Friday, March 25, 2016

Carrier Fleet and Strategic transport

This entry will focus on two of the largest strategic projects that China is currently working on: Carrier fleet and strategic transport (Y-20).

For the former, there has been increasing number of photos from Dalian shipyard showing the first domestic carrier taking form. This carrier, commonly referred as 001A, is expected to be very similar to Type 001 CV-16. Both carriers are conventionally powered STOBAR carrier with an air wing consistent of J-15s, Z-18s and Z-9s. There have been many photos of production J-15s (Number 100 to 114) operating off CV-16 since the start of the year. It seems like the standard weapon load for air defense version of J-15s is 2 MRAAMs + 2 SRAAMs. Ground attack variants could carry 2 YJ-83s + 2 SRAAMs. More importantly, the latest photos show several J-15s on flight deck at the same time with many crew members doing standard carrier operation duties. There are pictures show 5 or 6 J-15s parked with their wings folded, a tug dragging helicopter around, elevator carrying plane to flight deck and multiple J-15s about to take off. We have even seen photos from late afternoon or early evening showing flight deck operation with lights on. While the last part does not conclude they have started doing take off and landing in the evenings, it does indicate that part maybe coming sooner than many people would have guessed a year ago. One of my fellow SDF moderators even commented on how the CV-16 flight decks show more activity than any of the photos from Soviet Union ones. The next step would be more integrated exercises with other ships of a carrier fleet.

For the latter, recent report has come out that the development of Y-20 may complete this year leading to the start of mass production sometimes this year. So far, there have been 5 flying prototypes (No. 781, 783, 785, 788 and 789) along with unknown static prototypes. Even though Y-20 made its first flight in 2013, strategic transport do not need to conduct flight testing for as long as fighter jet projects. At the same time, WS-18 achieved design certification last year, so it should be ready for mass production this year. It’s possible that the earlier Y-20s may still use D-30KP2, but they have bought over 200 D-30s in the past. Even accounting for H-6 usage, the remaining D-30s should allow time for production WS-18s to mature. As I’ve discussed before, Y-20 will not only be used for transport purposes, but also on tankers, AWACs, special mission aircraft and ABL platform. While the requirements of these aircraft types can differ, they also all have common requirements of long range, long endurance, high payload, and good short field performance from conventional and unpaved runways. We know that Y-20 probably will be required to carry something the size of ZTZ-99. That would lead to payload requirement of over 60 tons. We don’t have any performance data outside of that other than the belief that it will similar to comparable transports. We know that the wings and fuselage of Y-20 will have to be optimized to balance performance in takeoff, cargo space, endurance and range based on what PLAAF thinks the future requirements of Y-20 are. That requirement maybe different from what the Soviet Union envisioned for IL-76 or US envisioned for C-17. For example, how would a transport like IL-76 originally developed to carry at most 40 ton in payload be able to carry larger payload efficiently now that its payload has been increased with the new PS-90A engines. That’s one of the major advantages to developing one’s own strategic transport. Compared to IL-76 (and the upgraded IL-476), Y-20 should eventually use more efficient engines (WS-20), more modern flight control system and avionics, more advanced material (vs what was available in 70s) and more efficient wing for China’s missions. With newer construction techniques available that China has learnt from working with Airbus and Boeing, Y-20 could end up with a really modern production line. Once production for Y-20 ramps up, we will be able to see how much fruit this project will reap from the RnD in COMAC projects like C919.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

052C radar + Aeroengine development

Since the Lunar New Year break started, not much significant news have happened, but there were a couple of story lines in the past month that caught my attention.

The first one is this story on weibo from someone who said to have participated in the initial part of Type 346 radar development (for 052C) before immigrating to Canada in the late 90s. There has been a lot of criticism on this article regarding author's decision to leave China and also on whether or not he actually worked on the project (or just made this all up). Looking through some of the online discussions on this like this thread on hsh, I'm still not convinced on whether or not this is authentic or something this author wrote from other sources he read online. Even so, I think it's an article that's well worth reading. The human part of the story rings true to people who are far more involved with the inner working of Chinese navy than I am. Certainly during the earlier days, many talented people left China because they were simply not appreciated or adequately compensated for the work they were doing.

