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Report From MAKS 2009: Betting On the Next Generation

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by Richard Fisher, Jr.
Published on September 11th, 2009

A chilly and cloudy week at the August 18-22, 2009 Moscow Aerosalon (MAKS) matched the somber times for the Russian aerospace sector.  While the 2009 show proved far better organized than the previous one in 2007, allowing Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to avoid a public relations embarrassment, his near full-day presence on opening day served to remind all (as if they needed reminding) who was in charge.  Putin offered lectures and cash.  He warned an ailing Russian aerospace sector, deep in the throes of a major reorganization/consolidation, that it could not expect government bailouts to last forever, and sharply criticized the new United Aircraft consortium (OAK) over its $3.76 billion in debt.   But Putin also said he would consider $470 million to aid the Mikoyan Company and another $100 million for Sukhoi. 

The challenge for Russia is whether can mobilize soon enough to offer next-generation systems which could lead to another wave of sales to “traditional customers” and others.  Russia’s lineup of next generation systems includes their 5th generation fighter program led by Sukhoi, two new small-to-medium size commercial transport programs (Sukhoi and Irkut) which hope to produce world-competitive airliners and the S-400 and future S-500 SAMs from the Almaz-Antey consortium.  Following a long funding trough, Russia appears ready to fund new space technology, infrastructure, and a potentially far more robust outer space presence.  Military sales to China have fallen to a trickle as China appears to have absorbed enough current-generation Russian technology to begin producing their own versions, some under license and some not.  But Russia remains optimistic that China will come back for next-gen systems.  India will likely remain a more consistent customer, especially as Moscow has been ready to transfer strategic technologies, like 5th generation fighter systems, aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines and manned space technology.  But the next-generation of Russian products is not yet ready, and Russia is struggling with its ongoing reorganization that could bring much needed efficiencies, as it confronts chronic underfunding, an aging, dwindling workforce, and the loss of critical aircraft, engine and component skills to the Ukraine. 

The same opening day at MAKS saw Putin preside over the formal signing of a $2.5 billion order for 64 new and upgraded Sukhoi fighters and fighter-bombers.  This new fighter order was the largest made by Russia since the early 1990s.  It is expected to help Sukhoi and its Far Eastern KnAAPO factory as it transitions to production of the new 5th generation fighter, currently known as the “PAK-FA” development program. 

NIIP’s 5th Gen Radar

While many were expecting some news about Sukhoi’s new 5th generation fighter, a prototype of which is due to fly before the end of 2009, there was no significant release of new information.  The configuration and capabilities of this new fighter remain unknown, though Russian officials have repeatedly stated that the first flight would take place in late 2009.  The only new detail offered at MAKS was the unveiling of a new Tikomirov NIIP active phased array radar.  Even so, this radar remained on display under a tarp for two days before Putin personally allowed it to be shown.  Long known for its “passive” phased array radar, this was NIIP’s first “active” X-Band array, shown in an oval form expected to fit into the new 5th generation fighter.  Performance figures were not released. This new fighter is expected to be equipped with the X-Band active array which will search out targets at long range, and be complimented by wing-mounted L-Band active arrays better for finding low-observable targets.  Nevertheless, the early emergence of this new NIIP radar has exceeded predictions by some analysts that the requisite 5th generation electronics for the new fighter would not emerge until later in the next decade.  The competing Phazotron radar company has previously unveiled new active phased array radar, which will equip the new MiG-35 fighter in competition for a large Indian fighter order.  At MAKS Russian officials stated there would be next generation weapons for the 5th gen fighter but would not provide any details other than to note they would have much longer range.  However, at this show AAM maker Vympel would only display new extended range developments of its longstanding R-73  short range (reportedly up to 40km) and R-77 (reportedly up to 106km) air-to-air missiles. Since late 2007, Sukhoi and other Russian officials have stated there will be an eventual carrier-based version of the 5th gen fighter. 

