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How May Europe Strengthen China’s Military?

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by Richard Fisher, Jr.
Published on January 15th, 2005
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In early December 2004 the European Union (EU) decided "in principle" to lift the embargo on arms sales to China put in place after the Tiananmen massacre of 1989.[1] Washington is strongly opposed. But if the Europeans go ahead, then the question for the United States—and its friends and allies in Asia, including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, India, and even Australia—will be: what can the Europeans provide that China does not already have, and how would such provision affect US and allied security? To assist in answering those questions, here are two issues to consider:

Six Key Technologies Europe Has Already Provided:

The embargo the Europeans want to lift was announced in 1989 and is in fact non binding.[2] The examples below demonstrate that even with the embargo in place, Europe did much that substantially strengthened China’s military.

One: Micro And Nanosat Space Weapons

Through its export of a dual-use space micro satellite technology, Britain has already given the PLA a significant boost toward the ability to intercept and destroy U.S. military satellites. In October 1998 Prime Minister Tony Blair officiated over a contract signing ceremony in which Britain’s Surrey Satellite Technology would help China’s Tsinghua University develop a new technology: micro satellites.[3] At the time and still today, Surrey remains a world-class leader in this emerging area of space satellite technology. In 1999 this agreement was extended into a 25-year joint-venture that would be 75 percent owned by the Chinese side and 25 percent by Surrey. By June 2000, Tsinghua’s first microsat, the 50kg Tsinghua-1 was launched on a Russian space launch vehicle (SLV). This mission also featured Surrey’s SNAP-1 nanosatellite, which orbited in parallel and took images of Tsinghua-1. In April 2004 the PLA launched the NS-1, its first 25kg nanosatellite, proving its rapid absorption of this technology. And Surrey-China cooperation continues. In the Spring of 2005 Surrey’s "China DMC+4" disaster monitoring and mapping microsatellite will be launched. This microsat will have the capability to produce 4-meter high-resolution panchromatic images.[4]

Both micro and nanosatellites can be used for a range of civil and military missions, including surveillance and communication. For military purposes their light weight means they can be launched by smaller and mobile launchers, which also means that if attacked, they can be "replenished" rapidly. Today the PLA has a small, mobile, solid-fuel SLV called the KT-1, which is based on the DF-21 intermediate range ballistic missile. The KT-1 has been tested three times, and is able to loft payloads up to 100kg into low-Earth orbit. It should be expected that the PLA will use its KT-1, plus appropriately configured micro and or nanosatellites, to perform direct-assent anti-satellite interception missions. Being a mobile SLV, the KT-1 can be transported to locations favorable to the interception of enemy satellites. It can even be used to "park" small satellites in orbits near potential targets, which can then begin interceptions, perhaps in coordination with other military operations.

 
 
British Space Technology: Cooperation with Britain’s Surrey Satellite Technology helped China develop nanosatellites, like the NS-1, left. These can be launched by the new mobile, solid-fuel KT-1 space launch vehicle, providing the PLA with a potential initial direct-assent anti-satellite weapon to use against U.S. military satellites.

Two: Xian JH-7A Fighter Bomber

Making jet fan blades that will last has long proven very difficult or impossible for China and most other countries. They have been unable to make blades the metal of which did not "creep" and disable the engine. Solving this problem was advanced metallurgy and one of the crown jewels of the Western defense establishment. However, thanks to new turbofan engine technology from Britain’s Rolls Royce, the Xian Aircraft Corporation is now able to build its long-delayed JH-7A fighter bomber for the PLA Navy and Air Force, providing a new strike platform to use against U.S. naval forces or US allies and friends in the region. This fighter-bomber program had been dormant since the late 1970s for the lack of an effective engine. In the late 1970s China purchased a small number of Rolls Royce Spey Mk 202 turbofans, but a co-production deal faltered and Xian spent nearly 20 years trying to make a copy. Xian’s fighter-bomber was resumed in the early 1990s as a domestic counterpart to the planned purchase of Russian Sukhoi Su-30MKK strike fighters. But it did not become a viable program until the late 1990s when the Xian Aero Engine Group revived cooperation with Rolls Royce. This likely began in 1998, two years after London’s reinterpretation of the 1989 EU embargo. Xian purchased additional used Spey Mk 202s and purchased the necessary technology to begin production of an uprated Spey, called the QinLing.

