Friday, January 1, 2010

Review of Chinese aviation industry in 2009

In my 3rd review, we are going to look at the progress of Chinese aviation industry in 2009. In many ways, this year has been the most eventful year in the recent history. I'm going to look at what happened this year in civilian aviation, helicopter industry and military aviation.

This was a huge year for Chinese civilian aviation, because it was the year in which C-919 (aka the big plane project) was officially started by COMAC. In this past year, they have launched the project, chosen Leap-X1C as the engine for it, started work on domestic engine SF-A for C-919, picked other suppliers (like Shenyang, Hongdu, Xi'an, Chengdu, Baosteel and Alcoa), shown its basic dimensions, started construction of the nose section of the plane and started building of final assembly plants in Shanghai. The ARJ-21 project is continuing with the first flight of the 2nd + 3rd prototype, completion of the long distance test flight from Shanghai to Xi'an and will start delivery to domestic airlines in late 2010. AVIC1 firms have also been doing really as suppliers for international aviation firms. The first production Cessna 162 Skycatcher made its first flight in Shenyang this year after final assembly by SAC. SAC also became a tier-one supplier for the C-Series project and delivered a fuselage test barrell to Bombardier this July. SAC is also continuing it's work for Bombardier in the Q400 program. A big milestone was also achieved this year in Tianjin's A320 final assembly line. The first A320 assembled there was delivered in June and 11 were delivered in total (meeting Airbus's target for 2009).

The helicopter industry also had a lot of encouraging news this year. The Z-11 project's civilian version had its first flight recently. The Z-15/EC-175 recently had its first flight and seems to be on schedule to be in service by 2011. I would think that China is actively working on ways to develop naval version of the helicopter for PLAN. The Z-10 project has hit the road blocks recently due to delays in WZ-9 turboshaft project, but I think the improved Z-10A variant using WZ-9 gives PLA watchers a lot of hope. We have not seen much movement on the 10-ton helo project. In the 13-ton class, Z-8 looks to be finally proliferating in different arms of PLA from the photos we've seen in the 60th anniversary air show. We saw anywhere from 20 to 30 Z-8K/KAs in some photos. We've also seen an order for 18 Z-8FA for firefighting. We saw many new Z-8J/JHs for large warships like 071 LPD and 866 hospital ship. We've also seen pictures of Z-8 AEW variant in preparation for the carrier project. If Z-8s were not so large, they'd probably be used on 054As and 052B/Cs. Finally, AC-313, a new civilian variant of Z-8, made its first flight and had already accumulated a large order in last year's Zhuhai airshow. Regardless, it looks like all of the production bottleneck for Z-8 have finally been resolved. I find it puzzling that they are not building more transport variants of Z-8s for the army, but it looks like PLA favours Mi-17 series. Recently, we have finally seen Mi-171s assembled in China undergoing flight testing. I think that we will see more Mi-171s assembled by Sichuan Lantian factory joining PLA next year. Finally, we have seen the first set of photos for the heavy lift project that China is co-developing with Russia. That project might take a few more years to complete, but that will finally give China a heavy lift equivalent to CH-53E. I think that the news above shows some improvements but also gaps that still exist in China's civilian helo industry. All the major new developments like Z-15 and the heavy lift project still require cooperation with foreign companies. All of the new domestic developments are done on platforms that were developed by or based upon Eurocopter designs. The only new domestic design without foreign help has unknown development status. Once China completes all of these projects, they will finally have a helicopter each all the relevant weight class. Due to the dual use nature of helicopters, they've managed to cooperate with advanced helicopter companies around the world on critical projects (bypassing arms embargo). However, the Chinese helicopter industry still has quite a bit to go before catching the likes of Sikorsky, Eurocopter and Agustawestland.

