China has made progress in recent years with metallurgy and manufacturing techniques, leaving components and systems design, integration, and management as the most probable weak points that are holding back engine production. Chinese engines have suffered blade warp and destruction and other problems, both during ground testing and apparently also under high RPM, rapid turn conditions in flight that produce high centrifugal and g-forces (e.g., in J-11B aircraft). In order to remedy this, China’s military jet engine makers need to achieve some of the same production and process management breakthroughs that the personnel and facilities making the airframes and avionics have attained over the last two years. To facilitate such efforts, AVIC Engine has been recruiting experienced engine designers. Given the progress elsewhere in the sector and China’s continuing acquisition of technical and process management information through trial and error, research, and industrial espionage, the probability is rising that China’s jet engine makers will surprise the outside world in the next few years with a reliable, mass-produced version of the WS-10 engine.
The WS-10 has the potential to deliver performance in the same class as the Pratt & Whitney F100 turbofans that power the F-15 and some of the F-16 fleet, and thus might be able to capably power the J-11B, J-15, and J-16 aircraft, which are in the same size range as the F-15. China’s ability to series-produce an engine powerful and capable enough to give the J-20 true 5th-generation performance probably lies at least 2-5 years in the future.
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The lack of domestically-made jet engines represents a gaping hole in Chinese aircraft design and performance. Being able to mass-produce reliable and powerful jet engines is essential to perfecting and exporting indigenous aircraft; all major military aircraft producers save China have enjoyed solid engine design and production capabilities. Yet Russia, and to some extent Ukraine, are the only sources from which China can import military jet engines because the post-Tiananmen arms embargoes prevent companies based in the U.S. and European Union from selling such engines to China. Despite its considerable willingness to export, Ukraine lacks the engines that a 5th-generation fighter would need.
For its part, Russia has less and less reason to sell advanced jet engines to the Chinese military. First, Russia has its own ambitions to produce and export the Sukhoi T-50, a prospective 5th generation fighter, and would not want to undermine its position by helping the Chinese build a competing aircraft. Second, there will be political and economic pressure to keep advanced engines at home because Russia’s air force is attempting to modernize and aircraft being produced for the Russian military will need the late-model jet engines. Third, the last decade of Sino-Russian arms trade has been fraught with tension over technology transfer and illegal Chinese technology theft and reverse engineering of Russian systems. Finally, some Russian policy makers are increasingly concerned about China’s rising military and economic power and the growing presence of Chinese in the Russian Far East.