Air Transportation: China Reinvents Aviation Brigades


October 9, 2020: During mid-2020 photos appeared on the Chinese Internet showing soldiers of the 161st Air Assault Brigade training with some new Z20 helicopters. Soldiers depicted boarding a Z20 were wearing the new Chinese Xingkong camouflage BDU (battle dress uniforms) and helmets similar to American ones. The troops were carrying the new QGZ-191 assault rifles that are similar to American ones. QGZ-191 recently replaced the QBZ95 bullpup (magazine behind the trigger) assault rifles that were in use for two decade but were found less effective than Western designs like the American M16 or German HK models. The QGZ-191 also comes in a shorter barrel “carbine” version similar to the American M4. The new Xingkong camouflage BDUs are more similar to American BDUs because the Xingkong BDU design was based on feedback from the troops, who had been using Western style camouflage uniforms since 2007, when the army spent over a billion dollars to introduce the new digital-style camouflage uniforms. What these Type 7 BDUs lacked was all the small, but important features of Western BDUs. This includes items like the design and placement of pockets, the collar and attachment points for other gear. Even from a distance this made the Type 7 camo look a bit different that current American BDU designs. China still uses the digital pattern camo while U.S. BDUs now use a more effective multi-cam pattern. To the untrained eye it is hard to tell the difference without looking closely.

As a result of adopting all this American style gear, from a distance Western and Chinese troops look alike in terms of uniforms, protective gear and weapons. In the case of the recent photos it looked like American infantry boarding a UH-60 BlackHawk, which has been the standard American transport helicopter for decades. Chinese media described the Z20 as a helicopter with the same features and performance as the UH-60. How did this come about? Basically, it was Chinese dissatisfaction with Russian Mi-8/17 transports and earlier Chinese designs like the Z-8, based on the older French SA-321 helicopters.

The Z20 was described as ready for service in 2018 and “entering service” in 2019. But it was not until 2020 that Z20s were seen in use by Chinese troops of the 161st Air-Assault Brigade in a regular training exercise. While the Z20 is said to be in mass production it will be years before it replaces the unpopular Z8, much less the more popular, and familiar, Mi-8/17. Meanwhile the manufacturer of the Z8 is revising that helicopter to make it more competitive with the Z20.

All this interest in tactical transport helicopters is quite recent. It was only in 2017 that the first two Air-Assault Brigades were created by converting Light Helicopter Brigades to a western style air assault brigade equipped with transport and gunship helicopters. The army also has eleven aviation brigades that provide helicopter support to any units in one of the 13 Group Armies the brigade is assigned to. The aviation brigade is a new concept for the Chinese army, which began organizing them in 2009. These were based on the organization and equipment of the current American Army Aviation Brigades. The U.S. Army developed helicopter-heavy aviation brigades during the 1960s and the first one was organized in Vietnam. Since then the aviation brigades have been a standard feature of the U.S. Army.

China likes to adopt combat proven weapons, equipment and concepts, have studied American operations since the 1990 Iraq War, and published much of the official analysis in unclassified military media (magazines, newspapers and TV shows). This gave this analysis the widest possible circulation within the military and that generates a lot of comment from officers, troops and civilian analysts. This makes it easier to translate these foreign concepts into ones adapted to Chinese culture and current capabilities. This has worked. For example, over the last decade international competition between special operations troops from many nations has often seen the Chinese teams finishing high in the final rankings.

It’s one thing to copy tactics, organization and training routines. Copying equipment often involves outright theft of IP (intellectual property). That’s how China ended up with a clone of the UH-60. The Z20 project came out of Chinese Army dissatisfaction with their Z-8A transport helicopters and demanding something more effective. This led to with the newer Z-20 design. This was unusual because the Z-8A had been used by the army for only six years. The army was not happy with the Z-8A, a local design, and cited some serious problems, including poor performance, heavy maintenance needs and its tendency to stall in flight. While these problems were not featured in military media or the state-controlled media in general, there was still the Internet. Even though the Chinese Internet is heavily censored by Western standards, Chinese users have learned out to get around the censors without incurring a visit from the secret police. The government tolerates a certain amount of this as a public service, as it provides a way to determine how widespread problems are and whether they worth paying attention to. The Z8 problems were deemed widespread and dangerous. The troops were saying so on the Internet and providing personal experiences.

