Sunday, February 19, 2012

Russian & China: partnership or donation? Part I

Military-technical cooperation of Russia and China, even 10 years ago, yielded major bulk of Russian arms exports, today this boosts to even larger supplies. Nevertheless, this partnership has given China a great technical breakthrough. What are the real results and future prospects of cooperation between Russia and China?


Cooperation between Moscow and Beijing, and its subsequent rapid growth is closely linked to two key moments of modern history: the normalization of Sino-Soviet relations at the turn of the 80-90s when China was severely criticized by West after the Tiananmen Square Protests in 1989. As a result, China, was deprived of access to modern military technology. This lead to an alternative donor namely Soviet Union.

The situation was characterized by the fact that the PLA at the end of the 80s was still staffed by either direct copies of Soviet technology development of 40-50s, or samples, set up under the Soviet system with minor changes. In this case the Chinese continued to study and to copy Soviet developments, even, after the actual break of the relations between two countries at the beginning of the 60's. The necessary models of contemporary technology and armament were obtained by roundabout ways through the states of the Third World, which bought weapon in Moscow.

The objectives of China's "second round" of military-technical cooperation with Russia as well as forty years earlier, were extremely pragmatic:

  • equipped with key arms of modern technology through the delivery of the USSR / Russia;
  • Copy the key models of equipment, systems and components in order to establish their production in China;
  • the development of its own design school due to the collaboration with the Soviet/Russian scientific research and educational institutions of the corresponding type.

It is this logic can be traced in all the arms contacts between China and Russia last 20 years. The actions of the Russian side, at least until the beginning of the 2000s, was difficult & contradictory. It is objectively present in the 50's, when transferring to Beijing very latest technology, the Soviet Union restricted access of technology to its critical ally. These restrictions, along with internal disasters of 60s were the main cause of the sharp deceleration of the military industry in China after the cessation of Soviet aid. Now, decades later, China intended to catch up.

Everything - our machines

" The participation of Russian scientists and engineers in the "fine-tuning" of Chinese products - one of the most mysterious pages of Russian-Chinese military-technical cooperation "

The most serious situation was developing in China for the aviation industry. By the early 90s the Air Force People's Liberation Army were armed mainly by 2nd generations. It was a fighter J-5 and J-6, analogues of the Soviet MiG-17 and MiG-19. They formed the basis of China's tactical aviation, and mass production of J-6 in China was stopped only in the early 80's, 20-odd years later than in the USSR. In production for the PLA Air Force at that time were J-7 aircraft - a copy of the MiG-21. Also, they were exported. The newest Chinese fighter at that time was the J-8, which was a development of the same design of the MiG-21. Being heavier and larger than the MiG, this machine was completely inadequate for the aircraft 80's maneuverability and had no prospects. It was also outdated and the park was a drum machine, which included a fighter-bomber, the Q-5 Fantan, developed on the basis of the MiG-19 bombers, and H-5 (IL-28) and H-6 (Tu-16).

The well-known military expert Konstantin Makiyenko notes down critical problems in PLA Air Force in the late 80-90-ies: "Apart from the fact that the Chinese Air Force was equipped with antique technology, they had virtually no experience of combat or tactical or a strategic level, and experienced difficulties due to poor preparation of personnel, poor infrastructure and poor quality control. Neither in the Korean War, nor in the fighting against Vietnam in 1979, the Air Force did not participate actively. In general, as well as all the PLA Air Force China had little capacity and low combat readiness."

In solving this problem, China is planning to rely on two major programs. The first was the purchase of a heavy Russian Su-27, followed by forging its license production. Second - in the development of a light fighter J-10 on the basis of  the Israeli project Lavi, acquired in the late 80s. This problem, however, also could not be solved by China independently.

In the first half of the 90s China has acquired two batches of Su-27. Between, 1992 and 1996 China received from Russia 36 single Su-27SK and 12 dual-seater Su-27UBK. At the end of 1996, China signed a contract establishing the PRC licensed production of Su-27 that will release 200 fighters at a factory in Shenyang. In China's Air Force, this aircraft was designated J-11. Mastering the licensed production, Chinese designers have tried to copy both the machine and its basic units and by the end of the first decade of the century had some success by starting production of the J-11 without the use of Russian machine sets.

However, in the second half of the 90s basic Su-27 is designed primarily to gain air superiority, which didn't suit China, which required a multi-purpose aircraft to combat both air and ground targets.


In August 1999, followed by the conclusion of the contract for delivery of 40 Su-30MKK, which, unlike the Su-27SK were able to apply the latest air-to-air missile RVV-AE, and also carry a variety of air-to-surface guided weapons. Another contract to supply 43 such planes was signed in 2001, and later China acquired an additional 24 Su-30MK2. Today, Su-30 are the basis of objective combat power of the PLA Air Force.

However, the Chinese SU-30 was significantly inferior to the Indian SU-30. Because equipped with relatively obsolete avionics and engines do not have thrust vector control. What was the basis of this limitation - Russia's unwillingness to transfer China's latest military technology or the Chinese desire to immensely increase the number of latest combat planes via domestic production of SU-30., in either case it was difficult to understand.

In parallel with the development of J-11 from copying Russian SU-30s; China continued to develop its own advanced machines, which can be isolated into three independent projects: the aforementioned "average" fighter J-10 project on the basis of Israeli Lavi, easy-FC-1, which is a crucial processing platform of the MiG-21, and has long remained a secret fifth-generation fighter J-20. The latter seems to have been created without the support of a particular foreign prototype, but as the result of a series of mysterious scientific research and development activities. Nevertheless, its designers had a clear foreign influence.

