Chinese Dimensions of the 2007 Dubai Airshow
Although located in a region of tension and conflict the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has successfully deterred foreign predation by building modern and professional armed forces and by maintaining a broad aviation talent by hosting some of the world’s most competitive airlines. The UAE has also made itself a center of the region’s civil and military aerospace trade by hosting two of the most popular arms shows, IDEX in Abu Dhabi and then the Dubai Airshow. The 2007 Dubai Airshow from November 11 to 15 proved a boon for the airline and military aircraft industry, with over $100 billion in orders registered for over 500 aircraft.
This year’s show featured a modest presence by China’s CATIC aviation marketing company, with little to no effort by the sales team to speak to, much less display any of its modern offerings, such as the Chengdu J-10 fighter reportedly on offer to Iran and Syria. However, several of the international companies attending the Dubai show that are aiding China’s aerospace modernization would speak to their business and concerns with China.
Thrust Vector Engines for the J-10 and Carrier News
Russian sources stated that China and the Russian Salyut engine concern were in the process of negotiating a future sale of the AL-31FN engine, but with a axisymmetric thrust vectoring nozzle. These sources would not state the number of engines in this package, but did confirm previous statements that the thrust vectored engines were intended to support a Chinese Navy version of the Chengdu J-10 fighter--presumably for aircraft carrier use. In 2005 a Russian source had noted China’s interest in the thrust vectored modified version of the AL-31FN, but in 2007 it is now apparent that such a sale is under negotiation. With its forward stabilizer “canard” configuration, thrust vectoring for the J-10 could conceivably allow a lower landing speed, or enable a faster recovery take-off from a “Bolter,” or a failed arrested carrier deck landing. Both capabilities would be of interest to the PLA Navy to increase operational safety. In addition, other sources indicate the PLA will use the thrust-vectored J-10 version to better enable useful payloads to be lifted from the high-altitude bases of the Tibetan Plateau just north of India. Otherwise, thrust vectoring would add more to the already inherit high maneuverability of the J-10’s canard configuration. Russian sources claim that the thrust vectoring nozzle will not add additional weight to the engine, which might then require airframe or ballast modifications for aircraft.
Possible Russian Engine Upgrades
Russian sources are also “confident” that China will purchase new advanced higher thrust versions of the AL-31 to modernize existing PLA Sukhoi fighters, and potentially, to comprise future engine orders for the J-10. For example, the AL-31M-3 is intended to produce a 15,000 kg thrust engine, a bit less than that for the Pratt Whitney PW119 that powers the Lockheed Martin F-22A fifth generation fighter. These sources were also confident that Russia would produce a new generation engine to support Russia’s 5th generation fighter program. This engine would also be in the 15 ton thrust range and be able to support a “supercruise” mission, or supersonic flight for an operational distance without recourse to fuel guzzling afterburners.
Russian sources also confirmed that China continues to make steady progress in her decade long drive toward the completion of its first modern high power fighter turbofan, sometimes called the WS-10A Taihang. These sources expected that the J-10 would transition from primary reliance on Russian engines to the Chinese engine in less than five years. In late 2006 the “Taihang” emerged with some publicity after a long period of Chinese development. Since then, Chinese sources have suggested that China may soon develop its own advanced 15,000kg thrust capable version of the Taihang. China’s engine sector has long been viewed as the “Achilles Heel” of its aircraft sector, but this is changing fast, the Russian sources concede.
Russian 5th Generation Tidbits
Commenting on Russia’s 5th generation fighter plans, one Russian source affirmed that a first flight for their new generation fighter would take place in 2009. Other Russian sources were less optimistic, noting the 5th generation fighter might fly by 2012. Russian Premier Ivanov recently noted the first flight would occur in 2010. This fighter would combine 5th generation levels of advance in terms of stealth, supercruise and advanced electronic systems, to include a new active phased array radar system. While responding to unique Russian requirements, this source asserted the new 5th Generation fighter would be “better than the F-35” and close to competitive with the F-22. Such a distinction flows more from Russia’s unique requirements for its 5th generation fighter which does not include a requirement to match or exceed the F-22 in all aspects. This source also suggested that there would be a naval carrier version of this new aircraft. Fully aware of the Russian government’s gathering commitment to build a new fleet of up to six nuclear powered aircraft carriers, this source noted, “if there is a new ship there should be a new aircraft.” This source noted that existing Russian naval aircraft designs like the Su-27KUB would not be the design to meet future Russian naval combat aircraft requirements.