Aside from that, I think it's quite interesting to consider how PLA awarded R&D funding to various institutions. Outside of the process, very few people know how competitive some of these PLA contracts are. This article allows us to see the geopolitical, political and relational angles that affect each contract award. It makes sense for each of the competing firm to try their utmost to win R&D grants and funding regardless of whether or not their proposal is the best. Certainly, having the right person to lobby for your proposal can go a long way toward covering up deficiencies versus opposing proposals. In the end of the process, I think it almost seems like Chinese navy picked 14th Institute proposal out of luck due to an expected geopolitical event. That decision certainly seems to have yielded good results since the 14th Institute has since produced many quality AESA radar for both the air force and the navy. I think the numerous "big shrimps" on Chinese forums have also corroborated the political influence and connections that sometimes lead to picking the less optimal option. On the plus side, it also illustrated how fiercely competitive these firms have to go to pick up funding for their projects. This higher level of competition inside China (that we don't really read about) helps push projects forward in ways that don't seem to happen in India.

At the same time, a lot of aeroengine related news came out. It was reported that WS-10B achieving design certification, WS-10 achieved production certification and WS-15 was going into the process of achieving design certification. Broadly speaking, there are 4 major stages in China with respect to developing and certifying a new engine.
  • The first phase is the test/experimental stage prior to the initial flight. This involves all of the ground based testing on the parts of engine and as a whole. It goes through a series of test on the test vehicle and its parts to make sure that it's ready to go through flight testing.
  • The second phase is the research test flight stage. Before going into the process of certification test flights, the test vehicle is flown under realistic flight scenarios and flight envelope. The main tasks include preliminary assessment of engine flight performance, features, reliability, maintainability, testability and supportability. Flight tests could be carried out in a flight engine test bed or on an intended aircraft. At the conclusion of test flights, the technological maturity level should reach level 7. In WS-15 testing, it had to complete 60 hours of endurance testing on flight testbed before completing this phase. So at this point, the engine is demonstrated to have at least 60 hours of service life prior to overhauling.
  • The third phase is the design certification stage. Before low rate initial production, it must go through a series of ground testing of the engine, its systems and the individual parts. It must also go through with high altitude testing and flight certification. Most importantly, it has to go through the initial overhaul long endurance testing on testbed. For WS-10 and WS-10B, they had to complete a 300 hour endurance testing to complete this stage. Under testing of full flight envelope, these tests will determine the reliability, maintainability, testability, safety and service life. At its conclusion, the technological maturity level should reach level 8.
  • The fourth phase is the production certification stage. Before mass production of an engine, it must be deployed in smaller number of aircraft (with active service aircraft) for test usage in order to become mature. It must go through with full service life endurance testing on test bed. It must complete comprehensive verification of engine performance and reliability under mass production quality. Mass produced version of WS-10 must complete 1000 hour of endurance before completing this stage, the initial overhaul time is at least 1000 hours. At its conclusion, the technological maturity level should reach level 9.

From the above, one can get a sense of where each of the engine is at. WS-10 has completed production certification, so it is now quite reliable (1000 hours MTBO) and deployed on most of the J-11Bs. As reported in numerous places, this version of WS-10 achieves a maximum thrust of 12.5 ton with afterburners. WS-10B has now completed design certification (at least 300 hours MTBO) and is deployed on some flankers and a couple of J-10Bs. According to numerous reports, it achieves maximum thrust of 14 ton (12% more than WS-10) with afterburners and features a digital control system (FADEC). Since both flanker and J-10B already has more reliable but less powerful engine in service, WS-10B will probably be deployed in smaller numbers until it becomes more reliable. WS-10B should have greater thrust than even AL-31FN series 3 (14 ton to 13.5 ton), so it would be the better choice once flight testing on J-10B is completed. Once we see a full batch of J-10B installed with WS-10B as opposed to AL-31FN, then WS-10B is probably in mass production and not far from production certification. The next improvement to WS-10 includes adding a new thrust vectoring control and achieving higher maximum thrust. That variant of WS-10 is probably under design certification tests right now. There is also a variant of WS-10 being developed for naval fighter jet J-15, which should become certified soon.

We also got the news that WS-13E may have achieved design certification and will begin production this year. It is said to be an improved version of WS-13 and achieves close to 9 ton in thrust (8.7 ton on original WS-13). That's compared to 8.3 ton on RD-93 and 9.3 ton on RD-93MA. This engine could be used on JF-17 or FC-31 or Lijian UCAV. Since this is still very early in its production cycle, it would be interesting to see where it will first be deployed on.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

J-20 and geopolitical implications.

