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The “Long Pole in the Tent”: China’s Military Jet Engines (Page 4 of 6)

As such, it is increasingly unlikely the Russian government will want to sell its most advanced engines to China and risk having the Chinese reverse engineer them and then not only use the engines in their own aircraft, but also potentially make them available at a lower price on the world export market. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Russian jet engine makers gambled and won because China’s aerospace sector was relatively backward. However, rapid improvements over the last several years have put China’s aviation industry much closer to being technically on par with its Russian counterpart and the Russians are likely to be increasingly unwilling to sell engines on the assumption that China could assimilate the technology much more rapidly than before.

In September 2010, for instance, Reuben Johnson reported in Jane’s Defence Weekly that PLAAF Overhaul Plant Number 5719 had developed an upgrade for the AL-31F that extended its service life from 900 to 1,500 flight hours. Russian specialists viewed this achievement as “another example of how the technology sold to the Chinese during the 1990s has now been fully assimilated by them. It is only a matter of time before the engines that China produces will be as good as or better than anything designed here in Russia.”

Restricted engine supplies from Russia could also crimp China’s ability to train its pilots more intensively because realistic air combat training puts significant strain on engines and wears them out more quickly than the lower flight hour regime on which many Chinese pilots remain.

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Su-35 Purchase Possibilities?

For now, however, Chinese engine programs have failed to deliver, and may currently be stuck at technical plateaus. Russia needs Chinese money to sustain its defense industry. China’s current pursuit of an Su-35 purchase agreement with Russia primarily reflects a desire to gain access to the NPO Saturn/Lyulka117S engine, a next-generation follow-on to the Su-27’s AL-31F engine, to try to reduce development time for Chinese engine programs. According to Reuben Johnson, while a final deal is unlikely before mid-2013, negotiations appear already to have risen to a new level, with Sukhoi having already acquiesced in principle to shifting from offering 48 aircraft for $4 billion to 24 aircraft at $1.5 billion.

Johnson stated that “sources within Russian industry insist that this back and forth negotiation with Beijing continues but several believe that China will end up ‘officially signing’ for 48 aircraft but only taking delivery of 24 Su-35s.There are precedents for this kind of arrangement in which China’s industry ends up actually procuring fewer aircraft than it orders, such as the 1996 Su-27SK/J-11 contract for 200 of these aircraft produced at the Shenyang Aerospace Corporation (SAC). Only about 100 of these aircraft were ultimately manufactured at SAC, at which time the Chinese firm began turning out pirated copies of the aircraft – the J-11B.”

Johnson added that Russian aerospace officials are leery of Chinese industry copying the Su-35 in the same manner. Meanwhile, at present Chinese officialdom is more sensitive than normal to the charge that its military aircraft industry is capable of only copying Russian designs following the recent first arrested landings of the SAC J-15 fighter aboard the Russian-designed and Ukrainian-built Liaoning aircraft carrier. The J-15, allege several Russian sources, is another illegal copy – this time of the Sukhoi Su-33 carrier-capable fighter.

In any case, the status of this potential purchase agreement bears watching, as the Su-35’s 117S engines are more powerful than the AL-31 engines that Russia has been selling to China. Having actual 117S engines physically available could help give Chinese jet engine makers an opportunity to attempt to reverse engineer them and/or and acquire insights into how they might be able to build a more powerful indigenous tactical turbofan engine.

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