Friday, March 25, 2016

Carrier Fleet and Strategic transport

This entry will focus on two of the largest strategic projects that China is currently working on: Carrier fleet and strategic transport (Y-20).

For the former, there has been increasing number of photos from Dalian shipyard showing the first domestic carrier taking form. This carrier, commonly referred as 001A, is expected to be very similar to Type 001 CV-16. Both carriers are conventionally powered STOBAR carrier with an air wing consistent of J-15s, Z-18s and Z-9s. There have been many photos of production J-15s (Number 100 to 114) operating off CV-16 since the start of the year. It seems like the standard weapon load for air defense version of J-15s is 2 MRAAMs + 2 SRAAMs. Ground attack variants could carry 2 YJ-83s + 2 SRAAMs. More importantly, the latest photos show several J-15s on flight deck at the same time with many crew members doing standard carrier operation duties. There are pictures show 5 or 6 J-15s parked with their wings folded, a tug dragging helicopter around, elevator carrying plane to flight deck and multiple J-15s about to take off. We have even seen photos from late afternoon or early evening showing flight deck operation with lights on. While the last part does not conclude they have started doing take off and landing in the evenings, it does indicate that part maybe coming sooner than many people would have guessed a year ago. One of my fellow SDF moderators even commented on how the CV-16 flight decks show more activity than any of the photos from Soviet Union ones. The next step would be more integrated exercises with other ships of a carrier fleet.

For the latter, recent report has come out that the development of Y-20 may complete this year leading to the start of mass production sometimes this year. So far, there have been 5 flying prototypes (No. 781, 783, 785, 788 and 789) along with unknown static prototypes. Even though Y-20 made its first flight in 2013, strategic transport do not need to conduct flight testing for as long as fighter jet projects. At the same time, WS-18 achieved design certification last year, so it should be ready for mass production this year. It’s possible that the earlier Y-20s may still use D-30KP2, but they have bought over 200 D-30s in the past. Even accounting for H-6 usage, the remaining D-30s should allow time for production WS-18s to mature. As I’ve discussed before, Y-20 will not only be used for transport purposes, but also on tankers, AWACs, special mission aircraft and ABL platform. While the requirements of these aircraft types can differ, they also all have common requirements of long range, long endurance, high payload, and good short field performance from conventional and unpaved runways. We know that Y-20 probably will be required to carry something the size of ZTZ-99. That would lead to payload requirement of over 60 tons. We don’t have any performance data outside of that other than the belief that it will similar to comparable transports. We know that the wings and fuselage of Y-20 will have to be optimized to balance performance in takeoff, cargo space, endurance and range based on what PLAAF thinks the future requirements of Y-20 are. That requirement maybe different from what the Soviet Union envisioned for IL-76 or US envisioned for C-17. For example, how would a transport like IL-76 originally developed to carry at most 40 ton in payload be able to carry larger payload efficiently now that its payload has been increased with the new PS-90A engines. That’s one of the major advantages to developing one’s own strategic transport. Compared to IL-76 (and the upgraded IL-476), Y-20 should eventually use more efficient engines (WS-20), more modern flight control system and avionics, more advanced material (vs what was available in 70s) and more efficient wing for China’s missions. With newer construction techniques available that China has learnt from working with Airbus and Boeing, Y-20 could end up with a really modern production line. Once production for Y-20 ramps up, we will be able to see how much fruit this project will reap from the RnD in COMAC projects like C919.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

052C radar + Aeroengine development

Since the Lunar New Year break started, not much significant news have happened, but there were a couple of story lines in the past month that caught my attention.

The first one is this story on weibo from someone who said to have participated in the initial part of Type 346 radar development (for 052C) before immigrating to Canada in the late 90s. There has been a lot of criticism on this article regarding author's decision to leave China and also on whether or not he actually worked on the project (or just made this all up). Looking through some of the online discussions on this like this thread on hsh, I'm still not convinced on whether or not this is authentic or something this author wrote from other sources he read online. Even so, I think it's an article that's well worth reading. The human part of the story rings true to people who are far more involved with the inner working of Chinese navy than I am. Certainly during the earlier days, many talented people left China because they were simply not appreciated or adequately compensated for the work they were doing.

