Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 23

In the 1990s, China had no choice in its quest to modernize its military but to import entire weapons systems. And the imports have continued. But total reliance on imports is not a solution, especially for a military that prides itself on self-reliance. As an intermediate step to reversing this dependence, to indigenous design and production, the People’s Liberation Army is now building its own weapons with imported foreign-made components.

Beijing’s limited strategic entente with the United States and Europe during the 1980s had yielded limited but useful access to modern military technology. By 1990, however, the PLA, given its traditions and having just emerged from its own period of intense isolation and internal political turmoil, was reluctant to accept any purchase that would leave it dependent on foreigners. But in the face of post-Tiananmen sanctions, followed soon after by Washington’s shocking demonstration of modern military might over Iraq, it was forced to cast aside its pride. It turned to Moscow.

A newly poor Russia eager to sell its wares allowed the PLA to absorb useful numbers of many different weapon systems two to three generations ahead of what it had. The Air Force (PLAAF) received its first 4th generation fighters in the Sukhoi Su-27SK and its first modern anti-aircraft missile in the S-300. To satisfy its need for effective airborne radar, the PLAAF turned to Israel for its effective Phalcon system, to be placed on a Russian Il-76 transport aircraft. The Navy (PLAN) received two export model Kilo-class conventional submarines, followed by two more capable models. It also obtained two Sovremenniy-class destroyers with their deadly supersonic Moskit antiship missiles. Combat capabilities of both the PLAAF and PLAN went up several notches.

The price in turning to new foreign weapons, however, was vulnerability. With both its Sukhoi fighter and Kilo submarine programs the PLA learned lessons the hard way. To reduce purchase cost, the PLA had shortchanged on training and maintenance support elements. It ran into problems almost immediately. This was clearly the situation with the Su-27SKs in 1996 exercises designed to intimidate Taiwan, which ended up having something of the opposite effect in Taipei and Washington. A late 1990s maintenance snafu in a Kilo submarine put it out of action for an unacceptably long period.

Then, in mid-2000, in a rare example of assertiveness, the Clinton administration halted Israel’s sale of the Phalcon to Beijing. The PLA was hoping to make the Phalcon, which used modern and effective phased-array technology, a centerpiece of its developing military information architecture, and a critical force-multiplier for the PLAAF. The PLA timetable was set back several years. The embarrassment of powerlessness over the situation would have been avoided had the system been built in China, had China been able to develop it.

But as the PLA accepted vulnerabilities for the shorter term, it has not lost sight of the longer term: to modernize weapons development and production capacity to world-class levels. China’s leaders understand that China’s military will command respect when China is producing its own new weapon systems either on a par with, or superior to, those of Russia and the West. In the area of missiles, a relatively simple technology, the PLA has already achieved this goal. There is also ample evidence that, as a matter of policy, the PLA has long been investing in an indigenous capability to produce the next generation of weapons. Since the 1980s, crash military technology development efforts like the 863 Program have focused development funds on directed energy weapons, space warfare systems and robotic weapons.

But the PLA still needs to master the current intermediate stage of co-production. Assembly from imported or co-produced components does provide the PLA with a way to learn more of the underlying technologies of a weapon system. The PLA is also learning that controlling more of the production process allows it not only to better contain costs but as well to modify weapons to better meet their unique requirements. Furthermore, components have a lower political profile and are therefore less vulnerable to political interdiction.

The most high-profile example of co-production is the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation’s co-production line for the Su-27SK, known as the J-11 when produced in China. A 1996 contract to co-produce 200 Su-27s from Russian-built kits was given a low chance of success by some Western analysts. Indeed, the first two J-11s were so bad that Russian technicians had to rebuild them. But Russian sources interviewed at the early November Zhuhai Airshow in China are now telling a different story. They note that Shenyang has improved its production line so that J-11s now have a better finish than Russian-made Su-27s. Shenyang will also modify its J-11s with a new Chinese radar that will make them multi-role fighter and attack capable, as called for by new PLAAF doctrine.

In addition, the PLA is making greater use of imported components to build new weapons. The new Chengdu J-10 fighter also makes extensive use of foreign components. Its engine will be a Russian Saturn-Alyuka AL-31FN and its radar likely from Israel or Russia, or influenced by their technology. The new SD-10 active guided air-launched anti-aircraft missile uses the radar and data link from Russia’s very capable Vympel R-77, combined with a Chinese missile motor. The resulting SD-10 has a greater range than the Russian missile, and a fire-and-forget active guidance capability comparable to the modern U.S. AIM-120 AMRAAM. The development of the SD-10 now places great pressure on the U.S. to develop a better missile, lest its fighters and those of its allies become vulnerable.

China has also successfully obtained Russian radar satellite technology to build its first modern radar satellite. This information was confirmed by Chinese officials at the Zhuhai show. The PRC’s new HJ-1C radar satellite will use a Russian radar antenna combined with a Chinese satellite bus. Radar satellites can penetrate clouds to produce imagery and are ideal for finding ships at sea. And in regards to naval systems, the PLAN is making use of Russian technology and advice to improve its new nuclear powered and conventionally powered submarine designs. Both will likely use Russian submarine weapons like the Novator Club antiship missile.


  • anti-satellite, direct ascent: British micro- and nano-satellite technology; PRC solid-fueled mobile ICBM-based launch system.
  • radar satellite: Russian antenna, satellite bus.
  • synthetic aperture radar (SAR) aircraft: Russian Tu-154, U.S. SAR technology; PRC-designed SAR.
  • Y-8 airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft: British Racal/Thales Skymaster AEW radar; PRC-produced Y-8 transport aircraft.
  • Chengdu J-10 multirole fighter: Russian engine, possible Russian radar, Israeli airframe and control system assistance; PRC designed airframe, possible PRC radar and defensive systems, PRC weapons.
  • Shenyang J-8IIC multirole fighter: Russian multimode radar; PRC airframe, engines.
  • Sukhoi Su-27SK/J-11 multirole fighter: Russian airframe, engines and avionics; PRC multimode radar and weapons.
  • SD-10 active air-to-air missile: Russian radar and data link; PRC motor, airframe.
  • HQ-9/FT-2000 surface-to-air missile: Russian guidance systems, possible U.S. seeker technology, possible Israeli design assistance; PRC motor, airframe.
  • Destroyer No. 168: Ukrainian engines, possible Russian weapons; PRC-designed stealthy hull and defensive systems.
  • SONG conventional submarine: German engine, possible Russian weapons and design assistance, possible Israeli design assistance; PRC hull, defensive systems.
  • Project 093 nuclear attack submarine: Russian design assistance, possible Russian weapons; PRC hull, nuclear reactor, defensive systems.
  • medium transport/attack helicopter: French design assistance for rotor head, Italian design assistance, possible Canadian engine; PRC airframe, engines, avionics, weapons.
  • Type-98 main battle tank: Russian 125mm gun, guidance system, autoloader, and gun-launched missile technology; PRC-designed tank hull, turret and laser defensive system.

Immediate strategic requirements, especially the need to win a future war over Taiwan, will continue to force the PLA to purchase entire foreign weapon systems. However, the PLA remains opposed to such reliance on foreign weapons and is seeking alternatives. While it continues to fund development of indigenous weapons and to fund development of future weapons, it is also trying to co-produce foreign weapons, and is increasingly developing weapons based on foreign components. Such a course is not a full solution to the PLA’s desire for purely domestically produced weapons, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is a senior fellow with the Jamestown Foundation and the managing editor of China Brief.