New NIIP ASEA Radar: Under wraps for two days until Prime Minister Putin allowed its display, this new radar is expected to equip Sukhoi’s 5th generation fighter. Source: RD Fisher

Sukhoi Sees Chances for More Sales To China

Russia has not delivered any combat aircraft to China since the last Sukhoi Su-30MKK2 was delivered to the PLA Navy in late 2004.  But since about this time Russia has slowly gathered some level of concern/frustration with the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation’s ongoing efforts to produce not one, but perhaps three modified Sukhoi Su-27SK clones: the single seat J-11B, the twin-seat J-11BS fighters, and a potential new carrier-capable version.  These fighters are slated to be the first major customer for the new Chinese WS-10A 12-to-13-ton turbofan, which apparently still faces technical challenges, and use Chinese-designed advanced radar and weapons. 

There has long been speculation that Shenyang may also be trying to develop a carrier-capable version of the J-11B. This speculation has been fueled by the fact that China obtained one of the prototypes for the Su-33 from the Ukraine.  For some time Russian sources have explained to this analyst and others their doubts that China could build a carrier-capable version of the J-11/Su-27, as it would have to be radically different from the standard Su-27.  There has also been some interesting reporting from Chinese sources that Shenyang’s carrier fighter would be less Suhkoi influenced and more of an indigenous design.  But in early September the Chinese internet has been abuzz with reports that a new Shenyang fighter with canards similar to the Su-33, sometimes called the” J-15,” flew for the first time on August 31, 2009.  To date these reports cannot be confirmed and no clear photos have yet appeared on the Chinese internet.  But it is risky to underestimate China’s potential.  This analyst remembers confident assessments by Russians that Shenyang could not copy the whole Su-27, but its unlicensed J-11B has been flying since 2004 and the twin-seat J-11BS likely began testing in 2008. 

Window Shopping: Chinese visitors get a close look at the new Sukhoi Su-35 fighter. Bets are that China may not buy this one. Source: RD Fisher

However, despite what has been reported to be considerable frustration on the part of Sukhoi and some Russian government officials, plus Moscow’s emphasis on convincing Beijing to sign legally binding treaties to protect Russian intellectual property, in recent months there has been tempering of Russian frustrations and a renewed willingness to promote fighter sales. 

Echoing this willingness to pursue new sales, a Sukhoi official at MAKS was reasonably confident that delays in China’s development of advanced indigenous fighters would force a return to purchasing more Sukhoi fighters.  Such purchases would occur “in parallel” with Chinese efforts to develop new indigenous fighters.  Russian officials and Sukhoi are now united in their willingness to sell China the new Su-35 4+ generation fighter, and upgraded versions of the Su-33 naval fighter.  Sale of the former may be less likely as some Chinese source report the Su-35 would pose a logistic challenge for the PLA.  However, the later has been the subject of China-Russia negotiations since at least 2005, with one of the major points of contention being China’s refusal to purchase a “profitable” number of fighters that would justify the expense of reviving production.  The Sukhoi official pointed to the recent example of India, which has secured the option of purchasing up to 48 new MiG-29K naval fighters.  Chinese sources have suggested that Sukhoi will not go below a sale of 40 Su-33 fighters. 

India’s MiG-29K: India may purchase up to 48 MiG-29K multirole fighters for its new aircraft carriers, a number that Russian sources suggest would make profitable a production run of Sukhoi Su-33s for China. Source: RD Fisher

However, if Shenyang has been successful in properly stressing its potential “J-15” for carrier operations, that may serve to strengthen China’s bargaining position for a lower number of Su-33s.  China could also press for more aircraft, electronics and weapons technology concessions from Russia as part of a sale of upgraded Su-33s.  Should China proceed with reported plans to build four or even six new aircraft carriers, it might logically follow that they would allow for a significant program of cooperation with Russia, that might include some major sale of aircraft. Of some interest, this Sukhoi official expected that China’s first naval fighter would be a twin-engine version of the Chengdu J-10 fighter.  While the U.S. Navy projected this would be the case in the mid-1990s, very little has been said about this program since, with more recent speculation focusing on a naval version of the copied J-11B.   

Hints of the “J-15:” This CAD-CAM image from a software company doing work for the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation may be an indication that Shenyang has produced an essential copy of the Sukhoi Su-33 carrier fighter. Source: Chinese Internet

China’s 5th Generation Fighter Speculation

The previously mentioned Sukhoi official was also willing to discuss China’s 5th generation fighter program.  He first made clear that they are not part of it.  Despite reports of a new Russia-China treaty on the protection of intellectual property, China has not signed such a document.  This official noted that they are cooperating with India’s 5th generation fighter program, which has been covered by adequate protections, and which has been well reported by the Indian press.  Interestingly, this official also projected that by 2020 China might possibly have only prototypes for its new 5th generation fighters.  This seems to match U.S. intelligence estimates made public by Defense Secretary Robert Gates that China would not have any 5th generation fighters by 2020. 