Aside from that, I think it's quite interesting to consider how PLA awarded R&D funding to various institutions. Outside of the process, very few people know how competitive some of these PLA contracts are. This article allows us to see the geopolitical, political and relational angles that affect each contract award. It makes sense for each of the competing firm to try their utmost to win R&D grants and funding regardless of whether or not their proposal is the best. Certainly, having the right person to lobby for your proposal can go a long way toward covering up deficiencies versus opposing proposals. In the end of the process, I think it almost seems like Chinese navy picked 14th Institute proposal out of luck due to an expected geopolitical event. That decision certainly seems to have yielded good results since the 14th Institute has since produced many quality AESA radar for both the air force and the navy. I think the numerous "big shrimps" on Chinese forums have also corroborated the political influence and connections that sometimes lead to picking the less optimal option. On the plus side, it also illustrated how fiercely competitive these firms have to go to pick up funding for their projects. This higher level of competition inside China (that we don't really read about) helps push projects forward in ways that don't seem to happen in India.

At the same time, a lot of aeroengine related news came out. It was reported that WS-10B achieving design certification, WS-10 achieved production certification and WS-15 was going into the process of achieving design certification. Broadly speaking, there are 4 major stages in China with respect to developing and certifying a new engine.
  • The first phase is the test/experimental stage prior to the initial flight. This involves all of the ground based testing on the parts of engine and as a whole. It goes through a series of test on the test vehicle and its parts to make sure that it's ready to go through flight testing.
  • The second phase is the research test flight stage. Before going into the process of certification test flights, the test vehicle is flown under realistic flight scenarios and flight envelope. The main tasks include preliminary assessment of engine flight performance, features, reliability, maintainability, testability and supportability. Flight tests could be carried out in a flight engine test bed or on an intended aircraft. At the conclusion of test flights, the technological maturity level should reach level 7. In WS-15 testing, it had to complete 60 hours of endurance testing on flight testbed before completing this phase. So at this point, the engine is demonstrated to have at least 60 hours of service life prior to overhauling.
  • The third phase is the design certification stage. Before low rate initial production, it must go through a series of ground testing of the engine, its systems and the individual parts. It must also go through with high altitude testing and flight certification. Most importantly, it has to go through the initial overhaul long endurance testing on testbed. For WS-10 and WS-10B, they had to complete a 300 hour endurance testing to complete this stage. Under testing of full flight envelope, these tests will determine the reliability, maintainability, testability, safety and service life. At its conclusion, the technological maturity level should reach level 8.
  • The fourth phase is the production certification stage. Before mass production of an engine, it must be deployed in smaller number of aircraft (with active service aircraft) for test usage in order to become mature. It must go through with full service life endurance testing on test bed. It must complete comprehensive verification of engine performance and reliability under mass production quality. Mass produced version of WS-10 must complete 1000 hour of endurance before completing this stage, the initial overhaul time is at least 1000 hours. At its conclusion, the technological maturity level should reach level 9.

From the above, one can get a sense of where each of the engine is at. WS-10 has completed production certification, so it is now quite reliable (1000 hours MTBO) and deployed on most of the J-11Bs. As reported in numerous places, this version of WS-10 achieves a maximum thrust of 12.5 ton with afterburners. WS-10B has now completed design certification (at least 300 hours MTBO) and is deployed on some flankers and a couple of J-10Bs. According to numerous reports, it achieves maximum thrust of 14 ton (12% more than WS-10) with afterburners and features a digital control system (FADEC). Since both flanker and J-10B already has more reliable but less powerful engine in service, WS-10B will probably be deployed in smaller numbers until it becomes more reliable. WS-10B should have greater thrust than even AL-31FN series 3 (14 ton to 13.5 ton), so it would be the better choice once flight testing on J-10B is completed. Once we see a full batch of J-10B installed with WS-10B as opposed to AL-31FN, then WS-10B is probably in mass production and not far from production certification. The next improvement to WS-10 includes adding a new thrust vectoring control and achieving higher maximum thrust. That variant of WS-10 is probably under design certification tests right now. There is also a variant of WS-10 being developed for naval fighter jet J-15, which should become certified soon.

We also got the news that WS-13E may have achieved design certification and will begin production this year. It is said to be an improved version of WS-13 and achieves close to 9 ton in thrust (8.7 ton on original WS-13). That's compared to 8.3 ton on RD-93 and 9.3 ton on RD-93MA. This engine could be used on JF-17 or FC-31 or Lijian UCAV. Since this is still very early in its production cycle, it would be interesting to see where it will first be deployed on.