May 21, 2012: China has long copied foreign technology, not always successfully. One of these unsuccessful efforts is becoming a major embarrassment, to the point where government officials are complaining about it openly. While the Chinese government tries to control news of leadership conflicts, they often allow arguments to go public when it is believed some public debate might do some good. Such is the case with the uneven effort to manufacture military jet engines in China. The basic problem is the inability of the state controlled aviation company (Aviation Industry Corporation of China) to master the most advanced manufacturing and quality control techniques. The problem is the inability of state-run firms to operate as efficiently as their privately owned counterparts in the West. The public debate points to the continued inability to even achieve the lower (than in the West) manufacturing standards of Russia, whose state-run firms (during the Soviet period) were also never able to match Western standards. Some Chinese officials urge privatizing the engine manufacturers, but many others oppose that on political (not wanting to admit defeat) or practical (losing direct control of a key military industry) grounds. Meanwhile, the manufacturing bureaucrats cannot cope, even after many years of effort and much money spent. While some 20 percent of Chinese warplanes now use Chinese made engines, 80 percent do not and that is something the government has not been able to keep secret.
In the last decade China has poured much money and leadership effort into developing a jet engine manufacturing capability. The Chinese encountered many of the same problems the Russians did in the beginning. Developing the necessary engine design and construction skills is difficult. But China has several advantages. First, they knew of the mistakes the Russians had made and so were able to avoid many of them. Then there was the fact that China had better access to Western manufacturing technology (both legally and illegally). Finally, China was, unlike the Soviets, able to develop their engine manufacturing capabilities in a market economy. This was much more efficient than the command economy that the Soviets were saddled with for seven decades. But the state owned engine manufacturers have been unable to develop the entrepreneurial spirit that works so well in the West (and other, privately owned, segments of the Chinese economy).
The Chinese consider the locally designed and built J-10 aircraft and WS-10A engine part of the learning process and they do learn from their mistakes. But jet engines for combat aircraft are very complex, and China is encountering more problems than they expected. Solutions have not kept up with new problems.
And then there's China not wanting, for a long time, to admit that its own engine development efforts have consistently come up short. For example, two years ago China announced that it was replacing the engines in its J-10 fighter, installing Chinese made WS-10A in place of the Russian made AL-31FN. But last year China quietly ordered several hundred more Russian AL-31FNs. No more talk of using the WS-10A on a large scale.
The Chinese claim the WS-10A is superior to the AL-31F, even though the WS-10A copied a lot of the Russian technology. The Chinese say they have improved on that. But those improvements were often things the Russians already had in the works, like increasing the basic AL-31 lifetime from 900 to 1,500 hours and, most recently, 2,000 hours. Meanwhile the Chinese have failed to master some of the basic manufacturing techniques for high-performance jet engines. Recently Chinese officials publicly made an issue of the Chinese company's inability to master the skills needed to manufacture turbine blades for high-performance jet engines. The reality is that the WS-10A has some serious, and unpredictable, reliability problems, which are becoming obvious. China believes it will be free from dependence on Russia for military jet engines within the next five years, which implies that Chinese engine manufacturers still have a way to go. It may take longer.
For years China has imported two Russian engines, the $3.5 million AL-31 (for the Su-30, and the local clone, the J11 and Chinese designed J-10) and the $2.5 million RD-93 (a version of the MiG-29's RD-33) for the JF-17 (an F-16 type aircraft developed in cooperation with Pakistan). But in the meantime Chinese engineers thought they had managed to master the manufacturing techniques needed to make a Chinese copy of the Russian AL-31 engine. This Chinese copy, the WS-10A, is part of a program that has also developed the WS-13, to replace the RD-93 as well. While the Chinese have been able to build engines that are durable, they are still having problems with reliability and that's a killer with fighter jet engines, where failure in combat can be fatal.
Russian sales of AL-31 jet engines to China have surpassed a thousand, with the addition of several new orders in the past year. This is because China wants to expand its fleet of modern jet fighters (J-10 and J-11) and keep pilots in the air often enough to develop and maintain combat skills. That wears out engines faster. Another reason for the continued orders is persistent Chinese difficulties in developing jet engine manufacturing capabilities. China has been especially keen on freeing itself from dependence on Russian high-performance jet engines for its top-line jet fighters. That has not been happening.
With an increase in orders from the Russian Air Force, the Russian manufacturer of the AL-31 has had to boost production this year by over a third. The Russians also appear confident that the Chinese are not going to solve their engine manufacturing problems any time soon. This can be seen in how China openly (and unsuccessfully) protested restrictions Russia wants on the use of AL-31FN engines. Russia wants guarantees that the AL-31FNs will only be used to power Chinese warplanes and that none of them will be disassembled to assist Chinese engineers in perfecting the illegal Chinese clone of the AL-31FN, the WS-10A. China has been stealing Russian military tech for years, especially since the end of the Cold War. Back then Russia could no longer afford to buy new military gear, and it was only orders from China and India that kept many Russian defense firms in business. With many more orders from the Russian military, the Russian manufacturers feel able to play hardball with China. Russia has China by the engines and is squeezing.