Friday, March 29, 2013

What to make of speculated deals for Su-35/Lada?

In the past week, there have been a lot of speculations regarding a deal where Russia would export 24 Su-35s and 4 Ladas to China.  Now, there have been official denials from Russian government and sukhoi has also not put this on their website.  That would indicate this deal is definitely not done yet.  I normally would ignore these su-35 rumours from Russia, but there have been enough support reading through the Chinese sources for me to think that there are serious discussions for this.  In addition, Chinese sources also indicate that there could also be sale of S-400 and IL-476 as part of a large deal.  Obviously, this would be the largest sale package from China to Russia since probably 2002.  I will just look at the individual parts of the deal and whether they make sense from a Chinese point of view.

Back in 2008 when the su-35 rumours first came out, it made sense for China to buy 2 or more regiments of Su-35.  As time went on, it seemed like the domestic flankers produced by SAC have been more or less satisfactory for PLA.  I often read on Western/Russian news sources about how they are shocked to see Russia is still willing to sell such an advanced aircraft to China even after China “cloned” Russian fighters, but those articles really do not seem to have a good grasp on reality.  We know that China has two “stealth” fighter jet programs under development that will probably achieve IOC sometimes toward the end of this decade, so it doesn’t make sense for China to buy and then “copy” a large number of su-35s.  Shenyang AC is actively developing and producing naval and fighter bomber versions of flankers in J-15 and J-16.  Su-35 is mostly an air superiority aircraft, so it’s not going to help those projects.  At the same time, China is also not exporting any of its flankers to other countries, so this export deal will not threaten Russia’s other export markets.

One of the reported reasons from Chinese side for purchasing Su-35 is the coming end of production of J-11B.  They have requirement for 1 regiment (24 aircraft) of air superiority version of flankers before the more advanced 5th generation fighters can enter service.  While that is possible, I think su-35 will create a logistical problem in the future like the Sov destroyers with the Chinese navy.  They will need to maintain a new type of aircraft, a new engine, a new generation of Russian avionics and Russian missiles.  That would seem to be a lot of trouble for just one regiment.  That would lead to my conclusion that they are purchasing this strictly to get their hands on the 117S engine.  Russia made it clear to China early on that they would only be willing to sell 117S to China as part of a Su-35 order.  I think 24 is probably the minimum number of Su-35s that Russia would be willing to sell to China to allow Chinese access to 117S engine.  China does have the largest MRO plant for AL-31F outside of Russia.  All maintenance work for AL-31 is done inside China.  I would assume 117S maintenance and life extension work would also be done there.  Despite improvements in the reliability of WS-10A, I still read about problems found in deployment.  If there is one problem that can cause real delay in J-20, it would be not having a reliable engine solution in its development and early deployment.  117S would also be possible options for J-10 and J-15/16 projects.  If China does choose to purchase Su-35s, access to 117S engine would be the primary motivation.  And Russia would benefit by exporting su-35 and possibly large numbers of 117S engine later.

The deal for 4 Lada submarines is more interesting.  Many PLAN followers have asked why China would be interested in purchasing so many units of a submarine that Russia has not even accepted into its own service (its AIP system is not going to be ready until later).  Typically, China chooses to only purchase mature systems that it can quickly induct into service.  On top of that, it seems to some that Chinese submarines seem to have reached the technology levels of their Russian counterpart with that mysterious new conventional submarine in 2011.  The reality is that Chinese submarines still have a way to go in stealth.