This official also agreed that it would be logical for China to pursue a medium-weight 5th generation fighter after it had mastered its heavy 5th generation fighter, much in the pattern of the U.S. development of the F-22 and then the F-35.  In 2005 a Chinese source told the author that the Chengdu Aircraft Company was considering a F-35 class fighter program.  Then in 2006 the Shenyang Aircraft Co. revealed a concept for a single-engine forward-swept-wing fighter with potential stealth attributes. 

Possible Shenyang medium weight concept: Seen for the first and only time at the 2006 Zhuhai Airshow, this Shenyang concept shows a bias toward high maneuverability and stealth. Source: Chinese Internet

Possible Second Chinese 5th Generation Fighter Engine

It has been noted that China’s ambition has been to use its 5the generation fighter program as a means to bring its combat aircraft development and manufacturing sector up to world class standards, with the goal of ending China’s so far significant reliance on foreign technology and help.  However, one possible amendment to this goal may be the creation of a second family of advanced high-power afterburning turbofan engines to power 5th generation fighters.  The current advanced fighter turbofan project is the 12-to-13 ton thrust “Taihang,” a product of the 606 Aero Engine Institute associated with the Shenyang Aircraft Company.  In development since the late 1980s, this engine has proven very difficult for China.  At MAKS a Chinese official with their AVIC-1 group acknowledged previous reports that the Taihang has had trouble meeting maximum thrust goals, and noted there were “many other problems” but declined to list them.  The Taihang is also expected to form the basis for a new 15-ton fighter turbofan for 5th generation fighters, a large high-bypass turbofan for transport aircraft projects, a marine turbine engine and a new power-plant turbine. 

But at MAKS a Ukrainian source explained that China and the Ukraine have entered into discussions which could lead to their cooperating in the development of a new 15-ton afterburning turbofan.  Such cooperation, which will also include development of a new 12-ton high-bypass turbofan, is expected to emerge from a nearly complete Ukrainian sale of the license that will allow China to co-produce the 4.2-ton thrust Ivchenko-Progress AI-222-25F afterburning turbofan.  This is expected to be the main engine for the Hongdu L-15 supersonic training aircraft, which this Ukrainian source also expected would become the main new-generation trainer for the Chinese air forces.  

AI-222-25: This engine could be the start of an extensive engine development relationship between China and the Ukraine. Source: RD Fisher

In addition, a Chinese source found after the show suggested that the AI-222-25F engine will be a program of the 608 Aero Engine Institute associated with the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation.  Furthermore, this source noted the engine would be named after Mount Emei in Sichuan Province, following the Chinese practice.  This source, however, cannot be confirmed.  But if true, this would indicate that China has decided to turn to the Ukraine to help develop a second family of advanced turbofan engines. 

The catch is that the Ukraine has not yet developed an advanced fighter turbofan family comparable to the Russian Saturn AL-31 family which powers the Sukhoi Su-27/30 fighter family.  Ukrainian turbofan maker Motor Sich has produced reputable small turbofans, an array of capable turboprop engines, and large high-bypass turbofans like the D-18 which powers the massive Antonov An-124 military transport.  But the Ukrainian source went on to explain that their plan is to develop a 9-11 ton thrust afterburning turbofan called the AI-9500F, which in turn would be a development of the AI-222-25F.  The AI-9500F, in turn, would be the platform on which they would develop a new 15-ton afterburning turbofan.  It is this experience that presumably will enable the Ukraine to help its new Chinese clients to develop a second 15-ton engine. 