Four To Six Chinese Aircraft Carriers?
Interestingly, a U.S. source that recently spoke with high PLA Navy officers relayed to the IASC that these officers stated that China would eventually build four to six aircraft carriers. In 2007 Chinese officials have been more willing to acknowledge their ambitions to build large aircraft carriers, an ambition that had previously been consistently denied. China is known to have had extensive contact with Russian aircraft carrier design and component manufacturing companies, and is now refurbishing the former Russian/Ukrainian carrier Varyag in Dalian harbor. In addition, PLA Navy officers have visited the French nuclear carrier Charles de Gaulle, which may also influence China’s eventual choice of carrier size and configuration.
Since 2005 this analyst has tracked China’s aggressive pursuit of its carrier air wing. This has included negotiations to purchase modified Sukhoi Su-33 carrier fighters, which have yet to reach any conclusion, as well as the Shenyang Aircraft Co.’s efforts to copy the Su-33, which have included the purchase of Su-33 prototypes from Ukraine. But an additional PLA Navy carrier air wing candidate might be the naval version of Russia’s 5th generation fighter. Or, perhaps a naval version of China’s 5th generation fighter. In November a Chinese commentator asserted that China’s 5th generation fighter could fly as early as 2014 to 2015. Chinese sources indicate that China is developing a 15-ton maximum thrust version of the Taihang engine, which conceivably could support a Chinese “5th generation” supercruise mission. Chinese sources have also recently suggested that China is actively developing unmanned combat aircraft for carrier operations.
Twin Seat JF-17 Back On
A Pakistani official stated that the Pakistan side has elected to proceed with the development of a twin-seat version of the Chengdu FC-1 or JF-17 in Pakistan service. A CATIC official refused to comment on this development. The Pakistan Air Force’s requirement for a twin seat version of this fighter was first noted to the author by Pakistan Air Force officials in 2004. However, subsequent reports have noted that China was not interested in such a twin-seat version of the FC-1. The Pakistani official at the Dubai show stated, however, that Pakistan has elected to pay for the development of the twin seat version, and that is now proceeding. This official explained that as Pakistan is sharing in the full spectrum of production, usage and sales of the JF-17, that it therefore requires the twin seat version to fully exploit this aircraft. The twin seat version will be used to support training missions and will also be developed into a dedicated attack model. This same official noted that Pakistan will only purchase the Chengdu J-10 fighter, which is therefore of less industrial interest to Pakistan. Other sources have noted that Pakistan intends to purchase an initial force of 40 J-10 fighters.
Since the Dubai show Russia’s Kommersant has reported that Russia has approved the Klimov RD93 engine in the FC-1/JF-17 for re-export to six countries: Algeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Re-export to Pakistan had been an issue of serious contention between Russia and India, which uses the RD33, the basis for the RD93, in its MiG-29 fighters. Russia’s decision is a blow for Delhi, which will now face the JF-17 in significant numbers not only in Pakistan but also potentially in Bangladesh. China will also soon be able to arm the FC-1/JF-17 with 5th generation air-to-air missiles, such as the PL-10 derived from the South African Denel A-DARTER, and another radar-guided missile derived from the Denel R-DARTER. These weapons will greatly increase the combat potential of this low-cost but modern platform. At the same time, it is a major boost for Pakistan’s and China’s effort to promote the FC-1/JF-17 as the pre-eminent low-cost 4th generation multirole fighter. Until South Korea can market a single-seat combat version of its T/A-50 trainer, the FC-1/JF-17 will face no competition in its price range. The willingness of China and Pakistan to transfer full co-production capability will enhance the attractiveness of this fighter to many countries also looking to bolster their developing aerospace industries.