The J-20 project has made some significant progress in the past 2 years with the roll out of prototypes 2011 to 2017 to accelerate the flights testing and development of the J-20 aircraft. With the roll out of 2101, what appears to J-20’s first LRIP aircraft, it’s possible that the first batch of J-20s will get delivered to FTTC this year to start the process of expanding flight envelope, testing/evaluating new weapon systems, developing new training procedures and combat tactics for a new aircraft. If FTTC evaluation proceeds well, J-20 may be certified and start entering into service next year. It looks like the project is proceeding a couple of years faster than the original expectations. For this entry, I want to look at how the progress of J-20 vs progress of other fighter jet projects affects regional balance of air power.

To start off, the most obvious threat to PLAAF comes from the vast number of F-35s that will be deployed in the APAC region by America and its allies. Due to defense cutbacks by many Western countries, key American allies in APAC region should not have to wait too long to get their F-35s. If J-20 enters service in the next 2 years, it will enter service extremely underpowered since WS-15 is not yet ready. As a result, I think the initial J-20s will have to carry limited fuel and payload in order to achieve desired flight performance. Until WS-15 does become certified with J-20 sometimes next decade, there are certain missions involving longer range and greater payload that J-20 just cannot perform. USAF and USN’s will have overwhelming qualitative and quantitative advantage in the region against PLAAF in the short term. Even after J-20 enters service in larger numbers later with WS-15, I think USAF and USN’s F-35s will still have both qualitative and quantitative advantage in the region. J-20 probably will have certain advantages over F-35 in flight performance, power and payload, but will definitely be at large disadvantage in stealth, sensors, weapon system and the ability to operate in a network centric environment. Reading Chinese sources, I have often gotten the impression that PLAAF regards F-35 as its biggest threat (even more than F-22) due to F-35’s technical and numerical advantage over what China might field. I don’t think anything from the past couple of years have really changed that.

I think a more interesting case is to compare J-20 to the PAK-FA project. I have often compared the 2 projects in the recent years, because they have started about the same time and went with similar platforms that seem to be natural evolution from flankers. In J-20, China seemed to put more emphasis on overall stealth and range. The Russians seemed to put greater emphasis on maneuverability. From the beginning, I had always thought the PAK-FA development would finish first due to Russia’s previous R&D into 5th generation fighter jet, the earlier first flight of PAK-FA and original pronouncement of 2016 IOC. As mentioned several times before, this has been turned upside down in the last 2 years as PAK-FA have been plagued with problems whereas J-20 is proceeding without any obvious setbacks. Without comparing the capabilities of the 2 aircraft, it seems more likely now for j-20 to join service before PAK-FA does. Another part to look at is the new engine options for the two aircraft, since both will first enter service with underpowered AL-31 or WS-10 variants. PAK-FA will later use izdeliye 30, whereas J-20 will use WS-15. The former is expected to start flight trials in 2017 and join service around 2020 and the latter has similar timelines. With China’s previous problems in mass production of a new turbofan engine, WS-15 entry may drag on a couple of years longer, but entry into service for both engines are pretty close. That means it will probably take early 2020s before the appropriately powered version of both J-20 and PAK-FA go into service. Looking at the progress of the 2 programs at the current time, it seems like J-20 is far more likely to join service on time since most of its subsystems (other than engine) are ready, whereas PAK-FA has been delayed in both its flight testing (by fire on the 5th prototype) and subsystems (like radar). So, China will get operational J-20s before Russia does with PAK-FA. Although the 2 countries are currently friendly, China considered Russia to be its greatest enemy as recently as late 80s. I think it’s quite important for China to not rely on Russia weaponry for security reasons. It’s important to note China has been Russia’s student since the 50s. It would be a tremendous boost for Chinese pride to be ahead of Russia in military aviation. The other part of J-20 vs PAK-FA comparison is India’s involvement. India will receive production PAK-FA several years after Russia. India was part of PAK-FA development since the beginning when it proudly pronounced that Russia was only willing to partner with India (rather than China) in its 5th generation fighter jet project. Since then, India has regularly complained about its involvement in the project as PAK-FA falls behind schedule. India also complains about the cost and technical capabilities of PAK-FA. As a whole, it seems like India is not getting the aircraft it wants or the development experience it wants or the timeline it was hoping for. All of this has added up to a nightmare scenario where China will receive a possibly more advanced 5th generation aircraft several years before India does. The best aircraft India can field at that time will be Rafael. It’s also possible that China’s second 5th generation project, J-31, will be in service very soon after PAK-FA goes into service with India. If China exports J-31 to Pakistan after a couple of years, then India will have very few years of advantage over Pakistan in 5th generation fighter jet. So while India originally had hoped for getting PAK-FA several years before China gets J-20, it may now be trapped in a situation of 2 hostile neighbours with 5th generation aircraft. There have not been much mentions of MCA in the past year. Looking at how long LCA has been in development, I can only assume that means MCA is much further away from completion.