By late 2003 the new JH-7A version entered full production. In 2004 this program received the seal of PLA approval by growing from merely a PLA Navy program to a PLA Air Force program as well.[5] Besides the QinLing engine, the JH-7A new version features fly-by-wire controls, new radar and advanced cockpit systems, and delivers precision guided bombs and modern anti-ship missiles like the Russia’s supersonic Kh-31. The PLA Navy could purchase up to 80 JH-7s while the PLA Air Force’s requirements are not known. Though inferior to the Su-30 and to most modern U.S. combat aircraft, if used in numbers and in cooperation with Su-30s and submarines, the JH-7A could make a key contribution to emerging PLA strategies to overwhelm the defenses of U.S. Navy carrier battle groups, or provide close air support to PLA amphibious landings.

 
 
 
British Turbofan Engines: The Xian JH-7A fighter bomber (top) is now in production for the PLA Air Force and PLA Navy thanks to Britain’s Rolls Royce, which in the late 1990s, sold critical technology to allow Xian to produce the QinLing turbofan engine, bottom, a modified version of the Rolls Royce Spey Mk 202. Credit: RD Fisher

Three: Z-10/CMH Attack and Transport Helicopters

By providing almost continuous technology support during the 1990s, European companies have helped the PLA to create the foundation for a modern attack and transport helicopter sector. Before the turn of the decade these new "indigenous" helicopters will be adding a new precision strike capability to PLA Army, Airborne and Marine forces. Even though Chinese helicopter makers like Harbin and Changhe, plus the powerful Chinese Helicopter Research and Development Institute (CHRDI), all principally serve PLA requirements, EU companies like Eurocopter and Italy’s Agusta (now AgustaWestland) never stopped their cooperation with Chinese companies. Harbin continued to produce the Z-9, a copy of the Eurocopter AS-365 Dauphin, and in 1998 Changhe began producing the Z-11, a copy of the Eurocopter AS-350 Equirrel. Both are now being produced for the PLA in attack helicopter variants which can carry HJ-8 anti-tank missiles or cannons. In June it was reported that up to 58 Eurocopter EC-120 helicopters would be assembled in China for the PLA.[6] In November 2004 Changhe and AgustaWestland agreed to begin co-production of the latter’s A109E light helicopter,[7] which is in wide military use, including by the U.S. Coast Guard.

But perhaps more importantly, Eurocopter and Agusta have assisted CHRDI’s efforts to develop an indigenous helicopter program, sometimes called the "Z-10." This is critical because of China’s inability to do so; helicopter making is sometimes as much art as it is science. Eurocopter has reportedly provided design assistance, while Agusta has aided the development of the engine-rotor dynamic system. In mid-2003 reports emerged that the attack version of the Z-10 had started flying in prototype form. It will reportedly resemble the Eurocopter Tiger advanced attack helicopter in size and capability. Then in October 2004 cooperation deepened when Eurocopter and CHRDI signed an agreement to co-develop a new high-technology transport helicopter to fly by 2010. This was revealed in November to be a twin-engine 6-ton transport helicopter and will be assembled in both China and France. It will likely supersede the intended transport version of the Z-10.[8]

 
 
 
French and Italian Helicopter Technology: Throughout the 1990s European firms like Eurocopter and Agusta provided helicopter technology to Chinese firms developing new combat helicopters for the PLA. Top: a new 6-ton transport helicopter to be developed in cooperation with Eurocopter. Bottom a copy of the Eurocopter AS-350, called the WZ-11 in China, which first flew in December 2004.

Four: Type 039A Attack Submarine

German diesel engines are being used in the Type 039A "Song-A" conventional attack submarine (SSK), enabling this submarine to pose an increasing threat to U.S. and allied naval forces as more are built. In the early 1990s MTU entered into an agreement that allowed the PLA to co-produce marine diesel engines for naval use. Though a dual use technology, it is likely that both MTU and the German government knew well of the PLA’s intention to use this engine for a new submarine. German industry sources confirm that the 6,092hp MTU 16V 396 SE diesel engines power the Type 039A SSK.[9] For China’s submarine development and production sector, the Type 039 was its first attempt to break out of the self-imposed military- technical barriers stemming from the isolation of the Cultural Revolution, which had relegated Chinese submarine technology to 1950s-level Soviet designs typified by the Type 035 "Ming" SSK.