The Z-8 is based on the French SA-321, a three-engine 1960s design. China purchased several of these in the early 1970s, and by 1976 were working on reverse engineering them and producing their own, illegal, version. The first flight of the SA-321 clone (called the Z-8) took place in 1985. But only about twenty of the Z-8 have been built since then and the design was abandoned by 2018. There were too many technical problems, plus the French were none too happy about this bit of theft and made their displeasure known to the Chinese as well as some willingness to bargain. While negotiating China persisted with their copy and in 2010 the Z-8B was in production. At that point only a dozen had been built. A more powerful engine, and hundreds of technical improvements still failed to produce a chopper the Chinese army was willing to pay for. The navy was happy with the original SA-321, and the Z-8 clones, but these operated at sea level. Eventually China developed an improved Z-8 called the Z-18 that was more reliable and the navy ordered them to replace the Z-8s they had been using. The Z-18 was apparently a success but that was too late for the army which went with the new Z-20, nicknamed the “Copyhawk” due to its similarity to the American Blackhawk. The Chinese army plans to order more Z-20s if CopyHawk succeeds where the Z-8 failed and that has apparently come to pass. A much improved Z-18 showed up in 2018. This model was aimed at the navy and civilian users, as the army was still turned off when it came to the Z-8.

The CopyHawk first came to light in 2013 when photos from China showed what appeared to be an American UH-60 helicopter landing at a Chinese military base. This mystery helicopter was promptly dubbed “CopyHawk” for the Chinese eagerness to copy foreign military gear, often quite literally. While China has never had any BlackHawks, they did manage to buy 24 S-70s, the civilian version of the UH-60, back in the 1980s, before the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and subsequent arms embargo. The embargo meant a halt to American technical assistance in maintaining the S-70s. Forced to take over those duties China did so successfully and that gave them the confidence to attempt to clone the S-70. Several of these S-70s were known to still be in service as of 2013. The 2013 CopyHawk, on closer examination, was definitely an S-70 variant. There were several minor but obvious differences (mainly in fuselage shape and rotor configuration). Parts of the CopyHawk looked like the new Chinese Z-10 helicopter gunship. In 2013 nothing was known of what engines and electronics were used in the CopyHawk or whether it was just an experimental design or a prototype for a new medium helicopter transport based on the S-70. The 2013 CopyHawks were developmental aircraft, and a more recent prototype was spotted in 2016 was a bit different, but shortly thereafter the production model called the Z-20 appeared. China added UH-60 features the S-70 lacked and found it all worked.

China did indeed reverse engineer the S-70 and apparently used some parts taken from the twenty or so S-70s withdrawn from service to build prototypes of the Z-20 helicopter. China needed a new ten-ton class military transport and the CopyHawk would be consistent with other new Chinese aircraft and ship designs since the 1990s, which included complex modern Russian aircraft like the Su-30 and, of course, decades of work using the French SA321 Super Frelon. China is now creating a new vehicle, ship and aircraft designs that take more from the West than long-time source Russia.

In the meantime, you will find some Chinese who will complain to you, quite sincerely, that the Americans based their Blackhawk on a Chinese design. That’s because those S-70s have been featured in Chinese media coverage of the armed forces since the 1990s. This often occurs when the military is called out to help with disaster relief (floods and earthquakes). Those S-70s always show up on the TV news, delivering emergency supplies and evacuating casualties. The crews were Chinese, the paint job and markings were Chinese Air Force and as far as most Chinese are concerned the helicopter was another product of the booming Chinese aviation industry.

The Sikorsky S-70 was a 1970s design that won the competition to replace the older UH-1 "Huey". The army currently has about 2,000 UH-60s and is upgrading the force with the new "M" model. So far, about 4,000 UH-60s (and variants) have been built. The UH-60 was introduced in 1979. The 11 ton UH-60M can carry 14 troops, or 1.1 tons of cargo internally, or four tons slung underneath. Cruise speed is 278 kilometers an hour. Max endurance is two hours, although most sorties last 90 minutes or less. Max altitude is 5,790 meters (19,000 feet).

The Z-20 is the same weight, size and shape as the UH-60 and S-70. The Z-20 also has two engines and can carry up to fifteen troops or max payload of five tons of cargo. The Z-20 can also carry up to four tons via a sling underneath. The Z-20 has different electronics and different engines. Helicopter engines, like high-performance jet engines, have long been a weak link for China, which has yet to produce models that are comparable with Western designs. For helicopters, China has obtained European models and has been able to build some of those under license. The Z-20 is using one of the latest Chinese helicopter engine designs, the WZ-10.




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