The only other next generation development projects are Korea’s KFX project and Japan’s ATD-X/F-3 project. Since both countries only have one recent fighter jet project experience (Korea with T-50 and Japan with F-2), it’s unclear how long the development will take or how capable the aircraft will be. In both cases, I would imagine they would seek for as much American help as they can. These two countries are looking to establish long-term viable domestic military aircraft makers through these projects. However, I don’t think it’s America’s interest to create possible competitors that may take away future exports. In both cases, I think they will probably create semi-stealthy designs that are comparable in performance to the eurocanards. As shown in PAK-FA and J-20 project, creating 5th generation aircraft will all aspect stealth is extremely difficult. America was able to do so, because it had decades of experience in stealth. Looking at Japan’s previous venture, F-2 was over-budget and under delivered in performance. Japan has not worked on any fighter jet programs since. Korea has only developed an advanced trainer in T-50. It seems to be a huge challenge to go from that to 5th generation fighter jet. Both countries are expected to field F-35 when very few APAC countries have 5th generation aircraft. Unless they try to throw away that advantage for the sake of national pride, they seem both well positioned for the future. J-20’s success may push both countries to be more invested in F-35 project, since they cannot afford to wait on their domestic programs.

Overall, I think the progress of J-20 does change the geopolitical calculations in the region. Countries that field PAK-FA like Russia and India are now at a disadvantage. If the J-31 project can move forward quickly in the next 5 years, it could have some real export potentials in countries that had been importing Russian fighter jet. F-35 program is in full production mode, so I don’t think much has changed in countries that will be fielding F-35.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

2015 Year in Review

As the end of 2015 draw near, I’d like to take a look at all the important PLA stories of 2015. There are both numerous air force and naval stories. Compared to previous years, there were more news coming out of air force than navy this year as J-20, J-10, flankers and C-919 project all had significant progress.

The major focus of this past few months have been the progress of J-20 project. After 4 new prototypes came out last year with significant changes from the J-20 demonstrators, there was not much happening this year until September of this year when prototypes No. 2016 came out followed by prototype No. 2017 in November. The latest prototype showed slightly reshaped canopy and a new ejection seat, but is generally the same as the earlier prototypes. With these 2 prototypes, there are rumours of 2 more prototypes No. 2018 and 2019 coming out to speed up the testing phase. That has yet to happen, but we have seen what appears to be the first Low Rate Initial Production J-20 showing up most recently with the appearance of No. 2101. Unlike the prototype ones, it is painted entirely in yellow primers. The prototypes are typically sent to CFTE for flight-testing. If No. 2101 is the first LRIP model, then it will probably get sent with the rest of its batch to FTTC for expanding the flight envelope, testing out usage of new systems, developing combat tactics and training manual for J-20 pilots. The first J-10 squad was also established in FTTC before the 44th regiment received J-10. At the current pace, it’s definitely possible for J-20 to achieve IOC or some level of combat capability by 2017. Compared to PAK-FA, I think J-20 is now actually quite a bit ahead. The only major concern for this program is that WS-15 engine is still several years from entering service, so will be quite underpowered for the first few years. At the current time, J-20 is probably testing with AL-31FN Cep 3 engine (that are used for J-10C). Some of the missiles being developed for weapon bay may not be ready yet, but other programs like PL-10, miniature PGMs should be. Not much seemed to have happened with FC-31 project this year, but it has appeared in numerous air shows. For 2016, I will be watching out to see how many LRIP J-20s come out and the expanded test program for the J-20 prototypes. It will also be interested to see if a second FC-31 prototype comes out next year.

