Murphy's Law: Pirates Become Major Arms Merchant


July 14, 2009: China's efforts to develop the capability to design and manufacture high tech weapons has also turned them into a major exporter of weapons. While many nations export low tech weapons, only a few can manufacture the higher-priced (and more complex) stuff. Thus, the top exporters have been the United States, Russia, Germany, France, and Britain. While it's no surprise that Israel is moving up the list, China's sudden surge in arms sales  is something of a surprise.

But over the last two decades, China has poured billions of dollars into developing the ability to design and manufacture high-performance jet engines for combat aircraft. This is what has kept so many industrialized nations out of the warplane export market. Only a few nations (the U.S., Britain, France, and Russia) have dominated this market for decades. Now China is joining this club, and no longer has to get permission from another nation before it exports high performance military aircraft.

China began by building, under license, British and Russian engines. Now they are designing and building their own. Oddly enough, the most popular Chinese export, is the K-8 trainer, which uses a less complex business jet class engine. There are many models of this type of engine available, which gives K-8 buyers several vendors to choose from.

The most popular Chinese combat aircraft export is the F-7, which began, decades ago, as a copy of the Russian MiG-21. But the F-7 has undergone many improvements, and China stresses the ability to install Western radars and other electronics in the basic F-7. For any nation looking for a basic jet fighter, the F-7 is always a formidable competitor, especially on price.

For those looking to step up, China is offering the JF-17. This is a 13 ton fighter, costing about $20 million and pitched as an alternative to the American F-16. But the JF-17 is only considered the equal to earlier versions of the F-16. The JF-17 originally used the same Russian engine, the RD-93, that is used in the MiG-29. The JF-17 design is based on a cancelled Russian project, the MiG-33. Most of the JF-17 electronics are Western, with Italian firms being major suppliers. The JF-17 can carry 3.6 tons of weapons and use radar guided and heat seeking missiles. It has max speed of Mach 1.6, an operating range of 1,300 kilometers and a max altitude of 55,000 feet. The JF-17 was developed as a joint venture with Pakistan.

The next step up is the J-10, which is based on the F-16 (or, rather, the cancelled Israeli Lavi fighter.) Originally, the J-10 used a Russian AL-31FN engine, but China has been working for a decade to manufacture their own version of this, the WS10A. This was something of an acid test for them, as the WS10A is a powerful military engine, and a complex piece of work. Russia refused to license China to produce the AL-31FN, so the Chinese stole as much of the technology as they could and designed the WS10A. This engine has been tested, and officially approved for production, but apparently still has quality control and performance problems. But with the WS10A, China can step up production of their unauthorized copy of the Russian Su-27, the J-11. This puts China in the big leagues, although Russia has threatened to sue if China tries to export the J-11 (which contains stolen Russian design technology, as well as the WS10A, itself a copy of the Russian engine used in the Su-27.) A major competitor for these aircraft has been Cold War surplus F-16s. These are combat proven aircraft, which have been well maintained by their American or European users.

China is also exporting a lot of missiles, with some success. These include air-to-air (both heat seeking and radar guided), anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, ballistic missiles and smart bombs. All of these use a lot of stolen technology (from the West, as well as Russia.) China uses a lot of this purloined Russian technology to offer for sale a range of military radars.

China has had less success with warships and armored vehicles. Most Chinese warship exports have been smaller, and less expensive, ships (patrol boats and frigates.) With armored vehicles, China has been hurt by the large number of Cold War surplus T-72s available. China has had more success with artillery (multiple rocket launchers) and wheeled armored personnel carriers (mainly the WZ 551, which is a 6x6 vehicle that carries 13 soldiers, and a 25mm cannon. This one appears to be based on the French VAB, not Russian models.)

China has a further advantage in that it will sell to anyone who can pay. International protests about "arming tyrants" does not bother China, only the inability to pay.





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