As part of this deal, China will be getting transfer of technology along with local production for 2 of the 4 submarines.  On top of that, some unreported Chinese subsystems will be going onto these submarines.  So, the question is what is China providing as part of this submarine and what is it interested in?  The currently mass produced 039B submarine are already equipped with AIP system that can be installed on the Chinese version of Lada submarine.  On top of that, China could install its own sonar system and combat systems onto Lada.  The latter part should not be surprising since China has also installed its own sonar on kilo submarines.  What China seeks as part of this deal is the Russian’s design of Lada submarine and its noise insulation technology.  From Lada, China could learn how to design and build a single hull submarine with conformal sonar.  If we look at China’s new submarine that came out in 2011, it seemed to adapt numerous features from Lada submarine.  This submarine is supposedly one of a kind built to replace the old Gulf class ballistic missile test bed.  It is probably too large and expensive to be mass produced.  Based on their experience from this submarine and Lada project, it’s quite possible that China’s next series of submarine would look somewhere in between (possibly single hull) and have many of the features currently on Lada class.  Russia also has a lot to gain here, because it needs a new submarine for export to replace kilo.  Regardless of whether Russia chooses to use any Chinese subsystems for Lada in the future, Chinese involvement in this project will ensure that the export version of Lada becomes fully developed and commercially viable.

So while I’ve read numerous panic articles online about how this deal will significantly improve China’s capabilities and shift the cross strait balance of power even more toward China’s favour, I think those articles really show very little appreciation of China’s current military industrial complex.  While these purchases will help and speed up PLA development, they are by no means game changers.  However, these purchases will improve ties between the two countries at a time where Russia constantly complains about the trade imbalance.


Meng-yuan said...

I am glad that you write about the SU-35 and Lada deal and give a good assessment.

I personally did not think that the Chinese would want the SU-35. If the deal does go through, I agree with you that the engine is the key goal, although there have been rumors about Shengyang's inability to improve SU-27's structural design, which was know to have weakness at the wing root, preventing sustained very-high-g maneuvers.

The Lada purchase, in contrast, makes great sense from the Chinese point of view. China's submarine development has been confined to double-hull design, which is less efficient than the modern hybrid (but mainly single-hull) structure used in all western submarines. Lada, although too small to be very useful itself, can help greatly accelerate Chinese learning. Lada's conformal sonar array is also something new to the PLAN and represents another valuable technological acquisition.

My only disagreement with your analysis is on noise-suppression. Modern Chinese submarines are just too noisy to be consistent with Chinese technical progress, unless the PLAN wants them that way. The PLAN has been known to paint the same number on multiple submarines. It is quite possible that it also employs noise camouflage to confuse potential opponents.

fpk said...
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Lei said...
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Lei said...

Can we read anything into the state of the WS-15's development if they are indeed trying to acquire the 117S engine? Or is this just the PLAAF hedging risk as usual?

Anonymous said...

I thought I read here that China recently developed a new metal alloy, which would solve its biggest engine reliability problem, premature metal fatigue. A purchase for Su-35s would prove that Chinese jet engine development is very far behind. It is said that Chinese jet engines are 10 years behind Russian engines, and Russian engines are 10 years behind US & EU engines. If this is indeed the case then China should redouble its efforts to exploit France's economic problems, and buy the engines used on the Rafale.

Having said all of that, I read an article 4 years ago that PLAF was attempting to develop pulse jet engines to get around its turbofan problems entirely. Can anybody elaborate on this?

John said...

Most modern PLAN submarines are cigar/tear-drop shape, some of them has added partial light hull for operational purposes. Constructing a cigar shape in single hull is way more easier than building a cigar shape in double hull, therefore constructing a cigar shape in double hull just does not make engineering sense; it is redundant, burdensome, hard to build and has no meaningful advantages. Saying Chinese submarine development confined to double-hull design is puzzling.

John said...

Even China’s industry has advanced to the stage it can produce all parts by themselves and the parts are as good as the Russian’s, but buying Su-35/Lada still makes sense, the purpose is not to reverse engineering the product but to find out the good characteristics of those products which might not come across Chinese mind. Even the American and Israeli found there was something in the MiGs that they could learn.

