Warplanes: Out With The Russian, In With The Superior Chinese Copy

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November 30, 2010: China is replacing the engines in its J-10 fighter, installing the Chinese made WS-10A in place of Russian made AL-31F. The Chinese consider the WS-10A a superior engine to the AL-31F, even though the WS-10A copied a lot of the Russian technology. As delivered from Russia, the AL-31 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. This feat is part of a growing trend. At first, decades ago, China simply figured out how to build Russian weapons they had bought. But in the last decade, they have increasingly improved on those designs.

China believes it will be free from dependence on Russia for military jet engines within the next five years. For years, China imported two Russian engines, the $3.5 million AL-31, and the $2.5 million RD-93 (a version of the MiG-29's RD-33) for the JF-17 (a F-16 type aircraft developed in cooperation with Pakistan.) But in the meantime, Chinese engineers have managed to master the manufacturing techniques needed to make a Chinese copy of the Russian AL31F engine. This Chinese copy, the WS10A, 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.

China has long copied foreign technology, not always successfully. But in the last decade, China has poured much 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.

J-10 began development in 1988 and it first flew in 1996. The J-10 is based on the abandoned Israeli Lavi (an improved F-16) project. The J-10 initially used a Russian engine (the AL-31F, the same one used in the Su-27), and was to have used Israeli electronics. But the United States leaned on the Israelis to back off making the Chinese air force too lethal, given the probability of American pilots possibly having to fight the Chinese air force some day. The Chinese developed their own avionics, based on Russian equipment. But this did not work out well. Some J-10s, using the  Chinese copy of the Russian AL-31F engine, suffered from poor engine reliability. This appears to have been the cause of several accidents. Earlier this year, for the second time in three years, it was revealed that one of China's J-10 fighters crashed. There may have been more. The two crashes that are known were initially kept quiet. News of these mishaps escaped only because of special circumstances. The most recent loss (on April 22nd) killed its pilot, who was a senior colonel. That rank and reputation led to a big funeral, attracting a lot of military and political officials. That made it difficult to conceal how the colonel died. The 2007 crash was in a rice paddy in the rural northeast. The wreckage was not immediately removed, and eventually someone with a cell phone camera and an Internet connection came along, and the pictures got out. It is believed that there have been more crashes, which have been kept from the public. Nearly 200 J-10s have been built so far, but the design has not worked out as hoped.

The J-10 looks something like the American F-16, and weighs about the same (19 tons). Like the F-16 the J-10 has only one engine. The J-10 also turned out to perform poorly in air-to-air combat. In response, the Chinese have been reconfiguring some of them as a fighter-bombers (the J-10C). This two seat version can carry over four tons of bombs and missiles and has been equipped with a fire control system for delivering missiles and smart bombs. The J-10C will have a weapons officer to concentrate on hitting things on the ground.

China is seeking export sales for the J-10, selling the aircraft as an "F-16 replacement", but for half the price. This is not going well, because there are so many used F-16s for sale, at less than what new J-10s cost. Despite all that, the Chinese are quite proud of the J-10, as it is the first high performance jet fighter designed (albeit with Israeli plans) and built in China. Despite this, China is equipping the J-10 with new generations of electronics and weapons, to give this gear some practical experience.

 


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