesty to ensure that problems are reported, recorded, and resolved. It will also be critical to integrate the various parts of the design and production processes to ensure the standardisation and quality that are essential for economies of scale.

Structural challenges: There are a number of human and bureaucratic issues that could prove more difficult to resolve than the technical ones. The first vulnerability is the single source contractor risk, where China's entire domestic military jet engine production apparatus lies under the control of a single state-owned institution, AVIC. We suspect that competitive and innovative pressures are not as acute as, for example, in the United States where competition helps produce innovation, faster development, lower costs and better after-sales service. Secondly, experience from the US indicates that inter-service cooperation, management stability at the company and government level, and small teams able to take risks with a minimum of red tape all contribute to development and production breakthroughs. We believe China will also have difficulties with inter-service cooperation as service chiefs compete over the budgetary pie.

Overall Assessment

There are numerous challenges that the Chinese military aviation sector must overcome in the next years and has a lot of ground to catch up; the sector may be as much as three decades behind its US peers in some areas and current development is uneven. But the outlook is not bleak. Far from it.

Despite playing catch-up, China has a 'latecomer advantage' in that it can integrate foreign firms’ learning into its current engine development programs. Also, China does not require complete parity with the US in order to build and sell extremely effective engines and aircraft. There are positive signs of improvements in the production processes, with improvements in precision cutting and machining, increased automation, a better ability to produce high-quality spare parts and much improved process modelling.

Add to that the vast monetary and manpower resources being thrown at the task and it would be unwise to underestimate China's ability to rise to the challenge. We believe that it is likely that within the next two to three years, there will be surprising breakthroughs in China's ability to independently produce high performance jet engines for tactical aircraft, with the production of reliable top-notch engines perhaps 5 to10 years away. This will have profound implications for China's ability to robustly expand and upgrade its Air Force and Navy air fleets, as well as challenging the current leaders in military aviation sales.

Andrew Erickson is an associate professor at the US Naval War College and fellow in the Princeton-Harvard China and the World Programme. Gabe Collins is a commodity and security specialist focused on China and Russia. This is an edited and abridged version of a longer analysis. The full version can be read here.