At the same time that J-20 has been moving forward, the production of J-10 series have started to pick up again. J-10B development has in my opinion been delays due to CAC focusing on J-20 project, but production level has been pretty good since 2014. There were about 53 J-10Bs produced in block 1 and they have all joined service. Block 2 production has since started and reached at least in the mid 20s. They are supposedly built to the J-10C standard with AESA radar (instead of PESA like J-10B) and numerous other electronic improvements. We are still unsure of all the regiments that have received J-10B/C, because photos normally have their numbers blurred out. Huitong’s blog currently has listed FTTC, 2nd division, 19th division and 21st division as having J-10B/C regiments. From what I have seen, FTTC received J-10Bs first and the old J-10A 2nd division regiment has been receiving J-10Bs. Also, it’s interesting that we have been seeing numerous J-10Bs (without the J-10C improvements) flying with Taihang engine. So I think it is possible that we will see both J-10B with Taihang and J-10C with AL-31FN Series 3 engine produced next year. Based on the recent production numbers, China probably needs to place another AL-31FN order soon.

China also had some more movements with its larger aircraft programs. It received the second refurbished IL-78s from Ukraine (out of 3 on order) and more of the refurbished IL-76s. We also continue to hear more on development of Y-20 and its engines (WS-18 and WS-20). The development of Y-20 will probably complete by 2017 based on its current progress. As I wrote about many times before, PLAAF has large requirement of Y-20 for transport, tankers and special missions platform. I’m sure the LRIP for Y-20 will begin next year, but it’s hard to say when they would be able to ramp up its production to the point where it no longer needs to import IL-76/78s. At the same time, China unveiled the first C919 airliner this year and also finally completed flight certification of ARJ-21. At this point, it seems like C919 is already a great improvement in almost every aspect over ARJ-21. However, it’s going into the market against an extremely capable A320NEO series and B737 MAX series. It does not seem to have any real advantage over those 2 series and will not enter service earlier. In most of China’s domestic routes, it should be competitive with those 2, so I would expect it to capture a good number of orders once it completes flight certification. The big challenges ahead will be to obtain FAA/EASA certification, achieve export orders, ramping up production and completing all of this with minimal delays. This is a tremendous undertaking, but COMAC would be getting a lot of valuable experiences if it can achieve all of that.

Another area of aviation that China has done well on this year is in the field of UAVs. The CH-3/4 UCAVs have been exported to numerous countries (at least Nigeria, Iraq, Egypt, UAE and Saudi Arabia). It has already been used in conflicts against ISIS and Yemen rebels. China had been displaying numerous miniature (50 kg) PGMs and ground attack missiles in weapon shows along with CH-4 UAVs and these have now been tested in real war action. So from these action, it’s likely that CH-4 will get more export orders in the coming years. The WingLoong series has also achieved export orders with UAE and with PLA. Along with these MQ-1 like UCAV program, China is also developing numerous larger UAVs and UCAVs. Those programs are likely developed just for domestic usage and not marketed for exports. It’s unclear how many of these programs will actually see production.

For the Chinese navy, the major ticket item is its aircraft carrier program. Throughout this year, more and more photos came out from Dalian rumoured to be modules of the first domestic aircraft carriers. At this point, I think most Chinese navy watchers would agree that this is the first domestic carrier (aka Project 001A). Over 2016, one of the main areas to follow would be the progress of this first carrier. Over the past year, the intensity of CV-16 exercises seemed to be picking up. Over this past year, Shenyang AC has been producing more production versions of J-15s. There are at least 15 of them now from 100 to 114 and all of them probably have flown off CV-16. In the most recent exercise, at least 6 of them were shown on deck at the same time and as many as 10 were probably on CV-16 in this exercise. That’s a definite step forward in carrier operations from earlier this year and previous years. On top of having more J-15s on board, having more types of combat aircraft and helicopter on board operating at different weather conditions and at nighttime are the next steps in improving carrier operation. Chinese naval aviation has a long way to go in developing its combat capability, so will be sure to continue to see its progress next year. I think it’s also interesting that we have yet to see photos of CV-16 leading a large flotilla with numerous escorts like 052C/D and 054A, so that’s also something to look to see in 2016. The Chinese navy has to do all of this with very little help from other carrier operating navies around the world, so it has been deliberately ramping up operation for the past 3 years. It may take several more years to see the things I’ve listed here.

