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Report from the 2010 Chinese Defense Electronics Exhibition (CIDEX): Growing Industry – Advancing Technology

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by Rafael Smith
Published on October 3rd, 2010

The 7th biennial Chinese Defence Electronics Exhibition (CIDEX) 2010, held from 12-14 May, continues the trend for this event of growing in size and importance to the military industrial sector.  The 2010 show, which took place at the Beijing Exhibition Centre in the Haidian District, was roughly three times larger than the 2008 exposition, and that growth largely represents firms that had not previously exhibited at this event.  Perhaps more significantly, the show continues to grow in the sophistication of the hardware that is displayed.

What makes CIDEX somewhat difficult to interpret is that there are very few finished manufactured weapon systems or platforms displayed at this event.  What CIDEX is instead is a exhibition of the many components that make up the Chinese military’s weapon systems, radar networks, computerized control and navigation systems, etc.  Chinese firms attending CIDEX are often also not very forthcoming about which weapons systems their products are used in either and it takes someone who has knowledge of that hardware in order to discern what it is they are looking at.

An example would be the firm, Kotel Micro Technique Co., Ltd.  This company is one of the leading firms in China for design and manufacture of Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS) technology and is utilized in the design of the Chinese equivalent of a Boeing Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM)-type kit that can be retrofitted to conventional, “dumb” bombs.

The set of components manufactured by Kotel for this kit are:

— SAK01-03 acceleration switches - These are installed in three separate sections of the bomb kit and interactively operate with one another.  They provide pressure and acceleration data that are then fed into the bomb kit’s guidance system.

— FKZD-01 vibration sensor.

— INS-M100 MEMS Inertial Navigation System - This unit is the main control module in the bomb kit’s guidance system, operating at an RS422 bit rate.  Like all MEMS components it is quite small and measures only 120mm x 120mm x 120mm.  Data sheets provided by Kotel on this component state that it utilises GPS for its targeting system.  The company does not say whether of they also can datalink with the Russian GLONASS global positioning system, nor does it make any mention of the Chinese COMPASS GPS system.

Kotel exhibited the full range of components that make up their JDAM-type bomb kit.

The photo shown on the Kotel stand is clearly that of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) Fei Teng (FT)-1 precision-guided bomb.  The company also supplies components for the Luoyang Optical-Electronic Technology Development Centre (LOEC) Leishi (LS)-6 extended-range glide bomb and the (Leiting) LT-2 laser-guided bomb, as well as for the other CALT design, the FT-3.

Kotel representatives stated that their chief customer is the Chinese military, but that they are looking for export partners, one of which is presumed to be Pakistan.  The JDAM-style bomb that was shown on the Kotel stand showing the use of their components in this type of weapon appears to be the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) Fei Teng (FT)-1.

The weapon system for which the Kotel components are designed is clearly the CALT FT-1 precision-guided bomb

Of course the company never said until prompted by questioning where their components are used and which weapon systems they were designed for.  This is perhaps the major difference between CIDEX and a similar expo that you might see someplace else in the world.  Almost any other company producing components of this type would be happy to tell you that “Boeing uses this unit in the JDAM” or that “this is the key component in the Raytheon Tomahawk missile,” but there is no such advertising at that draws a direct line from what you are seeing on display to its real-world application.

Highlights Of CIDEX

Overall, there are several key findings that you can take away from the CIDEX 2010 show.  How it has evolved and changed over the years is more or less mirrors the entirety of China’s defence, aerospace and high-technology industries.

1) Less Foreign, More Domestic Participants

One of the aspects of CIDEX that has changed considerably is that there used to be a substantial presence by foreign firms that were looking to sell their products to Chinese industry.  This is not surprising in that CIDEX is one of only two exhibitions that take place in China that have the full endorsement and support of the People’s Liberation Army’s General Armaments Department (GAD)  (The other is Air Show China that takes place in Zhuhai in November of every even-numbered year.)

