Sunday, October 18, 2009

Trainer projects for PLA

Recently, there have been a bunch of news coming out regarding trainer projects for PLA. So, I thought I'd take a look at what they already have and the projects that they are working on.

In the basic trainer class, PLAAF's current workhorse and the workhorse of the past 4 decades is CJ-6. Over 10,000 samples of this basic trainer have been produced in its lifetime. Even now, some air forces (Burma ordered 20 recently) and civil aviation schools still order CJ-6. However, it does provide some problems in the flight training process for PLAAF, because it's flight performance, cockpit and safety standard is so much lower than that of the intermediate trainer K-8. It could be a huge jump for pilots to go directly from CJ-6 to K-8. It can't be too easy to go from a plane with a maximum speed of 280 km/h to a plane with a maximum speed of 800 km/h at sea level. From the numerous sources I read, it appears that Hongdu and PLAAF completed some evaluation on the requirements of the next generation basic trainer in 2003. After that, Hongdu started this CJ-7 project. As early as 2004, Hongdu approached Yakovlev to evaluate Yak-152 and was satisfied with its performance. They decided on starting co-development/production project for Yak-152K and finished design sometimes in 2006 to 2007. The first flight is probably due to happen sometimes in 2010. There is no question that this plane far exceeds the performance of CJ-6, but the question is why Hongdu needs to approach the Russians about developing something as simple as a basic trainer. I understand that it's far simpler/less costly to just build upon a proven existing design. However, it shouldn't be that difficult for Hongdu to develop something that's not drastically revolutionary with modern cockpit. CJ-6 is dirt cheap (costs around 260,000 RMB = $40,000) to purchase and operate, whereas CJ-7 is significantly more costly (estimated around 1.8 million RMB = $265,000) to purchase and also to operate. I've read conflicting report on this. Some say that CJ-7 will use the 360 hp piston engine of Yak-152, while others say that CJ-7 will actually use the propulsion system of N-5B. If the combination of M601F turboprop engine + V508E 3-blade propeller of N-5B is used, that would provide additional cost associated with trying to localize the production of a new set of propulsion (since PLA is paranoid about relying on foreign engine). If you add the cost of engine on top of the cost of development cost + sharing profits with Yakovlev, it probably would've made more sense if they just developed it by themselves with engine that's already available in China. So, I think that even though CJ-7 will represent a tremendous improvement over CJ-6 in basic trainer, Hongdu could have done a much better job at developing this. It's also important that they they CJ-7 appealing to not only the military, but also civilian users, so that it can be exported worldwide like CJ-6.

China is probably in the best shape in the intermediate trainer class, because K-8 (aka JL-8) pretty much become the trainer of choice for third world air forces. Of course, K-8s development has not been without its own problems. The military embargo forced China to switch to non-Western options for ejection seating, avionics and engines. The domestic license production of the Ukrainian engine AI-25TLK became WS-11. It took from the mid-90s to 2003's production certification to fully address all of the problems in fully indigenizing its production and correcting all the small problems. Even now, the performance of WS-11 still trails that of AI-25TLK (which itself is not that modern). Aside from the engine problems, everything has been smooth sailing for K-8. It has over 400 on order from PLAAF and PLANAF, with over half of that already delivered. It not only scored that infamous local production deal for 120 K-8E with Egypt, but also scored export deals with Pakistan, Burma, Sri Lanka, Zambia, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Ghana. By the end of 2008, over 250 K-8s had already been exported. I also read last year that the 500th K-8 was produced. This year, we saw further export deals to Venezuela for 18, Bolivia for 6, a mysterious African country for 10 (possibly Sudan) and a mysterious Asian country for the licensed production of 60. So, they've basically landed almost 100 orders in the past year. Personally, I think they still have a lot of export potentials in the future. I think Pakistan would need even more K-8s than it had already ordered. PLAAF and PLANAF could possibly order a few more once everything is delivered. It certainly looks like the total production of K-8s will go over 1000.

The lead in flight trainer (LIFT) class is the most heavily contested class. The unassuming JJ-9 by Guizhou (GAIG) is pitted against the glamorous L-15 by Hongdu. There might be another entrant to this class by CAC, but let's ignore that for this discussion. Right from the start, everyone expected L-15 to be the LIFT of choice for PLAAF due to what appears to be higher performance specifications in flight performance, avionics, airframe material and service life. Just looking at the performance, L-15 would've been comparable to the latest over-hyped LIFTs around the world like Yak-130, M-346 and T/A-50 that are more being marketed as attack aircraft than just trainers. However, L-15 has been marred by similar issues to CJ-7 like slow development process, a foreign engine which was not available at the first flight and over reliance on Yakovlev. The prototype 05 made its first flight a while ago. It is made up of 25% composite material, has structural life of 10,000 hours/30 years and uses the recently developed AI-222-25. I think it will eventually be equipped with the afterburner version AI-222-25F and be able to fly supersonic, but this engine has suffered through slow progress in development. Factory 331 got a final assembly line/licensed production for this engine from Ukraine, but the question is how long it will take for them to actually be able to finally produce it locally. If it took them 9 years to obtain production certification for WS-11, how long would it take for the more advanced and less mature AI-222-25F? On the other hand, GAIG went with a more conservative route for JL-9 and developed it in about much 4 years (2001 to 2005). When it was found to not completely satisfy PLAAF's requirements after CFTE testing, GAIG got the new PLAAF requirements and improvement suggestions from test pilots in 2006, and finished the redesign in 2 months. This project was officially adopted by PLAAF in 2007 and received the JJ-9 designation. First batch of 5 were delivered for evaluation by the end of 2008. Just in the past month, it passed the technology certification and is entering series production for PLAAF and PLANAF. L-15 on the other hand is not officially adopted by PLAAF. If it were, it would have a name starting with JJ. A recent report suggests that one of the suppliers (supplying tails for JJ-9) delivered 5 sets this month. If that represents 5 JJ-9s are produced per month, then it's currently on pace for 60 a year. In that case, it would replace much of the existing JJ-7 LIFTs very fast. I don't know what PLA's exact numerical requirement is, but I think it's probably going to be comparable to JJ-7. Including possible newer variants like a naval trainer or an attack aircraft, it's probably going to be comparable to K-8. For the record, I don't think JJ-9 is being produced at 60 per year already, but rather they are just ramp up the production for the first regiment of JJ-9s. The question is whether or not L-15 can be developed fast enough to grab a large portion of the pie. Both trainers are said to satisfy PLAAF's requirements for future (4th and 5th generation fighter jets). Right now, L-15 is much more expensive to purchase than JJ-9 ($15 million to less than $10 million for JJ-9) and also said to be more expensive to operate. L-15 does theoretically have the advantage of longer structural life and also longer service life for its engines. So even though JJ-9 is much cheaper than L-15's, you might need to buy 2-3 JJ-9s to last the same period as 1 L-15. However, as of now, it's pretty easy for PLAAF and PLANAF to choose between a production-ready trainer with no engine issues and a still developing trainer with serious engine issues.

For all of the jabs that Hongdu has taken over CJ-7/L-15 projects, K-8 actually gives me some hope that these projects might get turned around eventually. After all, it took over 10 years after the first flight before they really localized the engine and became really popular with PLA.


timurelame said...

Perhaps L-15 can be developed into a light-attack platform for export.

Feng said...

yeah, that's definitely a possibility, since K-8 is even marketed that way, but it first needs to finish development.

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