Air Transportation: China Less Way Behind


January 31, 2022: The Chinese army currently has nearly a thousand helicopters. This includes 534 Attack/Recon helicopters and about 420 transports. This is up from 136 Attack/Recon and 210 transports in 2011.

The U.S. Army has nearly 4,000 helicopters, including 1,300 attack/reconnaissance helicopters, including about 800 AH-64 attack helicopters and over 500 OH-58C OH-58D observation helicopters, some of them armed. The army has been using helicopters since 1945, but the big expansion took place in the 1960s with the appearance of the gas-turbine powered UH-1 and AH-1. The heaviest use of these new models was during the Vietnam War, especially between 1965 and 1975. During this period the Americans developed effective tactics and the concept of large-scale airmobile operations. After Vietnam the army developed the aviation brigade, a standardized unit containing an efficient and proven mix of attack and transport helicopters. These helicopters provided essential transport for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

China was late to the large-scale use of military helicopters. Initially China used a combination of Russian and French helicopters while they sought to develop the ability to manufacture their own helicopter engines.

The latest Chinese transport is a copy of the UH-60 and some aspects of the American AH-60 Battlehawk gunship variant. Battlehawk is used mainly by export customers. BattleHawk is basically a more advanced version of earlier efforts to add more and more weapons to UH-60s. That led to developing a stub wing kit and fire control system. With this a UH-60 could use rockets, guided missiles and autocannon pods. The U.S. Army also has UH-60 variants for EW (electronic warfare) and ELINT (Electronics Intelligence) and medevac (medical evacuation). The Chinese army is now expected to sample all of those variants and adopt some of them.

In 2018 China introduced the Z20, a competent copy of the American UH-60, which replaced the UH-1 in the 1980s while the AH-64 replaced the AH-1. China was able to purchase some S-70s, the civilian version of the UH-60, in the 1980s but that stopped after sanctions were imposed in 1989 because of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Those sanctions remained and China had to rely on Russian helicopters and several attempts to develop their own.

Chinese media described the Z20 as a helicopter with the same features and performance as the UH-60. China did not try to copy Russian designs because they recognized them as inferior to the American helicopters. Chinese dissatisfaction with Russian Mi-8/17 transports and earlier Chinese designs like the Z-8, based on the older French SA-321 helicopters, led to efforts to concentrate on American designs. Chinese manufacturers are relatively free to try anything and ignore foreign patents and copyrights, especially if they create something very useful. The Z20 was useful and China officially defends it as a unique Chinese development.

The U.S. Army currently has about 2,000 UH-60s and is upgrading the force with the new "M" model. So far, over 4,000 UH-60/SH60s (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 and use them on non-military helicopters. The Z-20 is also using one of the latest Chinese helicopter engine designs, the WZ-10 and there are plans to install more powerful Chinese helicopter engines in the Z20 as those engines become available. Ultimately the Chinese want to create a copy of the UH-60 that is more advanced than the original.

The UH-60 Blackhawk and SH-60 Seahawk have been the standard American transport and utility helicopter since the 1980s. China has also developed a few navy versions of the Z20.

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, Russian Mi-8/17. The manufacturer of the 13-ton Z8s revised that helicopter to make it more competitive with the Z20. That has resulted in the much-improved 13-ton Z18, but neither the Z-8 or Z-18 were as effective as the Z20. The Z20 has a competitive edge because of successfully copying the UH-60, which is seen as the gold standard for combat proven tactical transport helicopters.

Chinese efforts to develop an attack helicopter have been more difficult. Their first effort was the Z-9, which was introduced in 1994 and based on the French AS-365, which China imported and built locally for civilian users. The Z9 used a Chinese engine and was smaller (at 4.9 tons) than the AH-64 and more similar to the AH-1, which is still in use.

In 2012 China introduced the 7-ton Z-10 gunship, as well as the 4.2-ton Z-19 armed recon helicopter. This was more similar to the original 4.3-ton AH-1 gunship of the 1960s. The AH-1 was upgraded over the years into the twin-engine 8.3-ton AH-1Z, which the U.S. Marines use and earlier twin-engine models that were exported to many countries. The most capable gunship is the 10.4-ton AH-64, which first appeared in the early 1980s. Since then, improved models have appeared and about 2,500 have been built so far. This is the most popular gunship export, with sixteen countries using them.

China still buys some Russian Mi-17 transports and the Z-20 is expected to eventually replace it. Right now, China only has about 30 Z-20s and it will be several years before mass-production begins. China needs a more powerful engine for the Z-20 and is experimenting with various Chinese made electronic features for flight control and navigation. China takes its time with new tech and will often take a decade or more before starting mass production.

China has still not come up with a medium-lift helicopter design, like the American CH-47. They will, eventually, when they have the tech to make it work. China is patient and this is a virtue. They could build a crude copy of the CH-47 that would not be worth developing further.

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. By the end of 2020 the Z20s were seen in several new variants that copied existing American variants.

All this Chinese 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 thirteen 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, carefully studied American operations since the 1990 Iraq War, and published much of the official analysis in unclassified military media (magazines, newspapers and TV shows). That gives their analysis the widest possible circulation within the military. This generates lots of comments from officers, troops and civilian experts. 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 events 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). The Z-20 design was actually familiar to most Chinese because S-70s (the civilian version of the UH60) had been appearing in the news for decades and most Chinese thought it was a Chinese developed helicopter.

Chinese army dissatisfaction with the Z-8A was intense and after six years of use the army issued an official “dissatisfaction notice” and news of this became public. 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 to get around the censors without incurring a visit from the thought 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 are worth paying attention to. The Z8 problems were deemed widespread and dangerous. The troops were saying so on the Internet and providing personal experiences.

When photos of the Z20 first appeared in 2013, Western observers nicknamed it the CopyHawk. The photos from China showed what appeared to be an American UH-60 helicopter landing at a Chinese military base. China did indeed reverse engineer the S-70 and apparently used some parts taken from the 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. Since the 1990s China has been creating new vehicle, ship and aircraft designs that take more from the West than long-time source Russia.




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