AI-9500F: This proposed 9-to-11 ton thrust turbofan is expected to be the basis for a future 15 ton thrust engine. Source: Motor Sich

RSC Energia’s Space Vision

In the large Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) pavilion, one of the more interesting exhibits at MAKS was the revealing “vision” of the S.P. Korolev Rocket and Space Corporation Energia (RSC Energia).  Dominating this display was a depiction of a 30 year plan for Russian manned and unmanned space travel, which proposes that preparations for manned exploration of Mars begin in 2015, followed manned exploration of the Moon starting in 2025.  Previous renditions of Energia’s vision do not start Mars activities until 2022 or Moon activities until 2030.  An official from RSC Energia explained that this “vision” was merely his company’s idea, building on “strategic planning” documents that most Russian space companies were directed to produce in 2008.   This “vision,” does not yet represent a Russian government approved and funded agenda for space travel.  It is interesting to note that the Khrunichev space company also produced a strategic planning document proposing a manned architecture for going to the Moon but RSC Energia was the sponsor of the display at MAKS.  Adding some credibility to this “vision” are reports that it was also developed with the cooperation of the Central Research Institute of Machine Building (TsNImash), a powerful agency under Roscomos which tests and certifies manned and unmanned space structures.  One Russian space expert responded to this strategic vision by pointing out that Russia’s annual space budget only amounts to about US$3billion, not nearly enough to begin such an agenda, much less afford currently projected programs.  He also challenged the more expensive and risky primary goal of Mars, whereas going to the Moon would be technically more feasible and affordable. 

First Mars: Energia’s concept architecture for going to Mars, and close-up of the Mars atmosphere entry shell for the Mars lander. Source: RD Fisher

Mars First, Moon Second

Nevertheless, the RSC Energia official explained their justification for Mars: it is preferable to focus on the more difficult goal to propel technology, rather than to focus on the Moon, which has already been achieved.  RSC Energia’s plans, however, appear to involve the development of vehicles and platforms which could be used on both Mars and the Moon, which it calls the Interplanetary Expeditionary Complex.  To get to Mars RSC Energia proposes the development of a large nuclear powered transport vehicle, but was unclear as to how that nuclear power would translate into thrust.  Presumably this system would allow far greater transit speeds that would significantly reduce crew exposure to space radiation. 

However, for both the Mars and Moon missions there would be a shared platform system that would include a new crew transport vehicle, a new crew support platform that would operate in Moon orbit, or as an attachment to the nuclear powered transit vehicle for Mars missions, and a common Moon/Mars crew landing vehicle.  The difference here is that the Mars crew landing vehicle would be enclosed in an aerodynamic shell to start Mars atmosphere entry, which would then fall off to allow a typical vertical engine-thrust powered landing.  This crew landing vehicle also exhibits an innovative design which includes a large airlock/crewspace at a lower level intended to facilitate expansion with additional cylindrical base structures.  Both Mars and Moon base structures appear intended for eventual placement underground, which would help minimize radiation effects. 

Second, the Moon: Energia’s concept architecture for going to the Moon. Source: RD Fisher

In recent years Energia and Khrunichev have proposed new Moon transport architectures that utilize spacecraft assembly in Moon orbit rather than Earth orbit, as this would allow for lower weight components, resulting in lower launch weight requirements, smaller space launchers and less expense.  The U.S. has preferred the less-risky direct transfer or Earth-orbit assembly for Moon missions, which require heavier and more expensive components.   

Moon Landers: Energia’s concept for a Moon/Mars lander and a cargo lander. The cargo appears to be a Moon base module. Source: RD Fisher

While one may question whether Russia could ever afford such expansive plans, it is also worth noting that RSC Energia’s “vision” rests on decades of research and engineering to support manned space exploration starting from the early 1960s.  From this period and into the 1970s the former Soviet Union came very close to placing one Cosmonaut on the Moon with its N1/L3 program started by Sergei Korolev, the “father” of the Soviet space program, and funded the work of several design bureaus to produce a series of Moon landers, Moon base and even Mars base plans.  Hero of the Soviet Union Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space (March 18, 1965) was in attendance during the first day of MAKS.  Inasmuch as 2009 is the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon mission, it is worth noting that barring repeated N1 test launch failures, as has since been reported, Alexei Leonov was chosen to be the first Russian to walk on the Moon, which was intended to happen in 1969. 