Interest in a Beriev Megalift Concept
A Russian source also noted that based on several conversations at the 2007 Moscow Airshow that Chinese officials were rather interested in the Beriev Be-2500 very large cargo carrying amphibious aircraft. First seen at the 2003 Moscow Airshow, the eight-engine Be-2500 is one of the more recent concepts to emerge from a Russia’s longstanding fascination with very large aircraft. The Be-2500 is derived from designs dating back to the 1960s, when Beriev and others developed large “Ekranoplanes,” which fly at low altitude exploiting ground effect, and “Ekranolyots,” which can fly at medium altitudes. Earlier Beriev water-borne large Ekranolyots were designed to actually launch small fighters off a ramp on top of the fuselage. The Be-2500 would be a massive amphibian that could carry up to 1,000 tons of cargo and still fly at an altitude of 8,000m. While it can utilize runways, very few would be wide enough to accommodate its undercarriage. By comparison the latest versions of the Antonov An-124 are designed to carry up to 150 tons.
The Russian source indicated that Beriev could not build a Be-2500 prototype without substantial foreign investment. While confident that it could follow through with the work and build the aircraft, it lacks the financial and physical plant to do the job currently. Putting an aircraft the size of the Be-2500 into series production would require a multi-national investment and production effort comparable to that which produced the Airbus A-380.
For these reasons it is questionable whether Chinese interest would be realized beyond the level of consulting or information gathering. However, China’s interest in the Be-2400 becomes understandable from the perspective of its immediate military and looming economic requirements. The ability to airlift 1,000 tons of military equipment to a secured beach on Taiwan would prove very attractive to China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). With a force of Be-2500s the PLA could better exploit options to invade Taiwan from many more directions, from the South or on the East Coast. The Be-2500 could also rapidly reinforce forces on secured beaches, to more rapidly assemble assault forces needed to occupy a major Taiwanese city and more rapidly terminate the war. For China the Be-2500 could also support rapid high value cargo delivery at a far more economical scale. Chinese products could be shipped to distant markets more rapidly and critical resources could then be taken back to China at far greater speed.
An official with Eurocopter noted that as previously reported, Eurocopter and China are on track to jointly developed and produce the EC-175 or Z-15 6-ton utility helicopter, which could be tested as early as 2009. While it is to be powered by Pratt Whitney Canada PT6 engines, Eurocopter is not ready to release definitive performance parameters until next year. However, the EC-175 is expected to be very close in performance to the Agusta A-139, which can carry 15 passengers in its civil version. The official stressed that this program is intended to be truly joint. Both sides have shared in the full development, with the European side designing the rotor and the Chinese side designing the blades. Component production is also to be shared, with no duplication between the sides.
This official dismissed the notion that China would develop military versions of the Z-15, despite the fact that every version of a Eurocopter helicopter either co-produced or copied by China has been produced in military versions. This official insisted that Eurocopter would uphold “international responsibilities” and that a recent co-production agreement for the EC-120 light helicopter had not led to a Chinese copied version. However, the EC-120 does equip Chinese Army Aviation training units.
Chances for Mi-17 Co-production Dim
A Russian source familiar with PLA orders for the Russian M-17 medium weight utility helicopter downplayed reports earlier this year that there might be a co-production agreement to build this popular helicopter in China. Recent reports indicate that a Chinese-Russian joint venture in Chengdu to repair Mi-17 helicopters may be trying to co-produced this helicopter as well. So far the PLA has ordered about 200 of this 10-ton capacity helicopter. The Russian source indicated that while a co-production arrangement had indeed been explored, the Russian side had doubts that a “civil” co-production agreement could be implemented that would sufficiently protect Russian intellectual property. This is a major concern for Russians given China’s great progress in “stealing” the Sukhoi Su-27 design to support its “indigenized” J-11B fighter program. But the Russians are also reluctant to lose the chance to secure a stronger foothold against its European competitor Eurocopter, which is pressing ahead with a full co-development program.
Progress Engines for L-15
A Ukrainian source indicated that the Motor Sich Company was completing an order for 100 Al-222 turbofan engines to support the Chinese twin-engine Hongdu L-15 supersonic trainer. In 2005 there were reports that China would order over 200 of these engines, so this update indicates the PLA has settled on a smaller initial number for this new supersonic trainer. The L-15 was developed with design consulting from Russia’s Yakovlev, and the L-15 is basically a cleaned up Yak-130 with after-burning engines to support supersonic training. An order of 100 engines might support a small number of test aircraft and then about two regiments of training aircraft. The L-15 program deserves watching as it is the most modern trainer now in production in China. Reports indicate China may be considering a navy carrier version for pilot training. And as has been the case with the Yak-130, the L-15 basic design could also support potential dedicated close air-support or even unmanned combat aircraft versions.
