Airshow China-2010: Can it boost China's aircraft industry?

'Airshow China' in Zhuhai, November 17, 2010.  Source: Itar-Tass

'Airshow China' in Zhuhai, November 17, 2010. Source: Itar-Tass

Airshow China, which opened in Zhuhai on November 17, 2010, is expected to map out future relations in the aerospace industry among Russia, India and China, the three largest countries in Eurasia.

The trade show should provide answers to several questions. The main question is whether China's aircraft industry is capable of serving Beijing's political and economic ambitions. China has been striving for independence in the aerospace industry, whose development was, until recently, underwritten by technology borrowed from Russia, Europe and the United States.

Likewise, it is unclear if India's aircraft industry is ready to start producing engines and onboard electronic systems on its own. Another important question is who will be the main supplier of technology for the Indian aircraft industry, Russia or the United States?

Russian delegates in Zhuhai will focus on future defense cooperation with China and India, which have dramatically decreased purchases of Russian military equipment in the last decade.

Successful talks or, better still, new contracts with China and India would confirm the high potential of the Russian defense industry even in these complicated markets.

In Search of New Technology

The Zhuhai show, although smaller than Farnborough or Le Bourget, is still quite big: this year it will feature about 70 aircraft and 600 companies, including leaders of the global aircraft industry. But it is primarily a showcase of Chinese achievements, and this year China has quite a few, above all in space exploration.

China's space program has largely followed in the footsteps of past Soviet/Russian and U.S. projects, such as manned orbital flights, a space station, unmanned missions and a moon crawler.

This year China will present a model of a space station, Tiangong 1, designed for training in docking operations, and a satellite navigation system similar to the U.S. Navstar and the Russian Glonass. Its deployment began in 2007 and is to be completed by 2020.

The show will also feature new civil aviation and air defense equipment. However, most of this equipment is either carbon copies of foreign systems or a combination of solutions and features culled from various foreign models.

There is nothing taboo about borrowing technology to boost a country's research and industrial potential, but this process discourages initiative and innovation at home. The country's industry is doomed to follow the lead of other countries' industries. There is little chance that the industry will produce something completely new.

China's military projects offer a good example. China continues to import military technology, while it has made little progress in developing its own. As a result, China is currently in talks with Russia to purchase AL-31F aircraft engines. The engine is to be installed in Chinese J-11 fighter planes, a copy of the Russian Su-27 Flanker jet, and in the J-10 fighter, designed with Russian assistance on the basis of Israel's Lavi project of the 1980s.

The Chinese analogue of the AL-31F engine, the WS-10, has so far been unable to generate the required amount of power, despite years of hard work by Chinese engineers.

China also plans to buy more of Russian RD-93 engines for its FC-1 (Fighter China 1) lightweight multipurpose fighter, which is based on Russia's MiG-33 Fulcrum. The FC-1 will be built for China's military and for export to developing countries, which need relatively modern and inexpensive planes.

During this year's air show, China intends to discuss the possibility of purchasing Russia's Su-33 (Su-27K) Flanker-D carrier-backed multirole fighter. China has expressed interest in buying a small number of these planes for the purpose of copying its design, but Russia is insisting that China purchase at least 20 planes.

Russia's position is understandable. It would hardly benefit from helping China copy its design. A large contract, on the other hand, would bring substantial revenues, which could be invested in the Russian defense industry.
Russia's Sukhoi company is steadfastly opposed to selling a small number of planes to China.

"We concluded our talks on selling carrier-based aircraft two years ago and have not discussed the possibility of selling more [Su-33 planes] since then," said Pavel Sergeyev, a deputy CEO of the company.

"Both Russia and China are interested in cooperation, but their approaches to it differ, and so we have decided to suspend the talks," he added. "If our Chinese partners decide to resume talks, we are prepared to join them, but the talks must be based on the principle of mutual benefit."

According to Sergeyev, Sukhoi's interest in such cooperation has diminished. "We have many other orders, and so we are losing interest in producing a plane we stopped making 15 years ago," he said.

Still Just a Copycat

China has achieved some success in the production of combat aircraft. It is now producing large batches of its J-10 and J-11 planes, which were in development for about 20 years, but these planes cannot function properly without imported equipment.

China is still 25 to 30 years behind the world's leaders in this sphere. Russia developed its Su-27 Flanker between the 1960s and the 1980s, and Israel's IAI Lavi was built in the 1970s-1980s. There are no Chinese models on par with more modern aircraft, for example the Su-35 Flanker-E based on the T-10 platform, which also served as the basis for the Su-27.

And few experts think that China can independently develop and manufacture a fifth-generation fighter plane.
History has repeated itself: by the late 1960s, China was mass producing, and even improving on, Chinese versions of Soviet-made planes from the 1940s and 1950s, such as MiG-17, MiG-19, MiG-21, Il-28 and Tu-16. But by that time, the Soviet Union and the United States had already taken another leap forward. In the 1970s, China employed the same practice with western countries and Israel, resuming cooperation with the Soviet Union at the turn of the 1990s.

In 2010, China stopped producing the J-7 plane, its version of Russia's MiG-21 Fishbed. China again finds itself far behind the world's aviation leaders, including Russia, which created new combat aircraft in the last 20 years despite economic problems.

Therefore, China will most likely have to continue to import modern aircraft, including for the purpose of copying their designs.

The Indian Contract

Unlike China, India has never wanted its aircraft industry to become fully independent. It is content to assemble foreign models and carry out licensed production of some aircraft components. India continues to buy large batches of foreign aircraft. It is expected to sign a contract next year for the purchase of 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) to replace the obsolete MiG-21 third-generation jet fighters.

India considered six aircraft to receive a $10-billion contract - the Eurofighter, France's Rafale, the Swedish Gripen, the U.S. F-16C/D and F/A-18E/F, and Russia's MiG-35. It is unclear who will be awarded the contract, which could be divided between the F-18 and the MiG-35.

India is preparing for the licensed production of the latest modifications of the Russian RD-33 aircraft engine, designed for the modernized MiG-29 planes and also for the MiG-35. It has also signed an $800 million contract to buy 100 U.S.-made F414-GE-400 engines. Finally, India is trying to maintain good business relationships with both the Russian and the U.S. defense industries. Therefore, it is likely that India will buy both Russian and U.S. warplanes.

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