What Might Have Been: Seen at the remodeled Cosmonautics Museum, a model of the Soviet LK Moon lander, which had it reached the Moon, might have first delivered veteran Soviet Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov. Source: RD Fisher

New RSC Energia Crew Vehicle

In April 2009 Roscosmos chose RSC Energia’s proposal over rival Khrunichev, to develop a new crew transport vehicle to replace the venerable Soyuz.  Energia’s concept for the New Generation Piloted Transport Ship (PTK NP) was put on display at MAKS.  This simpler capsule based design succeeds Energia’s more ambitious winged Klipper small space plane concept dropped in 2007, following on the U.S. decision to succeed the winged Space Shuttle with the Ares-1 manned capsule.  An Energia official explained that by the summer of 2010 they will have submitted their full proposal for this new spacecraft to the Russian government and expect a decision on whether to proceed.  This design emerged from earlier joint effort with the European Space Agency to develop a new manned space transport vehicle. It is intended to be a 12-ton design capable of carrying four passengers to the Moon or six to Low Earth Orbit.  This spacecraft requires a new launcher, which RSC Energia proposes will be a new yet-to-be-developed man-rated space-launch vehicle called Rus-M, which depending on the number of boosters, could lift 23 to 50 tons to Low Earth Orbit.  Khrunichev is also proposing a man-rated version of its new Angara family of boosters, which is now in advanced development.  These plans will also require the construction of a new space launch center, which in November 2007 was decided to be called “Vostochny,” in the Far Easter Amur region.  By 2015 to 2016 this base reportedly will be ready for unmanned space launches, and  if all goes according to plan, the PTK NP could make its first manned flight in 2017 to 2018 from Vostochny. 

Maybe the next Soyuz: Energia revealed its concept for the PTK NP, its proposal for the next generation Russian manned space capsule, and the Rus-M space launch vehicle. Source: RD Fisher

Russian Space Station Alone

For some time Russia has been working on plans to expand its half of the International Space Station (ISS), which have suffered from lack of funding.  However, again—funding willing, it now appears that Russia is moving toward a program of expansion that could more than double its portion of the ISS.   At MAKS RSC Energia General Designer Vitaly Lopota explained this process could begin in late 2009 (other reports say 2010) with the launch its Mini-Research Module (MRM2), now in advanced testing, to the Zvezda service module.  This would then be followed in 2011 by the larger Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM), which would then be extended with two science and power modules, BEP-1 in 2014 and BEP-2 in 2015.  Should this expansion be successful it appears that Russia would be in a position to consider independent operations of its portion of the ISS should its partners fail to sustain this program past 2016.  Last July an official from NASA stated that preparations to de-orbit the ISS may start in the first quarter of 2016.  This would have been part of a Bush Administration decision to end Space Shuttle and Space Station utilization in order to fund future Moon missions, proposals which recently have been challenged by a NASA assessment panel headed by Norman Augustine. However, at MAKS, Lopota also stated that a new space station could be built on the basis of the Russian segment of the ISS.  At MAKS a U.S. space official was skeptical that the Russian portion of the ISS could forgo the large solar power generation arrays of the U.S.-led portion of the ISS.   Russia, however, has experience in fabricating large solar arrays and in designing small nuclear power plants for space platforms.  The previously cited earlier rendition of Energia’s “vision” proposed work on a new Russian “advanced orbital station” starting in 2020.

Russian ISS Ambitions: While the U.S. may be leaving the International Space Station, this model shows that Russia has ambitions to significantly expand its portion, which may be able to operate independently if the U.S. led partners are forced to crash their half after 2015. Source: RD Fisher

Space Partnership with China

While Russian arms sales to China are at a trickle compared to about a decade ago, space cooperation appears to be substantial, while the Russians have apparently achieved better consideration from China regarding technology protection.  Space relations are apparently well enough that last July Roscosmos gave outgoing Chinese Ambassador Liu Guchang a special award for promoting international cooperation.  That’s not to say that the Russians have avoided having to learn some hard lessons (see below), but this cooperation has been formalized and controlled via bi-lateral committee that is now contemplating its fourth program of cooperation.  It may be impossible to quantify the Russian impact on the last fifteen years of China’s manned space program until the Chinese themselves provide an honest assessment.  However, Russian officials appear to be satisfied with their space cooperation with China and see great potential for growth.