In the early 1990s the Type 039 emerged showing design influences from the French Agosta class SSK. However, the prototype experienced a lengthy development period, which a European industry source attributed to the failure by Israeli technicians to properly integrate Chinese, Russian and Israeli technologies. These problems were solved by the late 1990s in the modified Type 039A SSK, which marks a considerable advance over the Type 035. With a modern skewed propeller, sophisticated multi-layer synthetic external hull insulation, plus the inherit quietness of electric motors, the Type 039A promises to be a stealthy submarine, very difficult to find and prosecute. The PLA has launched 11 Type 039s and they are now being produced in two shipyards, a measure of their approval by the PLA.

 
 
German Submarine Engines: German MTU marine diesel engines are powering new PLA Navy submarines like the Type 039 shown here under construction near Shanghai.

Five: Type 054 Stealth Frigate

French designed diesel engines, and very likely, French stealth design technology, have enabled the PLA to produce a new stealthy frigate that could be used to enforce naval blockades and hunt U.S. submarines. In the early Spring of 2003 Chinese internet sources began posting pictures of a new-type frigate under construction in Shanghai, and later, at a second shipyard in Guangzhou. Two frigates were launched in September and then November 2003. During their construction it became clear that this class of ship would heavily feature new stealth hull shaping in a manner very similar to the French Lafayette class frigate earlier sold to Taiwan. Investigations into a scandal that erupted after the murder of a Taiwan naval officer involved in the sale led to revelations that France had made payoffs to and had given classified information about the frigates to Chinese government officials.[10] And then in late 2002 the website for the French diesel engine maker SEMT Pielstick announced that eight "engines will equip the two (2) first frigates of a new generation to be built in Shanghai…The 16 cyl. PA6 STC will be manufactured under a license agreement by Shaanxi Diesel Engine Works."[11] These first two frigates are also armed with a Chinese-made copy of the French Sea Crotale, a short-range surface-to-air missile. It also carries a bow mounted sonar dome consistent with the French DUBV-23 medium-frequency sonar, sold to China during the late 1980s.[12] There is some speculation that production is suspended awaiting a new Russian vertical-launched SAM.[13] However this new frigate is expected to be produced in significant numbers and will extend the PLA’s ability to thwart US naval operations in the Pacific and China coastal area, from Korea and Japan, to Taiwan and the Philippines, to the Straits of Malacca.

 
 
French Marine Engines: French designed SEMT Pielstick marine diesel engines power the PLAN’s new Type 054 stealth frigate.

Six: Iveco Trucks

Italian Iveco designed trucks now being co-produced in China are arming PLA Army and Airborne units, giving both greater mobility and power-projection flexibility. In 1996 Italy’s Iveco Corporation, part of the larger Iveco-Fiat-Otobreda combine, entered into a co-production agreement with the Nanjing Yuelin Motor Co. to produce light trucks. In 2002 Chinese internet sources began suggesting these trucks would enter the PLA Airborne Army. The Iveco NJ2046 is a light but sturdy 4-wheel truck that has been adopted to carry the new HJ-9A anti-tank missile. The Airborne Army uses both this combat version and a light transport version. These vehicles give new levels of mobility to Airborne forces, allowing troop insertions further from heavily-defended targets, increasing chances that more troops may be available for combat operations. China’s North Ordinance Industries Corporation (NORINCO) even markets the HJ-9A on this Iveco truck, suggesting it is now selling this combination.[14] A version of an Iveco van is even used by the People’s Armed Police as a mobile lethal injection prisoner execution station.[15]

 
 
Italian Trucks: Italian Iveco trucks are co-produced in China for the PLA. This example is shown armed with the HJ-9 anti-tank missile and is intended to equip PLA Airborne units.

Future Technical Cooperation:

A longer range issue is the creation of military-technical alliances that serve Chinese needs for new technology and European requirements for greater investment capital, so both can become more competitive with U.S. defense industries.

Despite the existing arms embargo, major defense companies in Britain, France, Germany and Italy have already established a sustained a presence in the following Chinese military sectors: satellites; manned space technologies; combat aircraft electronics; combat aircraft engines; helicopters; submarines; combat ships; armor; military engines; and military transport vehicles. With this presence it can be expected that many European defense companies will seek alliances with Chinese counterparts. In October 2003 the European aerospace consortium EADS purchased a stake in an initial public offering of the Chinese aircraft consortium AVIC 2. And then in October 2004 EADS subsidiary Eurocopter entered into an agreement to develop an advanced transport helicopter with AVIC-2 subsidiary CHRDI.[16]

 
 
