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

Conclusion: Exceeding China’s “80% Solution”?

In terms of raw numbers of aircraft being built, China has become the world’s largest producer of fighter aircraft over the past three years. Now observers are waiting to see if the newly announced investment plans can help bring China’s military jet engine manufacturing capabilities to a level commensurate with the country’s ability to build airframes. The stakes are high because once China masters indigenous production of high-performance jet engines, there will be few, if any, technical constraints on its ability to rapidly produce late-generation fighters for its own forces and for export markets.

This is a daunting task indeed. When it comes to future efforts to export aircraft with Chinese engines, Beijing may be burdened with an “80% solution” pattern. According to Reuben Johnson, China’s particular technological development approach produces a common pattern in performance parameters of the systems it develops: “Chinese always seem to be able to achieve around 80% of the performance of whatever they’re trying to mimic; the last 20% would be difficult and expensive to accomplish.” This approach may produce significant and even superlative performance in categories in which ‘quantity has a quality all its own’—as with missiles—but limits results in areas where workarounds are scarce or unavailable, as with aeroengines.

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It will be hard to convince China’s military and export customers that they should accept a substandard Chinese engine when China has previously used imported engines (e.g., a Ukrainian engine in the L-15 trainer); asking them to accept an unfamiliar product represents a great leap of faith. Increasing indigenous efforts in this area may reignite previous tension between the interests of China’s aviation industry as a producer and the PLAAF and PLAN as end-users—just as the Indonesian Air Force opposed the ambitious efforts of Dr. B.J. Habibi and the state-owned enterprise Industri Pesawat Terbang Nusantara (IPTN)—now known as Indonesian Aerospace—and the Indian Air Force is often at loggerheads with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited over jet engine issues.

China is increasingly recognizing that aeroengines represent the “long pole in the tent” of military aircraft production, but has a long way to go before it can remove this as a limiting factor. Even with China’s existing resources and growing expertise, this process is likely to take time to even approach the accomplishments that the Big Three, secondary Western European, and Russian aeroengine manufacturers have achieved after many years of arduous development.

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