How this cooperation will unfold over the coming decades is perhaps the more interesting question.  As in the military realm, China has been willing to accept a period of dependence on foreign space technologies in order to modernize more rapidly, but is trying to assemble its own national capabilities as soon as it can.  But as in the military sphere, the Russians are hoping that as China’s needs increase, especially in terms of requiring higher levels of technology, which they will return to Russian sources.  Preliminary data from Chinese academic engineering sources indicates that China could adopt a Moon transport architecture similar to that of Russia, relying on Moon orbit docking to allow for lighter space vehicle components.  China’s concepts for an initial space station to be lofted in the 2020 time frame also shows a clear Russian influence.  As it masters space station and Moon technologies largely influenced by their access so far to Russia’s experience, it is not yet clear that China will turn to new generation Russian space station and Moon technologies. 

Unmanned Space Programs

At the end of September, if all goes well, Russia and China will have launched their Phobos-Grunt unmanned probe which will explore the Martian Moon Phobos and return samples to the Earth.  This joint program, dating back to a 2007 agreement, has been developed under the leadership of the Federal Enterprise “Lavochkin Association.”  Having produced some of the Soviet Union’s most effective fighter aircraft during World War II, Lavochkin turned to space programs in the 1950s and 1060s and became famous for developing the “Luna” series of unmanned Moon probes, culminating in three successful unmanned Moon sample return missions from 1970 to 1976.  Significantly, the Phobos-Grunt probe will carry the Chinese built Yinghou YH-1 microsatellite that weighs a reported 110kg.  For about one year the YH-1 will fly an orbit around Mars and explore the Martian space environment. 

Luna and Chang’e: This comparison of the similarity of the Lovochkin Luna Moon sample return ship, seen at the revised Moscow Cosmonautics Museum, and the Chinese Chang’e Moon sample return ship. Source: RD Fisher and Chinese Internet

Though Lavochkin officials would not address their cooperation with China, it is clear that China’s Chang’e unmanned Moon exploration program relies heavily on Lavochkin consulting and experience.  On the eve of China’s Shenzhou-7 space mission in late September 2008, a Roscosmos official told the media that “Russia's specialists are directly involved in the Chinese lunar exploration program,” This apparently includes all three elements of the Chang’e program, the orbital survey satellites, an initial soft-lander that will deliver a Chinese-built Moon rover, and then a mission to return Moon samples to the Earth.  Chinese concepts for a Moon sample return system look like an updated version of the Lovochkin systems developed during the 1960s. Looking to the near future, a Russian space expert noted his conclusion that all elements of China’s Moon program pointed to an eventual manned Moon mission.  What China would do on the Moon, however, was the larger question.  A full blown manned Moon base program, in his opinion, would be less impressive than a more economical but nearly as effective unmanned program of Moon exploration and exploitation.  The Lavochkin display at MAKS provided one indication of what a much more expansive unmanned Moon program would look like.  

Lovochkin’s Ambitions: This wall mural behind the Lovochkin display shows their ambition to develop more sophisticated Moon exploration and exploitation devices, which could become attractive to China’s and India’s budding Moon programs. Source: RD Fisher

China’s Orlan Space Suits

In a surprise admission, just before the September 2008 flight of China’s Shenzhou-7 mission that saw their first extra-vehicular activity (EVA) or space-walk, Chinese officials acknowledged Russia’s assistance in developing their new space suit. Russian reports have noted that China has purchased nine of Zvezda’s Orlan-M space suits. Previously Chinese officials have often publicly and privately scoffed at assessments that much of China’s manned space kit has been derivative of Russian technology.  One Russian source noted that most of the Russian space suit assistance took place from 2003 to 2004, while another source noted that Chinese astronauts have trained to use the Orlan in Russia’s Star City space walk training water tank, and had studied the Star City tank before building their own.  Russian technicians were on hand in China to help with the Shenzhou-7 mission, which also featured one Chinese astronaut in a Russian-made Orlan-M suit. 