However, J-10 and FC-1, despite the presence of ready-made platforms, could not be born without foreign technical assistance. It makes little sense to call the specific Russian research institutes and NGOs involved in the finalization of these machines: they are well known as aviation professionals and amateurs. The question is another: how justified was this cooperation for Russia? We must immediately note that the blame for this solely on the relevant research organizations, is unfair and pointless. Actually the reason was the lack of funding from the state leaders to research institutions, which looked upon those who can pay for their works and that turned out to be China.

The participation of Russian scientists and engineers in the "fine-tuning" of Chinese products is one of the most mysterious pages of Russian-Chinese military-technical cooperation, which is already quite a secret. Without knowing the specific details of this partnership, we are now able to visibly see the consequences: China developed, tested and launched into a series of two fighters that can make a fair competition to Russian planes in foreign markets. Cheap and simple FC-1 competes with the Russian project of deep modernization of the MiG-21, as well as the supply of MiG-29 on the other hand, more complex, heavy and advanced J-10 claim for the same market segment as the upgraded MiG- 29, part of the MiG-35, as well as the "junior" versions of the Su-27.

Another fighter, whose creation without the help of Russia would be impossible - this is referred to the J-11, but here the situation is somewhat different. By giving SU-27 to China and having established their licensed production, Russia began strictly guarding technological secrets of the machine. The second half of the '90s and 2000s were marked by several spy scandals in connection with the attempts of the PRC intelligence services to obtain detailed information on the technological design of the Su-27 and its key units, which they failed to reproduce on their own.

Nevertheless, Beijing has managed to build their own J-11, but today it is the general view of experts, that it has not reached the capacity of the prototype. The main problems are in the life-span of the engines made in China, opportunities for avionics and airframe. However, in this way the J-11, along with the J-10 is able to significantly enhance the Air Force in China, replacing the old parties of J-7 and J-8. It can generate interest in foreign markets. Among the most likely buyers are relatively poor countries such as Africa and Latin America in need of modern aircraft and are ready to pay for combat aircraft of 30-40 million dollars.

Another Chinese airplane was the carrier-based J-15 of Russian origin, designed purely on a  "pirate" method. Back in the late 90's Chinese representatives approached Russian authorities for the purchase of 50 Su-33, but in the course of negotiations the number was reduced to two fighters, after which the Russian side ceased negotiations, considering such a deal as a technology leak, as happened in the case of J-11.

In 2005 Beijing purchased from Ukrainian T-10 K, one of the first prototypes of the Su-33, and in early June of 2010 it was announced that China has finished building the first prototype of a new carrier-based fighter. Such a long delay was caused by a problem with the functioning of the emerging technology of the wing deck fighters. However, some Chinese media reports referring to the developer's representatives pointed out that J-15 is not a copy of the Su-33 but is an improved design J-11B (a copy of the Su-27).

In July 2010 there was video of flight tests. Moreover, according to the Chinese edition of Global Times, the first flight of J-15 took place on August 31, 2009.

April 25, 2011 on Chinese forums were first photos of new plane. The next day they were released to official Chinese media. The pictures can be seen that the aircraft is equipped with folding wings, shorter tail boom and reinforced chassis. These pictures were taken at the plant № 112 Chinese aircraft enterprise "Shenyang" in northeastern China. Testing is expected to last for several more years, and the machine will be put into service after 2015.

More than a major breakthrough was the creation of J-20. Chinese fifth-generation fighter made its first flight on the information available in January of this year. On the internet has appeared a lot of photos, and specialists in the field of aviation excel in finding the prototypes. Clearly, however, that the novelty is neither a direct copy, or "creative reinterpretation" of a foreign counterpart. Rather, it is a standalone product, although created with borrowed foreign solutions. According to experts,Chengdu J-20 "Black Eagle" has a large number of similar and completely copied elements of American fighters F-22 and F-35 and Russian MiG 1.44. Thus, the lamp and the nose of the J-20 are identical to those same elements of the F-22, the location of air intakes and their design is also close to the F-22 and F-35. Aft fuselage, horizontal tail devoid of having a pair of ventral fins, and closely spaced engines, similar to that characteristic of the MiG 1.44. The geometry of the all-moving vertical tail is similar to that of the F-35.

The intermediate result

Over the past 20 years, Beijing has made the obvious and the undoubted progress in the development and manufacture of aircraft, "jumped" from a 2nd generation planes at once for generations 4 and 4 +, in fact - has managed to create a prototype fighter aircraft of the 5th generation. Still talking about sustainable development of Chinese aviation industry and its cloudless prospects too early: as evidenced by historical experience, the Celestial Empire, repeatedly demonstrating the ability to cut and run in the series, though not without problems, or that weapons system, it is very rarely boasts a further development of the copied. As a result after 2-3 decades, the country is again in the position of catching up and in need of foreign assistance.

Symptoms of recurrence of this situation can be seen now: copying the AL-31F engines, installed on the Su-27, China was in a situation where the main competitors - the United States and Russia - have already got the next generation of engines, while the WS-10 - Chinese copy of the AL -31F has not yet entered the parameters set by the terms of reference. In this regard, there are regular rumors about the possibility of purchasing the new China of Russian power plants, but in the current decade, this deal may not be as attractive to our country, as in the 90s. As a result, the question on what engines will fly the Chinese fifth-generation fighter, it remains an open question.


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