This is the part 5 of the series of reviewing the content of the recent book that I read. I will be exploring how India and China approached the purchase of Flanker series from Russia. If you guys would like me to write about something else related to PLAAF, please email me.
Back when I started following PLA, there was a widespread belief that Russia was willing to offer more advanced weapons to India than China due to India’s greater selection of suppliers. The superiority of Su-30MKI over Su-30MKK was used to illustrate the point that India was getting more advanced technology from the Russians. With the narrative that we see from Russian/Indian news sources, it was pretty easy to concede that point. After all, India did get licensed production to AL-31FP and the more advanced Su-30MKI. At the same time, it also makes sense that India would get more from the Russians due to their greater leverage.
I have already spent one part of the series talking about Russian assistance to the Chinese aerospace industry. Today, we can see that the Chinese aerospace industry is already capable of developing most aircraft and subsystems on its own. In fact, it has advanced to the point where it can now export an aircraft like JF-17 and its production line to another country. At the same time, India still relies on importing aircraft and technology from other countries. Looking back at 1990, India had been manufacturing more advanced aircraft than China under local licensed production, but China had more development experience with projects like J-7III, J-8 and numerous failed projects. Both countries had indigenous 4th generation fighter jet projects (J-10 and HAL Tejas). In India, all of the licensed production and indigenous development were done by HAL. In China, the aircraft projects were handled by different aircraft companies like Shenyang AC, Chengdu AC, Xi’an AC, Hongdu AC and Shaanxi AC.
I think that competition between the different aircraft companies certainly provides an advantage for China over India. In the competition for 4th generation project, SAC and CAC both came up with proposals and PLAAF picked CAC’s proposal. CAC was eventually able to develop J-10 with some Israeli/Russian assistance after 18 years. When SAC was given the task of licensed production of Su-27, some in PLAAF wanted to axe the J-10 project, but CAC was allowed to continue on its own through all of the problems. And now that CAC has developed J-10 and SAC has mastered the local production of J-11, both aircraft companies have to continually perform and innovate to get orders. In India, HAL was in charge of licensed production of Su-30MKI and also numerous indigenous development projects (including Tejas). I think when HAL is the only domestic company and all foreign suppliers have to cooperate with it, HAL is not incentivized to produce more efficiently or to innovate. Today, SAC and CAC have to continually compete against each other for new projects like the 5th generation jet, naval fighter jet and UAVs. At the same time, HAL is in charge of all Indian military aviation projects from in house projects like Tejas and MCA to licensed production projects like Su-30, MRCA and FGFA. When we look at the civilian airliner industry, the different aircraft companies in China have scored many more supplier contracts than HAL has. I think even as India is becoming more competitive in the world economy, its aerospace industry will continue to struggle if it faces no competition.
At the same time, there was a difference in the approach that China and India took with importing from Russia. When Russia was promoting Su-30MKI to India, it had not finished developing the technologies for MKI. The original 8 Su-30Ks had no difference from Su-27UB and many of the promised technologies were not developed and integrated until much later. The much touted AL-31FP also suffered numerous problems and the TVC nozzle had very short service life. Eventually, most of the MKI problems were solved. Su-30 is now the most important part of a growingly powerful IAF. However, HAL still depends on Russia, France and Israel for the production of Su-30. It still looks to Russia for future upgrades to Su-30. In comparison, China was only interested in more mature products. Its goal was not to work with Russia to develop the best aircraft, but rather to advance its local industry so that it can develop next generation aircraft on its own. Su-27sk was a generation or more ahead of what SAC was producing at that time, so the goal of the J-11 licensed production deal was for SAC to learn how to produce a modern heavy fighter jet. The MKK project was completed quickly because it was based on mature technology; whereas MKI was dragged behind by yet to be developed technologies. MKK had much less capable avionics compared to MKI, but it was using a more advanced airframe based on Su-35UB. I think PLAAF always intended to produce a local variant of J-11 that uses Su-27sk, but indigenous avionics, engine and weapon package. As we’ve seen with J-11B/S, SAC has succeeded in developing and producing Chinese versions of Su-27s/ub. At the same time, MKK’s airframe will probably serve as the basis for SAC’s fighter bomber project. While MKI is a lot more capable in combat, MKK is better suited for what PLAAF needed at the time. The question is obviously whether or not India should’ve taken the same path that China did. That is something I can’t predict without knowing the Indian aerospace industry too well.
When I look at PLAAF vs IAF import procurements, I see two very contrasting philosophies. PLAAF chooses to import safe, mature products that can be developed quickly, whereas IAF chooses to import ambitious and more technologically advanced products. The former philosophy results in greater cost and time certainty, whereas the latter results in a better product in the long run. This philosophy also carried over to technology transfer when dealing with the Russians. By choosing a fully developed and mature aircraft like Su-27, SAC had more time to master the technology to produce Su-27 locally and obtain avionics upgrade as they become available through China and Russian suppliers. By choosing a more ambitious aircraft like MKI, India ended up paying Russia/Israel/France firm to complete their development while still reliant on these firms for future upgrades. At the same time, HAL had to deal with delays in MKI, whereas SAC was able to just focus on learning how to locally produce Su-27s.
It’s been 20 years since the dissolution of Soviet Union. China and India were at around the same place economically back then. Although China had already opened up and was on a better path economically, India had the advantage of been able to purchase from many foreign suppliers. Even though India got the better aircraft due to their greater leverage, I think this entry showed why China made the better procurement decision in the long run. Many have argued that China got to where it did because it was better at copying designs than most other countries. I believe that’s only part of the equation. Competition and more pragmatic procurement practices are also important in taking the Chinese aerospace industry to where it is right now.