Zvezda’s Olan-M space suit: On display at MAKS 2009. Source: RD Fisher

Multiple Russian sources have noted that China’s “Flying” space suit, while based on the Orlan space suit, was designed to a preliminary and less capable level.  The main difference is that China’s suit did not include the same number of arm joints, limiting the flexibility of the space walker, and significantly increasing the effort required by astronaut Zhai Zhigang to make basic movements.  These Russian sources noted that the second Chinese astronaut Liu Boming, who was wearing a Russian-make Orlan suit, had to open the space hatch on the Shenzhou-7 orbital module, and then push Zhai out of the orbital module to perform the space walk.  One Russian source speculated that China’s primary goal was not to produce a suit capable of allowing the astronaut to perform “work” as can the Orlan, but to simply build a suit capable of getting a Chinese astronaut out of the orbital module to “wave the flag.” This Russian source expected that China’s future space suits will be more capable and stated that China is capable of designing suits to support manned missions on the Moon.  

Waving the Flag: A Russian source has suggested that the more limited design goals for China’s first space suit essentially included the ability to “wave the flag.” Source: Chinese Internet

China’s Space “Students”

Much of the difficulty in assessing Russia’s impact on China’s space program may be illustrated by the following story assembled while at MAKS.  Multiple Russian sources have noted that during the 1998 to 1999 period Russia apparently made a very significant transfer of space technology to China.  This took place in the form of Russia’s agreeing to receive and train hundreds of Chinese space engineers at Star City and other major Russian space concerns.  Multiple sources noted that up to 200 Chinese were welcomed to study practically all aspects of Russia’s astronaut training center Star City.  If true, this would contradict previous reports which have noted that only two or three Chinese were trained at Star City.  Another source noted that Chinese specialists were also allowed to study at major Russian space companies.  However, the total number of Chinese space specialists to visit Russia during this period is not known.  While Russia had previously sold China much of its Soyuz space capsule technology which aided China’s development of the larger Shenzhou capsule, first launched in 1999, subsequent Chinese concepts for space station and Moon programs have demonstrated additional influence of Russian technology. 

Russia’s MIR Module: A mock-up of the Energia MIR module as seen at the Energia Corporation Museum in August 2008. This structure formed the basis for the Russian Zvezda module now part of the ISS. Source: RD Fisher

However, regarding China’s concepts for its eventual space station, even though they resembles Russian structures used for their Salyut, MIR and ISS space stations, multiple Russian sources noted that there has been no significant sale of Russian space station technology to China.  One exception has been the previously reported sale of the APAS space docking system.  So when queried about the resemblance between recently released Chinese space station concepts and previous Russian designs, one Russian space company official suggested that China’s “students” were instrumental in gaining Russian’s space station insights.  This was likely a reference to the Chinese engineers that were allowed to “study” at his company during the 1998-1999 period.  It will likely require an honest appraisal from the Chinese themselves, of what their engineers gained from the breadth of their late 1990s access to Star City and other Russians space companies, before we can understand the full impact of Russian technology on the Tiangong, future spacelab, space station and Moon transport platforms. 

Chinese Space Station Concepts: One Chinese concept for an eventual space station from a November 2008 official video (top), and the initial module (bottom) show the influence of the Energia Mir/Zarya structure. Source: Chinese Internet

Will the Bet Work?

In order to work Russia’s bet that it can begin marketing a new generation of aerospace products depends on two critical variables.  First, it must deliver the products.  Second, it must promote a relative balance, and thus “peace” among its customers.  Meeting the first requirement could prove a tall order for a Russian aerospace industry facing so many challenges.  It has been fortunate for Russia that both China and India have chosen to purchase upgraded or unique systems not operated by the Russian military, and thus not supported by a Russian military logistics chain, which has shifted a new expense onto these customers.  China’s and India Sukhoi Su-30 fighters are not operated by the Russian Air Force.  But have Russian sales simply supported corporate survival or have they allowed adequate investment in future kit?  The experience of Almaz-Antey suggests there has been a successful reinvestment strategy.  But Russia’s 5th generation fighter program has lagged for nearly two decades.  While new Russian state funding appears to be going toward new civilian airliners, it appears that space sector funding could be increasing as well. 

