Sunday, August 18, 2013

The state of domestic military aviation projects

Over the past 5 years, we can see the dramatic improvement in the hardware of Chinese navy from all of the really nice new ships that have come out. As naval fleet has improved, it’s always been a wonder if the same advances can be found in aviation projects.

So far, we’ve seen both real success stories and areas where things are going slower than expected. In the civilian field, it seems like most of the projects are going rather badly. ARJ-21 is turning into a nightmare. At this point, it appears that AVIC-1 completely underestimated the work needed in integration that components, going through all of the needed test flights and most importantly actually certifying an aircraft. Even the certification process in China has dragged on way past the original delivery date. I think that C919 started off on a much better footing with greater involvement from foreign partners. However, we are now hearing news on those partners rethinking their commitment to the program and impending delay of maiden flight. These are not surprising since most major airliner projects experience delays these days. However, I think all that we have seen from ARJ-21 and C-919 projects would indicate that China has a lot to learn here. The learning curve in designing, certifying and building airliners is a very complicated process. There is a reason only Boeing and Airbus are capable of building the larger airliners. China needs to accept any help it can get from Western partners in an industry where few companies are willing to share their secrets. These are the reasons why China was so eager to partner up with Bombardier and also set up local production with Embraer and Airbus.

One of the bright spots in both civilian and military field is the improvements we have seen in the helicopter industry. There was a time when China was only capable of producing single digit number of helicopter per year, but that is no longer the case. When I first started following PLA, the insufficient number of helicopters was very obvious to see and widely talked about, but we have finally turned a corner. In this past 2 years, we’ve seen 5 new Z-10 regiments deployed on top of the original one in addition to 5 Z-19 regiments. That works out to be around 120 helicopters a year. This is on top of the different variants of Z-8 and Z-9 helicopters that we are seeing coming into service with various arms. We’ve seen civilian Z-8 (AC-313), Z-8J/H for the larger naval ships, Z-8K/A for the air force and 5 regiments of Z-8A/B for the army in transportation role. This trend should only get better as China continues to get more involved in the world’s helicopter market and have license to build more advanced turbo-shaft engines. The dual use nature of the helicopter industry has really allowed transfer of knowledge/technology from civilian projects to military projects. In a decade or so, the Z-15 project should become the work horse of PLA and PLAN. The Z-20 and the heavy helo transport project will also join service sometimes this decade, which will finally fill the void in 10 ton class and 20+ ton class.

Another relatively bright spot is in the development and deployment of UAV and UCAV projects. China has really been putting a lot of investments in the recent years in civilian and military UAV. Every Zhuhai air show, we see a host of new UAV models of display. Some of them have now been exported, while other ones have entered service with PLA or civilian arms. We’ve seen an increasing number of S-100 servicing in the navy, BZK-006 with the army while still waiting for the air force to settle on UAV and UCAV.

Moving onto the world of fighter jets, we can assess China’s progress by looking at AVIC1’s two big players: SAC and CAC. Two years ago, CAC looked to have finally become the top dog of AVIC1. J-20 had just been unveiled; J-10B was in the middle of testing and UAVs like Wing Loong and Soar Dragon were popping up everywhere. All this was on top of mass producing the backbone fighter jet of PLAAF (J-10) and PAF (JF-17). For much of last 2 years, it seemed like CAC was muddling along with not much progress while SAC was really well. It felt as if CAC had devoted all of its resources in developing J-20 and did not have enough left for other projects. Most recently, we have seen some good news out of CAC. It appears that CAC may finally be getting a third flying J-20 prototype (if that hasn’t happened already) and the low rate production for J-20 may have started. The J-10A production has finally drawn to a close with J-10B finally entering mass production after more than 4 years of test flight. There are also speculations of J-10C, but we haven’t seen any of that yet. In the world of UAVs, Wing Loong had its first export sales while soar dragon is finally making test flights. Probably the biggest deal recently was when rumour came out that CAC has beaten SAC for the next generation naval fighter jet project. So, we may see a naval version of J-20 in the future rather than J-31.

SAC have been enjoying a more successful past two years. It had received a lot of criticisms for slow progress in J-11B program and continued production of J-8 series, but a lot of those blames should be placed on Shenyang Liming and PLAAF. Since WS-10A mass production has really started, we’ve seen many new regiments of J-11B/S entering service with both PLAAF and PLANAF. J-15 and J-16 projects seem to also be going well recently, which has continued to raise their profile. I’ve definitely heard of some bad things in all 3 flanker projects, but Shenyang has been doing well with them over all. The J-31 project has also been a pleasant revelation in the past year or soon. Now, there is news that they are about to showcase a new 5th generation design that will be more impressive than J-31. Just as importantly, their stealthy UCAV design Lijian surprised a lot of people this year. As a whole, SAC has been very busy and showing a lot of good results.

Xi’an AC and Shaanxi AC have been progressing, but not seem to be advancing too much. We have seen continued production of JH-7A, but have not seen any possible replacement for it. It is quite possible that J-16 will be taking over that role and reducing XAC/SAC to only developing strategic bombers and transports. Y-9 and H-6K are nice improvements over Y-8C and older H-6 variants, but they are not next generational designs that would push forward Chinese aviation industry. It’s quite possible that most of their resources have been spent on the Y-20 project, which made its maiden flight this year. It will be a few more years before we can see mass production of Y-20. The one really bright area is the ever increasing number of Y-8 based special mission aircraft that have entered service. Hopefully, we will continue to see improved production rate in XAC and SAC factories, so that China will not have to depend on imported Il-76 /78 much longer.

The one area that has really been dragging China behind is aerospace engine. The problems experienced in WS-10A program caused delays in J-11B program. I think Shenyang Liming and other AVIC engine factories have really experienced the difficulties in taking a new design and maintaining quality/reliability in mass production. China has never developed a high performance turbofan engine like WS-10A before this, so the problems in J-11B should probably be expected. As we go forward with projects like WS-13, improved Taihang, WS-15, WS-18 and WS-20, it’s important to note that it takes time to really sort out issues with a new engine. Hopefully, AVIC1 has learnt lessons from Taihang projects in going from testing out a few prototypes of an engine to mass producing it. We have yet to see WS-13 really equipping JF-17, even though it should have happened by now. Until then, China’s Achilles Heel remains propulsion. Since Russia is not exactly fast with its new development, high priority aircraft projects will be delayed if these domestic options fall behind.

On a whole, China’s aviation industry definitely has experienced ups and downs in the last couple of years. We’ve seen some real improvements in many helicopter and fighter jet projects, whereas civilian aviation and engines have been struggling. As a whole, I think this part of the growing pain. China’s civilian aviation industry will need continued investment if it hopes to catch up to Western competitors. Military aviation projects can only benefit from that.