Progress slow in developing fighter jets, Major General Zhu Heping says

General says weak foundation in sosphicated machinery is among the obstacles facing the PLA in its efforts to upgrade its home-made fighters

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 April, 2013, 4:01am

A weak foundation in building sophisticated machinery and a lack of innovation are major obstacles for the People's Liberation Army in upgrading its latest domestically produced jet fighters, military experts say.

Major General Zhu Heping - vice-president of the Air Force Command Academy and the grandson of the father of the Red Army, Zhu De - talked about the constraints facing the PLA in an interview with the South China Morning Post.

He said one key hindrance was the state of the country's machinery industry, even though the PLA had been upgrading to a more hi-tech force for a decade. Another problem was the lack of innovation in the industry sector.

Zhu said those 10 years, under the rule of former president Hu Jintao and former premier Wen Jiabao, had seen crucial gains made in military modernisation.

"Taking the air force as an example, we managed to take a huge step forward by replacing second-generation jet fighters with third-generation ones as the main force," he said.

Zhu said big strides had been made in developing anti-aircraft weapons and giving information technology a bigger role.

"More importantly, we saw an enormous improvement in the quality of our pilots," he said. "At present you can hardly find an officer who does not hold a bachelor's degree or higher."

More importantly, we saw an enormous improvement in the quality of our pilots. At present you can hardly find an officer who does not hold a bachelor's degree or higher

However, Zhu said, Chinese industry had not progressed quite so rapidly. "To be honest, we've overlooked the problem of how difficult, complicated and time-consuming it is for us to upgrade the machinery industry in our country," he said.

Zhu cited as an example the fact that the air force had to buy foreign engines for home-made fighter jets.

Before President Xi Jinping went to Russia last month on his maiden overseas visit as a head of state, Beijing and Moscow signed an agreement that will see China buy 24 Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets from Russia - with analysts estimating the deal to cost around US$1.56 billion.

China can make most of the parts for fourth-generation fighter jets, but falls down when it comes to the likes of the Su-35's sophisticated 117S engines.

Hong Kong-based military commentator Ma Dingsheng said having the right materials for the alloy and the proper smelting technique were preconditions for manufacturing high-quality engines - for aircraft, tanks or warships.

"Beijing could spend hundreds of millions of dollars to buy the aircraft, dissect them and pore over the advanced engines inside and out before trying to copy their design," he said.

"But they are doomed to fail to overcome the predicament presented by the lack of the materials and techniques required to make them."

He said it would be hard to make significant progress in machinery production capabilities in a decade or two.

"In my opinion, it's too early to talk about innovation when China is still left in the dust by its Russian or Western counterparts in this respect," Ma said.

Veteran Macau-based PLA watcher Antony Wong Dong said innovative ideas could play a key role in technological advancement but he was not optimistic.

"Independent thinking is the last thing the current education system under the [Communist] party's leadership intends to encourage or highlight," Wong said. "As a matter of fact, this kind of education has long been an obstacle for every single kind of domestic innovation and made things even worse."

Wong said a country's level of advancement in producing sophisticated engines was a perfect yardstick for judging its general level of industrialisation.

"How can one expect the fruits of self-innovation when everybody's mindset is focused on anything but independent thinking in the country? Up to this moment, submission is still the overriding priority for millions of mainland students from kindergartens to universities," Wong said.

The PLA's Zhu said he hoped new Premier Li Keqiang could make big strides in encouraging domestic innovation.