The rest of the surface fleet programs have also been progressing well like previous years. The 4 new 052C ships have now all joined service as No. 150 to 153. Two more 052Ds (No. 173 and No. 174) have also joined service. The main gun PJ-38 has also recently did a comprehensive round of firing tests. The 052Ds are equipped with the latest VLS, multi functional radar, variable depth sonar and PJ-38s, so they represent quite a major improvement in capabilities over 052C despite sharing the same hull. There are probably at least 5 more 052Ds from JN shipyard and 2 more from Dalian shipyard that are under construction. We will probably also start seeing progress of 055 in one of these shipyards next year. Amongst the 054As, a couple of more joined service this year and more modules have also appeared. They are also installed with the new VDS. The production of 054As has already exceeded what was expected originally, allowing the older Jianghu ships and the 4 Jiangwei ships to be decommissioned. It will be interesting to see how many more 054As ships are built when many have expected PLAN to move production to a newer 054 variant. Similarly, Type 056 corvettes have also continued to be produced in large numbers this year and they are expected to replace the roles of Type 037s in patrol, sub chasers and ASuW. And finally, the 4th Type 071 recently joined service as No. 988. Aside from the surface combatants, the replenishment fleet has also seen a huge boom this year. Most recently, the 40K+ ton displacement Type 901 AOR was launched. This type of shape is significant, because it’s expected to be the primary AOR for China’s future carrier fleet. It is much larger than China’s existing Type 903 class of AORs. Also, it is powered by gas turbines instead of diesel engines on the Type 903 AORS, allowing for much higher speed to keep up with the rest of carrier fleet. It also has more resupply gantries located in the middle of the ship than Type 903, which allows for underway refueling with more ships. At the same time, both HD and GSI shipyard have continued to build and commissioned Type 903A ships. There were 3 Type 903A (No. 960, 966 and 963) have joined service this year. There are at least 2 other one launched and another building. The Type 904 large store ships also had a lot of activity this year. There were 2 Type 904B ships (No. 961 and 962) that joined service year. These additional ships are probably there to supply the increasing amount of activity that China has in South China Sea and East China Sea. So overall, this was a really active year for China’s replenishment fleet. A couple of the older replenishment ships will probably retire over the next couple of years, but the increasing number of large ships joining into service will allow for greater power projection capabilities and also supplying near by islands. Finally, China’s coast guard fleet construction activity has continued this year with some of the largest cutters joining service. There were 12000-ton class, 5000-ton class, 4000-ton class and numerous 3000-ton class cutters getting launched and commissioned. A lot of ships seem to have conflicting roles, but they were originally created for different agencies and for provincial bureaus. I think that most of the programs are nearing conclusion at the moment. Until the next 5-year plan gets developed with similar number of projects, we probably will not see this same level of expansion for a while. As a whole, an interesting year with news from both the navy and air force. I will be looking to follow up on most of these programs next year.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

ASBM program and Su-35 export

I came across a really well down book by Andrew Erickson on China's ASBM development. The book can be found here. It was written by 2013, but most of the content is still very up to date. It does a good job of talking about ASBM development, motivation, capability and China's satellite system. Since then, I think the only major update is the unveiling of both DF-21D and the previously unknown DF-26 in China's Victory parade in September. That shows a much greater potential usage than just Taiwan scenario or even around disputed islands in South and East China Sea.

At the same time, the other news that came out this past week is the finalization of Su-35 export. The discussion seemed to have started way back in 2008 and really picked up since 2012. I think Su-35 is an interim solution to provide advanced capability to PLAAF beyond their existing flanker fleet while CAC is completing the development of J-20. I see it as any improvement over China's domestic J-11s, but not something that will be a legitimate solution to F-35 and other 5th generation aircraft.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

China's first oversea base

I will keep this short. We have report that China has signed a ten year deal with Djibouti for its first oversea naval base. Andrew Erickson provided a good analysis of today's development in this article. The location makes a lot of sense since China has been making port calls there as part of its missions in Gulf of Aden. This 2010 Jamestown article did a good job of exploring what had been an expanding support network for PLAN up until that point. Certainly, as Chinese naval influence grows in this region with more port calls, patrols and joint exercises, I think there will be more arrangements where China establishes what looks like oversea base (even if they are not called that).