In other words, in order to have the official blessing of the PLA, one had to be seen at this show.  If you met a Chinese customer at this show it was considered to be a sanctioned relationship if you later entered into a contractual agreement because of the PLA’s endorsement of the venue.

CIDEX is one of only two defence shows in all of China that are officially endorsed by the PLA’s General Armaments Department

But, over the years there have been fewer and fewer foreign firms appearing at CIDEX for what appear to be two reasons.  One is that most of the relationships between foreign suppliers and Chinese defence-related enterprises appear to have been institutionalised – either in the form of those companies now having their own representative offices in China, or authorised sales agents who are more or less embedded inside the major military production centres and MROs who utilise their products.  They provide the mechanism for making sales of foreign suppliers’ products without the foreign suppliers having to have a presence in China itself.

The preferred mechanism is for these components to be brought into China by way of Hong Kong front companies, as the rules for importing into Hong Kong are less restrictive than they are for shipping direct to the mainland.  Once they have arrived in Hong Kong these components are then shipped on to factories on the mainland.  As a general rule, if the company importing these defence or aerospace components has a small staff of a handful of people in their Hong Kong office, but then a large number of people employed on the mainland, this is the type of importing scheme that they are engaged in.

This year CIDEX featured some major expositions by enterprises which were all grouped in one major industrial centre – like this entire hall of firms from the city of Shenzhen.

The other factor in this drop off of foreign participants is that Chinese firms are now producing on their own the same products that they were purchasing from abroad 4 years or more ago.  An example is the rise in the number of Chinese firms producing the solid-state, flash-type memory hard drives of the type that are just now being sold in commercially-available laptop computers.  US firms used to have the lock on this technology in the Chinese market, but no longer – and the US producers who used to participate at CIDEX are nowhere to be seen.

2) Chinese Defence Products Today: State-of-the Art

Chinese defence products were once thought of as being moderately capable copies of previous-generation hardware that contained attributes of Russian, European and Israeli designs.  Some of those bloodlines can still be seen in their designs, but the products now being seen at an expo like CIDEX show that Chinese firms have capabilities that approach first world industrial, state-of-the-art levels of sophistication.

In the 1990s, when the Russian defence was in danger of drying up and closing its doors due to an almost complete collapse in any funding from their own government, it was China that saved the day. China bought billions in military hardware from Russia, but it also sent its engineers, designers and technicians to study inside of Russian industry to learn how the weapons it was purchasing had been developed in the first place.

This transfer of technological know-how, plus some enormous investments by the Chinese military into its state-owned industries (what more than one Russian has referred to as “uncontrolled and rampant modernisation”) has produced a defence electronics industry that far outstrips the size and capacity of that which existed in Russia when Chinese industry first began their cooperation with Moscow in the early 1990s.

Today the former students (the Chinese) have become the masters.  Chinese industry now has the ability to produce components that the Russian electronics industry (after almost two decades of no investment by their government) is no longer capable of either designing or manufacturing.  The initial failure rates on the production of transmit/receive (T/R) modules for the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars being designed for the Mikoyan MiG-35 and the Sukhoi T-50/PAK-FA 5th-generation fighter, for example, were so high that it would have bankrupted any western firm involved in a similar programme.

Not surprisingly, this year’s CIDEX show saw groups of Russian specialists going through the halls and looking for components that they could source out of China to be utilised in Russian-designed weapon systems.  Russian specialists will point out that they are now at a huge disadvantage to the Chinese in two very significant respects.

One is that the commitment by the central government in resources to the defence electronics sector is both sustained and serious.  “They can take a field where there is nothing but flat land and wild grass,” said one Russian company representative, “and the next thing you know there is a full-blown factory or design centre there turning out a world-class product.”

Chinese firms are now producing components that far surpass that of the Russian firms they learned their skills from in the early 1990s.

The other advantage to China is the unfortunate reality of actuarial tables.  Younger scientists and engineers who are needed in Russia to form the next-generation of weapons designers are leaving the nation in droves.  A few years ago the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) estimated that 70,000 scientists and specialists from Russian defence institutes and military-industrial complex enterprises had left the country.

