14 May 2012

Is China About to Get Its Military Jet Engine Program Off the Ground?

Gabriel B. Collins and Andrew S. Erickson, “Is China About to Get Its Military Jet Engine Program Off the Ground?” China Real Time Report (中国事实报), Wall Street Journal, 14 May 2012.

Tensions in the South China Sea—most recently with the Philippines—and Beijing’s unease about Washington’s renewed strategic focus on Asia are likely to strengthen calls from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) for more modern fighters and strike aircraft. Russia has historically supplied the high performance military jet engines that power these craft. However, China’s defense industry is working hard to become capable of mass producing Chinese-made military jet engines in order to end dependence on Russia, give China maximum strategic flexibility, and begin to compete with Russian-made combat aircraft in export markets.

But how soon is China’s domestic jet engine effort likely to achieve lift-off?

China’s inability to domestically mass-produce modern high-performance jet engines has been a persistent Achilles heel of the Chinese military aerospace sector. Although Chinese military engineers have made progress is building jet engines, the effort continues to suffer from problems with standardization and a shortage of skilled workers, in addition to an inability to consistently produce high quality turbine blades. Indeed, a recent article in People’s Daily quotes Russian sources saying China can copy most parts of the AL-31 engines that power much of China’s J-10 and J-11 fighter fleets, but still must import turbine blades from Russia.
The problems have likely slowed development and production of the J-15, J-20, and other late-generation tactical aircraft and are now attracting political attention at the highest levels.

In late 2010, President Hu Jintao gave Gan Xiaohua, chief engineer of the Air Force Armament Research Institute, an award in recognition of his 26 years of work on China’s military jet engine programs. High-level leadership engagement is important to help break down bureaucratic barriers that Mr. Gan says have hindered China’s ability to take a more integrated approach to building a jet engine industrial base and production infrastructure.

Despite the increased attention and resources China has focused on the manufacturing of jet engines, Mr. Gan’s concerns appear to remain valid. Engine production facilities remain geographically divided between the cities of Shenyang (Liaoning Province), Xi’an (Shaanxi Province) and Anshun (Guizhou province). This organizational structure produces more micro-level, but less macro-level, “competition” than Western norms. In addition, publicly reported figures concerning numbers of Chinese personnel working on particular programs appear surprisingly low by Western standards—unless there are significant “off balance sheet” resources somewhere else.

With jet engines, “Western standards” would appear to remain relevant, as the world’s few top jet engine producers are all located in the U.S. and Western Europe (with Russia a distant second in quality). Lack of cooperation and coordination among the various branches of the PLA the jet engine end-users, appears to be a problem. Localized bargaining and patronage may produce duplication of effort, mismanagement of resources and increased time-to-market. Dispersing resources among competing research entities to the extent that China does may be counterproductive, particularly at this stage of development.

The Soviet defense industrial base, on which China’s was originally modeled, failed in precisely this area: Talented designers and technicians presided over balkanized “feudal” design bureaus and irregularly-linked production facilities. Lack of standardization and quality control rendered that system less than the sum of its parts, helping the U.S. to win the space race with its superior systems integration—as facilitated by such private corporations as AT&T.

One of China’s great theoretical advantages over earlier Soviet efforts—widespread access to and exploitation of foreign technology—has worked in other areas previously, but it may prove problematic in practice when developing and producing systems as complex and demanding as high performance jet engines.

Standardization and integration, essential for jet engine development, may suffer particularly from an ad hoc, eclectic approach to strategic technology development and acquisition. Without advanced quality management practices such as Six Sigma or Total Quality Management (TQM), sophisticated components and systems design and integration capabilities, and an organizational culture that ensures honest reporting of problems, China’s technology will not add up to high-performance engines in practice. And with jet engines, there is little if any room for error or substandard approaches.

China’s ability to resolve the domestic engine production problem matters because if China’s engine makers can attain the technical capability level that U.S. manufacturers had 20 years ago, China will be able to power its latest-generation fighter and strike aircraft with domestically-made engines.

The new J-20 strike fighter program (first unveiled during Defense Secretary Gates’ January 2011 visit to China), especially needs domestic engine development and production breakthroughs because Russia appears reluctant to sell the high-powered engines that could enable the J-20 to supercruise (sustain supersonic flight without using inefficient afterburners) and thereby match the performance of the world’s most modern fighters such as the Lockheed Martin F-22 and Sukhoi T-50/PAK FA. Such developments would help cement China as a formidable regional air power and deserve close attention from policymakers.

However, evidence still suggests that China’s main military jet engine maker—Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC)—is struggling to maintain consistent quality control as it scales up production of the WS-10 Taihang turbofan that China hopes to use to power more of its fighter fleet. This issue is causing problems with reliability and keeping China’s tactical aircraft heavily reliant on imported Russian engines. China’s July 2011 order of 123 additional AL-31 jet engines supports the view that domestically-made engines still are not good enough to rely on as the mainstay to power Chinese fighters.

The latest jet engine import numbers suggest Chinese engines may now power roughly 20% of the country’s most modern fighters and strike aircraft as well as the JF-17 fighters it is exporting to Pakistan. That means at least 80% of China’s tactical aircraft fleet runs on Russian-made engines and will likely continue to rely substantially on imported Russian engines to support its tactical aircraft programs over the next two years. China’s high-performance jet engine programs are nearing takeoff but they, and China’s development of a more competitive precision manufacturing sector, appear to still have some additional runway ahead of them.


For detailed analysis, see the following two China SignPost™ Deep Dive reports:

Gabriel B. Collins and Andrew S. Erickson, “A Chinese ‘Heart’ for Large Civilian and Military Aircraft: Strategic and commercial implications of China’s campaign to develop high-bypass turbofan jet engines,” China SignPost™ (洞察中国) 47 (19 September 2011).

Gabriel B. Collins and Andrew S. Erickson, “Jet Engine Development in China: Indigenous high-performance turbofans are a final step toward fully independent fighter production,” China SignPost™ (洞察中国) 39 (26 June 2011).