Space Cooperation Ambitions: Chinese space station concept from the November 2005 Airshow China. European firms like Astrium hope to sell China technology for future space stations, which China intends to launch. Such stations could also be used for military purposes, as China has so used all five of its Shenzhou manned space capsule missions. Photo credit: RD Fisher

Such cooperation could expand to other areas of military cooperation. Regarding military-space, in December 2004 Chinese ground stations worked with the French space agancy to monitor France’s latest Helios 2A high resolution electro-optical spy satellite.[17] This is significant inasmuch as Paris considered selling China spy satellite technology in 2002.[18] In 2003 China became a full partner in Europe’s Galileo program, which proposes to launch 30 navigation satellites by 2008. China will invest $200 million Galileo to ensure access military access to navigation satellite signals, critical to the use of new generation land-attack cruise missiles and precision-guided bombs and missiles. Post embargo, it can be expected that EU space and missile concerns will make a concerted effort to seek joint development programs with China. These could include: new space launch vehicles; reusable space shuttles; plus new reconnaissance and communication satellites—all of which would have direct military applications.

Regarding combat ships, in early 2004 there were suggestions that China would buy European-made helicopter carrier.[19] This follows on reports in 1996 that France considered selling China its retired aircraft carrier Clemenceau. Spanish shipyards have also in the past briefed the Chinese on their plans for large conventional aircraft carriers. It should also be expected that French and German submarine companies would seek to expand their cooperation with the PLA, first in the area of subsystems like combat, sonar, engine and air-independent propulsion technologies.

Finally, American observers are perhaps most concerned about the access China has already obtained and which may now increase, to highly sophisticated European software, surveillance systems, communications devices, and so forth—the suite of systems that is beginning fully to integrate the various elements of the US military, and some European militaries. The Europeans obviously expect large arms sales to China: otherwise why lift the embargo? But what will these be? They can only be of systems even more dangerous than those exported while the embargo was in place—and as we have seen, those were not trivial.


[1] Anthony Browne, “France opposes new rules on EU arms sales to China,” The Times, December 9, 2004; “China Expects Early Lift of EU Arms Embargo: FM,” http://www.china.org.cn/english/2004/Dec/113836.htm

[2] Declaration on China, European Council: Madrid, 26-27 June, posted by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), http://projects.sipri.se/expcon/euframe/euchidec.htm.

[3] “Leading British satellite firm breaks through to chinese space market,” Surrey Satellite Technology web page, http://www.sstl.co.uk/index.php?loc=27&id=145.

[4] “Disaster Monitoring and High Resolution Imaging,” Surrey Satellite Technology web page, http://www.sstl.co.uk/index.php?loc=121.

[5] Interview, Taiwan, November 2004.

[6] “Chinese Army Orders EC 120s,” Air Forces Monthly, September 2004, p. 16.

[7] “AgustaWestland seals A109E deal,” Flight International, November 9-15, 2004, p. 15.

[8] Interview, Airshow China, November 2004.

[9] Interview, U.S. Navy League Convention, Washington, D.C., April 2004; also see the German TV program Monitor, “Panzerkanzler Schröder: Mehr Waffen für China?” (Tank Chancellor Schroeder: More Weapons for China?), Reported by: Ralph Hoette, George Restle and Sonia Mikich, http://www.wdr.de/tv/monitor/beitrag.phtml?bid=644&sid=122.

[10] Thomas Crampton, “Taipei says Paris betrayed secrets on frigate deal to China,” International Herald Tribure, March 22, 2002.

[11] SEMT Pielstick, http://www.pielstick.com/frCompany.html.

[12] James C. Bussert, “China Pursues Antisubmarine Warfare,” Signal, November 2004, http://www.afcea.org/signal/articles/anmviewer.asp?a=509.

[13] Interview, Singapore, October 2004.

[14] NORINCO brochure, “Red Arrow 9A Anti-tank Weapon System,” obtained September 2004.

[15] “China opts for execution trucks,” Fleet Owner, December 19, 2003.

[16] Press release, “Eurocopter and China Aviation Industry Corporation II Start a New Long Term Strategic Partnership.”

[17] Wang Chaoshe and Tian Zhaoyun, "China's Aerospace Observation and Control Network Provides Real-time Observation and Control Support for a Foreign Satellite For the First Time,” Xinhua, December 19, 2004.

[18] “Confidential,” Paris Air and Cosmos, April 26, 2002, in Foreign Broadcast Information Service EUP20020429000433.

[19] Brian Hsu, “China aims at building several helicopter carriers,” Taipei Times, January 30, 2004.

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