Saturday, November 7, 2015

My thoughts on COMAC C919

Most recently, COMAC (Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China) rolled out the first C919 off the assembly line to eagerly awaiting media. The question as we go forward is how successful will C919 be or how successful can it be? It has already pushed back it maiden flight from 2014 to 2016 (which is not too uncommon in aerospace industry) and first delivery to 2018.

AVIC1 has had a long history of supplying parts to both Boeing and Airbus airliners. China's large domestic market has even resulted in final assembly lines inside the country for A320 (and also A330 and B737 going forward). Even so, building a successful modern airliner require building up and maintaining a complicated supplier network, production systems, assembly lines, marketing network and after sales service centers. On top of this, the process of getting FAA certification for airliner is a tremendous undertaking. China had very little experience before it started ARJ-21, which resulted in significant delays while trying to get CAAC certification. Now 8 years after the initial planned service entry, the first ARJ-21 is finally about to enter service later this year without FAA certification. China certainly learnt a lot from ARJ-21 project from all I have read and is unlikely to have the sam delays getting CAAC certification in the C919 project. However, the thorny issue of have FAA recognizing CAAC certification still needs to be resolved before both aircraft can be sold to the wider markets. If they cannot be resolved, then C919 simply would not be able to land in large part of the world which requires on FAA or EASA certification. So until then, C919 is restricted to the domestic and surrounding markets. Based on COMAC's ARJ-21 delays, it's reasonable to assume that most airlines would prefer to wait until closer to certification before making decision on purchasing C919.

From all of this, I think it's quite clear the tremendous undertaking to go straight into C919 without even achieving a successful production cycle in the less competitive regional airliner segment which is currently dominated by Bombardier and Embraer. Up to now, C919 has been able to get large amount of orders (about 500) based purely on the size of its domestic market. As seen in the Russian project of MS-21 and Superjet-100, it is far easier to get export deals in the regional jet segment than the A320/B737 segment. Even an experienced aircraft maker like Bombardier has struggled with breaking into this segment and is loosing a lot of money and facing long delays in the CSeries project. Bombardier made the entry into this segment trying to take advantage of the generation gap between A320/B737 and next generation of regional jet by utilizing the next generation engine to achieve about 15% improvement in operation cost over A320. However, Airbus quickly countered CSeries and C919/MS-21 threat by coming out with the A320NEO upgrade by offering the same new engine options, new sharklets and some other smaller upgrades. That has more of less crushed CSeries sales prospects and given it a lead over the improve B737MAX upgrades. At this point, both C919 and MS-21 are going up against the two entrenched players with significant resource advantage. Unlike the CSeries, C919 (and MS-21) can at least secure large quantities of domestic orders and also have significant government support. COMAC does not have the marketing, production, certification and sales experience that Airbus and Boeing do. It is always hard to knock off established players without advantage in product quality. Both airbus and Boeing have significant backlogs, so C919 maybe able to get more orders in both domestic and export market if it is able to have fewer future delays and obtaining FAA certification. I think if it can get FAA certification and several hundreds export orders, this would be considered a successful project. After all, Airbus's first project A300 only achieved 500+ sales.

More importantly, I think China sees this a significant initiative in lifting its civilian aviation industry. I've talking many times in the past about how China's shipbuilding industry allows it to quickly and cheaply build up China's naval force. China's aerospace industry simply doesn't have close to the same production capacity as Lockheed Martin and Boeing. I read that COMAC aims to lift C919 annual production rate eventually to 150 aircraft a year. Even though that's rather small compared to A320 production of 60 a month, it would still be a huge undertaking for COMAC and AVIC1. That kind of huge leap in production quality and capability would be transferable to military aviation projects. In the end, I think China is willing to loose money on both ARJ-21 and C919 project for these reasons.

After C919, COMAC and Russia UAC is said to be joining forces in the C929 project. It seems like the technology used in this project may be behind that of B787 and A350. Both of which represent the cutting edge of modern civil aviation. So, it's hard for me to see how they could compete for much outside of domestic project. In choosing to partner up with UAC, COMAC is signaling it does not think it's capable of developing a commercially viable C929 project on its own. All of which leads to me think it would be best for China followers to temper expectations on the C919 project.