12 July 2012

China Awaits Fighter Export Breakthrough

Greg Waldron, “In Focus: China Awaits Fighter Export Breakthrough,” Flight Global, 3 July 2012.

The atmosphere in the Dubai air show briefing room in November 2011 was electric. Journalists occupied every seat and photographers squeezed into the back of the room. Also present were a dozen senior Pakistan air force officials, who were forced to stand along one wall, as well as several Chinese executives in business suits.

The occasion was a briefing about the Chengdu/Pakistan Aeronautical Complex JF-17 Thunder fighter.

Yang Wei, the designer of the JF-17, Chengdu J-10 and China’s stealthy J-20, gave a presentation about the JF-17’s features and capabilities. …

… “An increasing number of developing countries are likely to welcome the promise of decent-quality Chinese military aircraft at competitive prices,” says Andrew Erickson, associate professor in the Strategic Research Department at the US Naval War College.

“Beijing appears willing to offer creative financing and training and other support packages that more established aircraft producers may not offer. Faced with a choice between fewer or no military aircraft and Chinese versions, growing numbers of countries in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America are likely to consider the China option,” he says. …

When asked, however, why China has yet to secure a sale beyond Pakistan for the JF-17, Erickson says: “This is probably emblematic of the larger problems in Chinese aircraft production and marketing: unproven systems, lack of reliable Chinese-produced engines and uncertain after-market servicing and support. In addition, some countries have larger geo-strategic concerns and relationships that cause them to pursue suppliers other than China.”

One area of particular concern he points to is China’s weakness in aircraft engines. This could complicate a purchase decision for potential customers. The K-8, for example, is powered by the Honeywell TFE731, a powerplant originally developed by Garrett for business jets, while the JF-17 is powered by Russia’s Klimov RD-93.

“In a worst-case scenario, [customers] must worry not only about maintaining good relations with China, but also with Russia. This substantially reduces China’s independent leverage in the lucrative and strategically potent area of military aircraft sales, which competitors are loath to cede to China,” says Erickson. He believes China will find it particularly challenging to make headway in Russia’s “near abroad” of former Soviet republics, with Moscow using its political clout in the region to ensure sales for Russian airframers. …

For one of the most extensive analyses on the J-20 to date, see Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson, “China’s New Project 718/J-20 Fighter: Development outlook and strategic implications,” China SignPost™ (洞察中国), No. 18 (17 January 2011).