Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 19

Investigating the degree of cooperation between the aerospace industries of Russia and China demands painstaking research. Chinese officials do not like to reveal details about their cooperation, while Russian officials will neither admit nor deny such information. In addition, Russian officials occasionally overstate the amount of cooperation that exists. Further complicating the matter is the fact that the Russian press and researchers usually present aerospace cooperation as military-technical cooperation, on which much is written. The latter is considered part and parcel of the business of arms deals, and as a result, military-technical and arms exports issues tend to overshadow aerospace industry topics.

However, Russia-China aerospace industry cooperation has been gradually (but surely) improving the knowledge and skills of Chinese engineers and technicians, turning them into potential competitors in the world markets. Although it is true that since the 1980s the Chinese aerospace industry has expanded its activities, it has yet to reach a point at which it can compete with Russia and Western Europe. But continued improvement in design and development of Chinese military aircraft raises the possibility of competition with other manufacturers on an equal footing in the not so distant future.

The importance of the American and European aerospace industries, and the military accomplishments of their air forces since the First Persian Gulf War (1990-1991), have been noted by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (PLAAF’s) command and the highest echelon of China’s political leadership. These factors have provided a much-needed catalyst to increase funding for the China’s aerospace projects, including modernization of the Chinese Su-27 fleet which was purchased in the early 1980s. (Such funding had been diverted into space activities over the last twelve years.) These shifts highlight the vital importance that the PLAAF’s command will play in any future war. This new PLAAF role has already been tested in the latest military maneuvers staged by the Chinese armed forces.

The change in China’s military priorities, namely, expected increases in funding for the Chinese aerospace industry, coincides with decreased cooperation with Russian counterparts. This reverses a trend of substantial increases in cooperation between both countries’ aerospace industries that began 1992. For instance, China had previously used Russian defense systems; Russian engines, radars and missiles had also been installed in Chinese aircraft (such as the J-8/F-8, FC-1/Super-7, J-10/F-10 and the next generation lead-in fighter trainers designated as the L-15); and Russia had provided basic training programs for Chinese workforce and aircrew.

Potential civil aviation and space cooperation has also substantially decreased since China discovered that Russia is not such a reliable partner as, for instance, Airbus and Boeing. Meanwhile, the successful launch of the Chinese manned space shuttle has highlighted the progress that China has made since the early 1990s. In other words, Chinese aerospace engineers and technicians have learned a great deal from their Russian colleagues but, after their successful space launch, China has been less willing to cooperate with Russia on space issues. For instance, China declined to take part in improving the Russian Glonass system of navigation satellites.

There have been other shifts in China’s civil aviation programs. China recently decided not to purchase somewhere between twenty and thirty IL-76 military transport aircraft. However, there is a chance that a deal signed in September 2001 between China and the Cairo-based Sirocco Aerospace International and Russian export agency Aviaexport involving the sale of five Tu-204-120C freighters will not go ahead as a result of the Russians’ failure to deliver aircraft on time. The failure to deliver Tu’s to China might also affect potential sales of the IL’s aircraft to China. The result has been that the financial problems of the Russian civil aviation industry, accompanied by broken promises and the failed delivery of freighters to China, have caused the Chinese authorities to become very apprehensive about any future cooperation with the Russian civil aviation industry.

In redefining its relationship with Russia, China has increasingly become interested in technology transfers rather than in direct defense purchases. Currently, Russia’s share of technology transfers to China is about 30 per cent. China is interested in increasing this share to up to 70 per cent in a quest to be self-sufficient. China’s desire to rely on its own capabilities support the view that the country will, in the long run, disengage itself from Russia. While this trend has not yet become obvious, there is little doubt that we are now seeing the first signs of disengagement.

So far, the Ramenskoye-based (Moscow Region) Technocomplex Scientific Production Centre has been upgrading both single-seat and two-seat Su-27s for the PLAAF. The scope of this upgrade work is an example of the integrated thinking that surrounds China’s future fighter program and the J-10/F-10 and Su-27/J-11 in particular. Having mastered basic airframe assembly, China currently controls an upgrade package that will allow it to integrate the weapons and systems under development. Although the Moscow-based machine-building enterprise Salyut has not yet delivered to China the AL-31 engine, which features a fully variable, rotating, thrust-vector control (TVC) nozzle designed by the St. Petersburg-based Klimov Corporation, when the delivery occurs, the AL-31 can be retrofitted during an engine upgrade, turning the J-10 into a highly maneuverable fighter. Furthermore, it appears that the Chinese-built WS10A engine that powers the J-10 fighter can match the performance of the AL-31 engine, despite differences in design and manufacture.

Russian defense industry sources have disclosed that China’s engine makers are close to mastering the complex skills needed to build the Su-27’s AL-31 engine – something that most observers had thought would be controlled by Russia. If this proves to be the case, then China will have used the Su-27/J-11 project to establish a total systems capability for advanced combat aircraft in little more than ten years.

A look into a future without Russia

Russian officials continue to believe that China will remain a long-term arms import partner. The events of the last decade seem to support this strong conviction. However, China’s own domestic developments, such as the design and manufacture of their aircraft and weapons systems and their lack of interest in cooperating with Russia on the design and manufacture of fifth generation aircraft might ring alarm bells in Moscow. In addition to China’s domestic developments, there are at least five Chinese aerospace industry objectives that Beijing would be able to achieve without Russian participation. These are:

Increased investment in the aerospace industry infrastructure – something which has sharply decreased since the early 1990s when China started to divert money towards space programs;

Enhancement of the Russian-built air fleet inventory using Western/South African avionics and Israeli components. Although this trend is not yet obvious, the recent procurement by India and Malaysia of Russian-built aircraft without Russian avionics highlight this preference;

Procurement of airborne early warning and control systems (AWACS). The failed delivery of the Israeli-built Phalcon to China has reinforced the importance of AWACS and confirmed the clear understanding within the Chinese government that such systems need to be acquired. The Russian-built Beriev A-50 is not a substitute for the Israeli-built Phalcon but merely a temporary solution. Thus, it is not surprising that the Chinese are trying to develop AWACS, although there is a strong possibility of them obtaining outside assistance, most probably from Russia;

Enhancing domestic development and manufacture as well as the procurement of advanced unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs). For the time being, Russia has failed to engage China in joint research and development and potential joint manufacture of these vehicles; and

Continued investment in space with an emphasis on military space in particular.

The sixth Chinese objective is to design and manufacture a new military transport aircraft. This is not the An-70, which the management of the Antonov design bureau has discussed at length with the Chinese aerospace industry officials, but a new military transport aircraft that has preliminary been designated Y-8X. In this case, China turned to the Ukraine, which has a long history of design and manufacture of military transport aircraft. Whether the Ukraine will turn out to be a more reliable partner than Russia remains to be seen. There is, however, a clear understanding within the management of the Antonov design bureau that cooperation with China is vital to the future of its design bureau. In the final analysis, however, it seems that the significant achievements made by the Chinese aerospace industry have allowed Beijing the room to further develop its capacities without such heavy reliance on Russian imports.