A documentary on the subject produced by Moscow’s NTV stated “the nuclear physicists, experts in electronic equipment, virologists and biotechnologists did not leave Russia empty-handed.  They took secrets with them and presented their former foes with the weapons they had themselves developed.”

The documentary went on to claim “according to CIA data, in the first half of the 1990s thousands of Soviet specialists in the field of nuclear and missile technology left for the Middle East.  They worked there in violation of the treaty on non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the MTCR.  From the Arzamas-16 centre several people went to work in Iraq.  Russian scientists worked in Iran and Libya.  Forty nuclear scientists immigrated to Israel.  Thousands of Russian specialists in the field of nuclear and missile technologies developed programmes to improve armaments in China.  Our scientists are willing to work anywhere they are paid.”

The consequence is that whereas the age of the average defence industrial scientist or engineer in China is about 30 and around 40 in the US – it is 50 years or more in Russia.  China’s industry is growing and advancing, while Russia’s will effectively be dying off before too long.

3) Modern Soldier – Modern Battlefield

Sophistication in modern Chinese weapons design is not limited to missiles, radars, avionics and the other systems that one normally associates with electronics.  The PLA and the design centres that support it have obviously been doing a lot of thinking about the battlefield and soldier of the future.

The PLA, the People’s Armed Police (PAP) and other emergency situation forces all have a vast array of digital battlespace gear to choose from – and this includes full-motion, high-speed video transmission gear, state-of-the-art encrypted communications equipment and the ability to provide GPS coordinates to an intelligence headquarters or central command centre from the field.

There are two notable differences about how this technology will be employed – and just how effective it might be employed – that are unique to China in many respects.

The first is that much of this hardware has uses that are for the maintenance of internal order and making sure there is the ability to stamp out any budding rebellions or demonstrations against local or regional authorities in China – what are referred to euphemistically as “mass incidents” in official government parlance.  While some “smart policeman” or “digital warrior” equipment that one might see developed in western nations would have a definite anti-terrorism mission that is focused inward towards the country as well as for external defensive purposes, the extent to which this hardware has a definite application to suppress the domestic population is more pronounced in China than it is anyplace else in the world.

This Chinese firm produces a full range of portable high-speed, real time video transmission equipment. The video signal can be coordinated and disseminated through ruggedized portable terminals.

This equipment also has a synergistic relationship with what is probably the most pervasive and invasive surveillance network in the world – exceeding even that of the United Kingdom or Singapore.  A western diplomat told me recently “while there used to be only 400,000 surveillance cameras in Beijing, there are now 500,000, so there is virtually no place you can be where someone is not watching you.”  The average shopping district or restaurant row in Beijing that would be frequented by foreigners has more 360-degree cameras focused on it than the most paranoid casinos in the world.

The other question is how effective this equipment is when used in a purely military operation rather than an internal suppression mission.  Reason being that the level of autonomy that the soldier or even lower-level commanders have in the field is still very low within the PLA.  Soldiers can provide the upper ranks of the PLA with full situational awareness and can talk to them securely, but in the opinion of western attaches based in Beijing it will all have minimal utility until the military changes its entire concept of operations.

4) CETC: China’s Electronics Empire

The China Electronics Technology Corporation (CETC) continues to be the first among equals of the various consortia that own specific sectors of the defence electronics industry.  While there are other groups of electronics firms that are grouped underneath a corporate umbrella or part of a geographically-based association of companies, CETC has the majority of the most important defence electronics firms – 47 separate enterprises that they refer to as “institutes” – as its portfolio of producers and suppliers.

CETC continues to be the major supplier of defensive aides suites for aircraft, land-based and airborne radars, battlefield communications systems, electronic warfare systems, passive detection and electronic support measures (ESM) systems, and a host of other products that are used across all branches of the PLA, as well as the PAP and law enforcement.

CETC is the largest of the defence electronics conglomerates and produces most of the on-board systems used in Chinese fighter aircraft.

