Yaan earthquake

Post-quake rescue operations expose China's military aircraft weaknesses

Military enthusiasts are disappointed China relies on US and Russian aircraft in post-earthquake operations rather than home-made hardware

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 April, 2013, 4:46am

The widespread use of US- and Russian-made helicopters during rescue missions in the quake zone in Sichuan's Yaan city has again exposed weaknesses in China's home-made rescue aircraft.

Military analysts said domestic-made rescue helicopters lack the ability to carry heavy loads and are less capable at handling extreme weather conditions. Some chalk the disparity up to Beijing's focus on the development of advanced fighter jets and other general-purpose planes.

At this point, quake victims in the worst-hit Lushan county may find it a familiar sight to see US-made Sikorsky Black Hawks, Russian Mi-17 series helicopters and Moscow's Ilyushin Il-76TD cargo planes flying overhead after Saturday's magnitude 7 quake.

Mainland military enthusiasts said they were disappointed when China Central Television reported that the first two helicopters sent to Lushan were a Black Hawk and Mi-17. Some asked when China would make its own "Black Hawk", and why the most-advanced home-made armed helicopter, the WZ-10, and the military's Y-20 cargo plane weren't used in rescue work.

"China doesn't yet have enough medium-lift helicopters or cargo planes, as our research and development efforts on those two types of aircraft are still in progress," said Xu Guangyu , a former general and senior researcher at the Beijing-based China Arms Control and Disarmament Association.

He said the Chinese air force sent home-made WZ-9 and WZ-8 armed helicopters to assist in the rescue operations, but neither is able to play an important role because of their limited capacity and capabilities.

"The US' [Black Hawk] helicopters were sent to the front line to handle immediate rescue efforts because of their heavy-load capacity, and suitability for highlands and extreme weather conditions," Xu said.

The People's Liberation Army Air Force's Chengdu Military Command said they sent at least 10 helicopters to disaster areas on Saturday, and several dozen were on standby.

All of them were either Black Hawks or Mi-17 aircraft, the Chengdu -based West China City Daily quoted a commander as saying.

"The service life of the Black Hawks is almost up, as all of them have flown nearly 30 years," said Antony Wong Dong of the Macau-based International Military Association.

"The widespread use of US and Russian helicopters in quake rescue and relief efforts indicates that Beijing has made fighter jets and other weapons its priorities in its military modernisation," Wong said.

China spent about US$150 million to buy 24 medium-lift utility S-70C Black Hawk helicopters and related parts from the US-based Sikorsky Aircraft Corp in 1984, according to a report by the China Youth Daily that said China still has 20 of the aircraft.

"We know our weaknesses in aircraft technology, especially with multi-role armed helicopters, but so far we can focus only on utility helicopters, which can be used in coastal, eastern and southern areas," Xu said.

View Yaan Earthquake in a larger map