On top of that those Su-35s/Ladas could sharpen PLA air force and navy to higher degree of competence so that they can have better chance to win wars and survive, which is way more valuable than the money paid to the Russian. Probably that’s why China did not ask for technology transfer; because China can build something better after thoroughly understanding of those Su-35s/Ladas. China would buy American war planes and warships too if American is willing to sell.

willytan1 said...

In my opinion,this deal for the Su-35 and the Lada's, if it ever eventually happens, may be a Chinese over-reaction to the US Asia Pivot and the US support for Japan over the Diayou Islands dispute. The PLA has made such purchases from Russia before whenever it was forced to do so in the past by the US. Eg: Carriers in the Taiwan strait. It is also about the same time of the Russian deal that China anounced the full scale development of the H-X strategic bomber which will give the PLA the ability to launch long range naval strikes against carrier battle groups in the pacific and intercontinental cruise missile strikes. Is this merely a coincidence?

This deal may never eventuate as all that was done was to sign a "Memorandum of understanding" which means an agreement to talk further about whatever was discussed.

Claims have been made that the
117s will be used in the J-20 which will be deployed in 2015.
I personally don't think this will happen.
The SU-35 version of the 117s is overrated in terms of performance. The 117s produces thrust of 14200kg. The WS-10G which is already under testing produces 14,000+kg of thrust which makes it almost equivalent to the 117s in terms of performance.
I have also read that the preferred engine choice that will power the early model J-20 is the WS-10G. Efforts are being made to accelerate the development of the WS-10G in order to meet this deadline. The WS-10G will be used as the interim engine till the WS-15 enters full production.

John said...

Nobody should underestimate the audacity, ruthless and reckless of the former colonial imperialist powers. Qing’s incompetence and complacency had plunged China into two hundred years of misery, suffering and despair; if current Chinese leadership repeats the mistakes of the Qing due to China’s current achievements, they are simply irresponsible and more incompetent than Qing.

Particularly the USA is a bellicose and ruthless warmonger that has been bombing and killing on the moral high ground, while Japan is an unapologetic war criminal that is a history denier and atrocity denier.

If China falls to the pry of the former colonial imperialist powers again, China will not be so lucky to have another chance to recover like today; those aggressors will make sure China stay under their thumbs forever.

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Christian Brotherhood said...

I have read somewhere that the purchase of Su-35 is intended not for the engine or radar but for the long-distance AA missiles the Su -35 would bring along. Any comments?

Unknown said...

China is big difference from 1800s and 1900s compared to today.
China could not fight back at all in 1800s and 1900s.
China is holding 1.2+ trillions U.S. national debts.
China is holding largest Japan's national debts.
China is world number 2 economy and is catching U.S. soon.
That is why U.S. pivoting to Asia to slow down and harassing China.
China is counteract with China, Korea
and Japan FTA.
In addition, BRICS is China's strategy to counteract U.S. led influences.
Many top U.S. researchers, scientists and engineers are Chinese.
Some of those Chinese are working in China to develop China's version of U.S. latest weapons.
U.S. is underestimating China for a while.
Don't forget China wrote the Art of War hundreds years ago!

Unknown said...

China is financing Russia military development by buying those expensive weapons to counter balance U.S. global military strategy.

Inquiring Mind said...

China already many advanced weapons designs in place including aircraft engines.
China needs hundred of thousands highly skilled production workers and need to take several years to train those workers to build advanced aircraft engines.
The training processes might had started years ago but was understaffed back then.
It looks like China is staffing up it's high skilled production
workers now.

Inquiring Mind said...

Russia along with China, India, Brazil and South Africa are member of BRICS.
China will work closely with Russia on weapon development and productions.

Meng-yuan said...

Feng, this is off topic, but two years ago we had an exchange about JH-7B and you did not put much credibility on the news back then. Here is a new article on it. Do you feel there may be some substances behind the speculation?

Meng-yuan said...

Oh, sorry, here is the link:

Feng said...

as usual, JH-7B is possible, but until we see a real prototype out, it's not definitive. And that link doesn't really tell me much.