Russian Moon Ideas
An official from the Energia Company, which has manufactured most of Russia’s manned space structures, plus major components for the International Space Station, offered some ideas on how Russia might consider sending its personnel to the Moon, provided that Russian officialdom follows through with the enormous funding required to fulfill recent positive statements in that direction. One intriguing notion is that Russia eventually would want all of its manned space equipment to be as reusable as possible, to save on costs. A second interesting idea is that Russia is considering a permanent reusable lunar orbit space station to serve as a waypoint to support manned missions to the Moon. But such ideas are tentative and very preliminary, as the Russian government has yet to commit to real Moon programs.
The peak and decline in Chinese purchases of Russian arms, plus Russia’s renewed economic vigor, due largely to rising oil prices, have given Moscow cause for reducing its dependence on Chinese money to sustain its arms sector. While there has been steady commentary for about two years about rising Russian frustration with their military-technical relationship with Russia, their respective political leaders have been eager to sustain their “United Front” of “Multilateralism” against the United States. One Russian source at the show noted that the Russian military has consistently opposed Russian high technology sales to China, but has been overruled by the political class and the previously desperate arms sector. But Russian military concerns as well a rising military-corporate concerns with China’s aggressive copying of Russian systems, may lead to a real change in heart in Moscow. One Russian source in Dubai noted, “in time, this time of open doors to China will come to an end.” The problem is that Russia has already sold so much of its most advanced weaponry to a China, arming a potential rival for Central Asian dominance that also poses a growing threat to U.S., Japanese and Taiwanese security interests.
(Japanese sources recently suggested to my colleague Arthur Waldron that under Putin Russia has substantially modified its approach to China arms sales, substituting a degree of caution and suspicion for previous willingness to provide whatever China could buy. The same source confirmed Russia’s desire to maintain China as part of an anti-US coalition. China and Russia have plenty of issues between them and Putin has given highest priority to securing the Far East, the Russian territory closest to China. So Russian China policy appears to be in flux).
Nevertheless, even though outright weapon purchases are down, Russia today remains a critical source for China of all manner of military technology. For example, recent Chinese data suggests Russia has sold China the means to make very long-range ramjet powered air-to-air missiles that might out-range all current models of the U.S. AIM-120 AMRAAM. Though China may be attempting to develop a carrier compatible version of the Shenyang J-11B, an “indigenized” version of the Su-27, a lack of success may force Beijing to swallow its pride and purchase an upgraded Russian Su-33 or Su-27KUB. But another potential option may be the carrier version of Russia’s 5th generation fighter, which would offer clear superiority over a 4++ generation version of the Su-33. It would also offer potentially decisive superiority over the Boeing F/A-18E/F, to which the U.S. Navy remains committed as its dominant carrier fighter for decades to come. The chance also exists that China has already included a carrier variant in its 5th generation fighter requirements, which both Shenyang and Chengdu are striving to meet.
Therefore, one conclusion from Dubai is that neither the United States nor its allies can rely for much longer on significant numbers of upgraded 4th generation fighters to provide adequate deterrence in the air. There will be added pressure on the U.S. Air Force to fund adequate numbers of the Lockheed-Martin F-22A and to sustain production plans for the F-35. Furthermore, the U.S. Navy must either modify its future attack-mission oriented Lockheed-Martin F-35C 5th generation fighter to better conduct air-superiority missions, or develop a new 5th or 6th generation fighter to sustain air superiority at sea. In addition, Japan will have to commit to a plan to meet its 5th generation fighter requirements. So far, these include purchase of the F-22, purchase or co-production of the F-35, or an accelerated development of the new 5th generation design based on the ATD-X or “Shinshin” technology demonstrator now under development by the Ministry of Defense Technology Research and Development Institute (TRDI). Other countries like Australia and South Korea are already facing increased pressure to upgrade their air forces to 5th generation fighters.