In terms of customers for the next generation, it appears that India may prove a more steady customer inasmuch as it has already chosen to base its future nuclear submarine, 5th generation fighter and much of its manned and unmanned space program on Russian technology.  Like China, it appears that India will also purchase Lovochkin technology to support its unmanned Chandrayan-2 Moon mission.  While China appears to be relying on largely indigenously produced systems to put its men on the Moon and to loft a future space station, the Russians appear eager to engage China in new co-development programs for the Moon and Mars.  If China should encounter technical roadblocks to its development of larger manned space platforms or future Moon/Mars bases, it may find Russian technology attractive again.  As for future Russian military sales to China, Sukhoi may be able to score regarding the Su-33, and perhaps aircraft carrier technologies, but it is more likely that China’s preference will be to pursue more intensive technology development relationships, which are not nearly as profitable.  China’s apparent decision to engage the Ukraine in developing a potential second family of advanced turbofans is indicative of its longstanding quest for technology over system sales. 

Keeping the peace, however, could prove more problematic.  Though its joins with China, and sometimes India, in gleefully promoting a future “multipolar” world order, such a future is as fraught with increasing risk for Russia as it is for its “partners” and the Western allied democracies.  Though their diplomats strive to project calm, China and India find themselves in an increasingly complex strategic competition in the Central Asian and Indian Ocean regions, militarily and in space.   China’s effort to “surround” India with political-military relationships, and outpace its nuclear buildup, in part fueled by Russian technology, results in continued Indian interest in Russian weapons, but would that interest survive an actual conflict with China?  Would a connected and instantly informed Indian electorate tolerate continued purchases of Russian weapons should Moscow also insist on selling weapons to a Chinese aggressor?  Or would China’s Russian military relationship survive a large nationalist Chinese backlash in the event of a military loss to India? 

Then there is the future of Russia’s relationship with China.  In the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and in the military realm, some Russians fear that China is seeking to become the “senior” partner.  Russia has few options for braking Chinese geopolitical and military ambitions, with their unforeseen consequences.  In terms of military sales, one clear trend is that China’s weapon systems capable of “power projection” missions are increasingly of indigenous design, not vulnerable to Russian technology veto.

Peace Mission 2007: For the first two such exercise China has employed its indigenously-designed ZLC-2000 airborne infantry fighting vehicle. This illustrates a growing trend that as China develops new “power projection” weapons, it may seek to rely less on Russian kit. Source: Chinese Internet

Communist China’s historic penchant for waging “optional wars” to extract new strategic advantage could be realized in the next decade on the Taiwan Strait, South China Sea, or in the Central Asia-Indian Ocean region.  Any of these have the potential to significantly raise tensions between Russia’s two main military customers.  Delhi is more likely to tolerate disruptions of its Russian military sources due to its longstanding diversification of mil-tech sources, which may increasingly include the United States.   But denying China a critical system may have more dire consequences.  Though today there are significantly different circumstances, it is worth recalling that after lavishly arming Mao Zedong with nuclear technology and the means to deliver nuclear weapons, by the late 1950s Nikita Khrushchev understood he had only created a monster, realizing that Mao’s true intention was to challenge Soviet leadership of the Communist Bloc.  Khrushchev’s withdrawal of Soviet military advisors in 1960 sealed a hostile Sino-Soviet split that lasted nearly 30 years.

Mao and Khrushchev in 1958: In two years Khrushchev would withdraw Soviet military advisors, cementing a nearly 30-year Sino-Soviet split. Source: Internet

Though Moscow continues to hold the U.S. military presence in Asia in some disdain, and perhaps even contemplates actual military cooperation with China against U.S. interests, one potential outcome of the increasingly sophisticated China-Russia “Peace Mission” exercises.  It can be said that Russians benefits from the American military effort to deter Chinese aggression as do Americans and their Asian allies and friends.   So while Russia may have significant commercial interest in the Obama Administration’s final acts to end production of the U.S. Lockheed Martin F-22 5th generation fighter, the medium term potential for this decision to tempt China’s penchant for military adventurism is not helpful.  Russia’s sale of radar satellite technology and Over-the-Horizon radar technologies, which are now enabling China’s new anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) which threaten the basis for the U.S. Navy’s deterrent in Asia, may also end up threatening Russia’s longer-term interests.  So until Russia comes to see the degree to which a much more powerful Communist Party controlled China also threatens its interests, it remains critical for the United States to resist giving China and Russia any free advantages, like ending F-22 production or limiting missile defense efforts.  Washington should also maintain Taipei’s ability to deter Chinese aggression and press to build its military partnership with Delhi, stressing the common interests of democracies.

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