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China Will Not Quit
by James Dunnigan
March 26, 2013

China is investing $16 billion in an effort to fix some of the problems it has encountered manufacturing high-performance (as in world class) jet engines. Although China has been working on this for over three decades, continued problems with materials durability, efficient design, and quality control have prevented Chinese engines from being competitive with Western models. One good example is the Chinese WS10A engine. It has been in development for 25 years and attempts to replace Russian AL31F engines used in the J-10/11/15/16. WS10A development efforts have not worked out well. The Chinese consider the WS10A design a superior engine to the AL31F, even though the WS-10A copied a lot of the Russian technology. As delivered from Russia, the AL31 is good for 900 hours of operation. Chinese engineers figured out how to tweak the design of the engine so that it lasted for 1,500 hours but they never got those tweaks to work as predicted because they could not produce key components to the needed level of quality and durability.  For over a decade China believed it would be free from dependence on Russia for military jet engines within the next five years. That has not happened and is a major reason for this new $16 billion investment.

For over twenty years China has imported two Russian engines similar to the WS10A. The two main ones are the $3.5 million AL31 for the Su-27/30 aircraft and the $2.5 million RD93 (a version of the MiG-29's RD33) for the JF-17 (an F-16 type aircraft developed in cooperation with Pakistan). During all this, Chinese engineers worked to master the manufacturing techniques needed to make a Chinese copy of the Russian AL31F engine. That was part of a program that has also developed the WS-13, to replace the RD93 as well. While the Chinese have been able to build engines that are competitive on paper, and during ground tests, they are still having problems with reliability and durability when they install the WS10A in aircraft.

China has long copied foreign technology, not always successfully. But in the last decade, China has poured a lot of money into developing a jet engine manufacturing capability. The Chinese encountered many of the same problems the Russians did when developing their own engine design and construction skills. 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. Despite all this, China continued to encounter problems with consistent quality in manufacturing key components. China is determined to master Russian engine building techniques, and then move on to beating the Western firms who have long been the masters of this technology.

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