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The “Long Pole in the Tent”: China’s Military Jet Engines (Page 5 of 6)

Economic motives  

Over the next two decades, China’s jet engine demand will be massive. Buyers in China are expected to purchase 5,260 additional commercial aircraft valued at $670 billion from 2012-31 and more than 2,300 business jets in the next 20 years, a number of aircraft that could require more than 16,000 additional jet engines. What’s more, aircraft demand from China’s military could easily add another 500-1,000 engines to these totals.

Selling parts and services to companies who use the engines is an additional dimension of interest for Chinese engine makers. Servicing jet engines tends to be much more profitable than selling the engines themselves, leading some analysts to say that many engines makers “sell the hot air moving out of engines” as opposed to the engines themselves. For example, Citibank has estimated that some jet engine makers may derive seven times the profit from aftermarket service and parts sales for their engines that they do from the sale of the powerplants per se.

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Key dual use technology

On the strategic side, government and company officials may also seek to be able to power future Chinese military tanker, transport, and airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft with domestically-made engines because they fear embargoes or disputes over prices and other issues with foreign suppliers. Such a strategy can only work if all critical subcomponents and parts are produced indigenously, which suggests that China will seek to create a full indigenous jet engine supply chain.

This has significant military implications because the same large high-bypass turbofans used in civilian airliners can, with little or no modification, power large military aircraft including tankers, transports, and AWACS. The major U.S. large transport aircraft (C-17 and C-5), tankers (KC-10 and KC-135), and AWACS and others (E-3A and P-8A) all either are, or can be, powered by engines that are essentially identical to commercial aircraft powerplants.

For example, the same CFM56 series engines like those that power the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 single-aisle airliners are also used in the KC-135 tanker, E-3A AWACS, and P-8A maritime patrol aircraft. Likewise, the PW2000 turbofan that powers the Boeing 757 and Ilyushin IL-96 airliners is physically very similar to the F117 PW100 engine used in the C-17 transport aircraft, the backbone of the U.S. airlifter fleet.

Another use for jet engines—at least their cores—is propulsion of naval ships, since marine gas turbines tend to be based on aircraft engine designs. Having good reliable engine cores that were originally developed for aircraft application could have potentially significant implications for Chinese military shipbuilding, as gas turbine propulsion gives ships much better acceleration and combat maneuverability.

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