After a rather uneventful 2008, 2009 was quite the banner year for PLAAF. J-10B had it's first flight in December of 2008, but we did not see pictures of it until March of this year. We also saw the first photo of J-11BS and hear that J-15, the naval flanker, had its first flight. On top of that, we saw KJ-200 finally joining service after its Category III platform fixed the problems that caused the crash. Production for J-10 finally started up again in late 2008 after China and Russia signed a deal for an additional 122 AL-31FNs. We saw new regiments at 9th division, 24th division and possibly at 18th division. On top of that, some of the figures for J-10 were finally released after it replaced J-7 in the August First flight demonstration team. Just recently, we've finally seen a batch of J-11Bs using FWS-10 engine. It looks like Taihang's mass production problems have finally been fixed and J-11B is ready to join service. JF-17 has finally joined PAF, but we do not know when or if it will join PLAAF. Overall, it looks like PLAAF is continuing the trend of replacing J-7 regiments with J-10s. As more and more J-7s retire, PLAAF would have to either increase the number of J-10s it orders, order some JF-17s or decrease in number. With Taihang's production problems fixed, maybe we will finally see J-10s equipped with FWS-10A engines in the future. One of the major questions is which engine will equip J-10B. It looks to be a competition between FWS-10A and AL-31FN-M2/3. One of the themes to follow in 2010 is the progression of J-10B as CAC will probably switch the production from J-10A to J-10B by 2011. As J-10s are replacing J-7 regiments, J-11B and following variants should be replacing J-8 or older flanker regiments, although J-11B production rate still remains low. JH-7A, the final part of China's 3rd generation fleet, had one new regiment this year in the 11th division. JH-7As have been replacing mostly Q-5 regiments to the tune of 4 regiments in PLANAF and 3 regiments in PLAAF. Of course, The deputy commander of PLAAF shocked a lot of people in an interview by stating that 4th generation plane will fly soon and join service in 2017 to 2019. I do not think we will see anything concret regarding to the 4th gen fighter in 2010, but I'm expecting to see more transparent revelations like that around the Zhuhai air show. Over all, several new variants made their first appearances in 2009, while the existing variants joined PLAAF in great numbers. In 2010, I'd expect to see the maturation of these new variants and more conversion from 2nd to 3rd generation fighters. Aside from fighter jets, we found a lot about PLAAF's C4ISR fleet around the time of 60th anniversary parade. We found out that 10 Y-8 Category II and III platforms are produced each year for the high new series. As a result of that, I would expect to continue to see more KJ-200 and other High New series aircrafts joining service in 2010. Although KJ-2000 has now matured with PLAAF, we are probably not going to see any new units in a while due to the lack of platforms. They have restarted the discussions with Russians for IL-76s, but the Russians have raised the asking price of the new IL-476 variant to $50 million from $18 million, so I'm not sure if a deal is ever going to get worked out. In the mean time, SAC/XAC is working hard at developing the new large transport project and a new medium turbofan powered transport. A lot of their successes will depend on the success of the WS-18 project and the WS-10-118 project. Either way, PLAAF has a huge shortage in air lift capability. It has in fact placed its largest ever order for Y-8C transport to alleviate some of these shortage problems. It looks like SAC will be busy building a lot of Y-8s next year for both the high new series and the airlift fleet in 2010. Finally, we have also seen other new entrance into PLAAF like the JJ-9 trainer, BZK-005 UAV and BZK-006 UAV.

In conclusion, 2009 was a great year in China's civilian and military aviation sector. In fact, 2009 may have been the most eventful year since I have started to cover the Chinese aviation industry. We have seen a lot of new toys and will see them inch closer into joining service in 2010. I'm really excited about seeing the progression of J-10B, J-15, C-919, the large transport, Z-15 and numerous new UAV projects.


timurelame said...

Where can we find the "first set of photos for the heavy lift project that China is co-developing with Russia"?

Feng said...

the model pictures are already available, you can find it on sinodefencforum or CDF.

Jiang said...

Feng, Why cant China just pay 50 million dollars a piece for IL-76. It really is not that expensive. Since they need KJ-2000, it is worth it. After all, China's own large transport will not be ready for another 4 years.

Could you explain the reasons. Thank you

Feng said...

not really sure. They are trying hard to knock it down a little bit. PLAAF acts really cheap.

peasant said...

Even if China is willing to pay 50million apiece, Russia simply is incapable of manufacturing IL-76 any more. Russians want to get money from China to fund a new assembly line and setup related manufacturing capacity inside Russian territory.

This makes no sense to Chinese. It not only costs more, it also takes much longer time to materialize. The delivery would already have been started if the original deal was kept, now who knows when delivery can start even if China agrees to a higher price?

Since XAC is working on China's own large transport, it makes no sense for China to buy those IL-76s for a much higher price tag. The money would be better spent if engines like D30-KP2 or AL-31F/M1/2 are used as a substitute.

Mike said...

The Russians are sneaky :P They're using Indian money to perfect their carrier engineering skills and now they're trying to use Chinese money to perfect their transport planes skills, I think the PLAAF should focus on domestic platforms

Jiang said...

peasant you have a great point. I almost did not realize this. Thank you for pointing out. Great point