The conglomerate is also an important supplier of much of the security and crowd/access control equipment that has been used for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and the current World Expo that is taking place in Shanghai this year.  The type and design of this equipment is such that it is easy to see that the business of supplying military organisations with equipment that they need on the battlefield and developing a new generation of crowd control technology are parallel universes where innovations developed by one of the CETC institutes can many times be applied to both product lines.

On the military side, all of the reports by customers using CETC-developed equipment are generally positive.  Among other new developments that are in the works are a new line of electronic warfare equipment that will be as capable as most other comparable western systems.  The major difference will be that these Chinese systems will be far more economically priced than any analogues available from the US or Europe.

Most of the military’s secure communications equipment is produced by CETC, all of which has a dual-use for large access control events, like the 2008 Olympic Games or the World Expo in Shanghai.

With this advantage in mind CETC is beginning to turn its focus more towards expanding export markets.  This is all mostly due to the fact that Chinese companies used to be limited to trying to sell to countries that could either not purchase from the West or only had the financial means to purchase low-cost Chinese products.  Now the electronics giant is encroaching on territory such as South America that would have normally been the preserve of US or European firms.

With this objective in mind, CETC are now more actively participating in international defence expositions outside of China and establishing themselves as players in the competition in emerging markets.  In this sense they are in the same category as other Chinese arms export companies like Polytechnologies or Norinco, both of which exhibited at the Eurosatory show in Paris for the first time ever this past June.

5) A Little Help From The EU

One of the few foreign firms that was exhibiting at CIDEX for the first time was the Norwegian electronics manufacturer, Sensonor.  The company is offering its products on both the Chinese and Russian military markets.  It is one of the leading European firs to offer products based on Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS) technology, and the company representatives said that this was their first show in China.

Sensonor’s MEMS gyroscope components offer the possibility for radically improving the accuracy of Chinese missile systems and precision-guided munitions.  The central component is the STIM202 Butterfly gyro, which is a 55-gram miniature module that replaces previous-generation fibre-optic, ring laser and mechanical gyros.

The STIM202 is based on single-crystal silicon technology.  It can be configured in 1, 2 or 3 axes capability and offers 24-bit resolution plus an RS422 bit rate like the components made by their Chinese competitors at Kotel.  Company engineers claim that “the STIM202 is so small and light that the designers of a missile system can use two of the modules to provide the weapon’s on-board guidance module with back-up redundancy, which was never a possibility with previous-generation guidance components.”

Norway’s Sensonor has the market for selling MEMS based guidance equipment all to itself in China. The US and other EU firms cannot compete here. This technology could profoundly enhance the accuracy of all Chinese-produced PGM.

There are a number of firms worldwide producing components based on this type of technology, but the rest of them are barred from doing business in China due to the Tiananmen Square arms embargo.  However Sensonor claim they can do business in China because “there is no ITAR content to our product.”

“We almost have to thank the US government for forbidding American firms from offering this product in China,” said one Sensonor engineer, “because the prohibition has more or less left this market completely open for us without any US or other competition.”

If the Sensonor technology is purchased by Chinese industry in significant numbers, their missiles and other guided weapons will achieve levels of performance and accuracy comparable to their western counterparts, but at a much lower total system cost.  Even though Kotel in China are already producing a similar product, the people from Sensonor said that they are not worried about their product being reverse-engineered and illegally copied.

“This is a complex technology and it requires significant amounts of investment in industrial production equipment and years of experience to be able to produce these components on a cost-effective basis.  This does not lend the technology to being easy to duplicate.”

Why selling this product into China is not considered a violation of the EU arms embargo on the PRC is unknown.  Having no ITAR content may be one issue, but the significant increase it will bring to the accuracy of Chinese weaponry certainly violates the spirit – if not the letter – of the EU embargo.

The fact that this Norwegian firm was one of the only foreign companies offering a new product shows just how technologically sophisticated China’s defence electronics sector has become.  There appears to be little that they cannot do on their own, and what few technologies they cannot develop on their own seems to become more and more readily available despite international sanctions that should prevent them from being able to purchase it.

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