China powers up military jet engine tech to wean itself off Russian imports

Advances in engine design have led to the launch of the J-11D, a home-grown version of the Su-35

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 December, 2016, 9:04am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 December, 2016, 9:04am

China is ready to launch its new ­J-11D fighter after it failed to acquire Russian engines on schedule and was forced to develop its own technology, military observers said.

The progress included advances in home-grown turbofan technology and radar systems, and showed that Beijing was no longer reliant on Russian engines for its new generation of fighters, analysts said.

After a decade of negotiations, China and Russia inked a deal for 24 Su-35 aircraft last year.

China had hoped the deal would include delivery of an extra 48 117S engines, that it could use in its newer aircraft like the J-20.

But Russian red tape forced China to upgrade the Su-27s it already had and develop its own variant of the Su-35, the J-11D. The J-11D, built by Shenyang Aircraft Corporation, made its maiden flight on April 29 last year.

Some of the most noticeable improvements are in the radar system, the addition of a computer-controlled antenna that can point in different directions without moving, and greater use of composites and stealth coatings in the fuselage to cut weight. The maiden flight also revealed that the J-11D is powered by a WS-10 engine, a turbofan design originally developed by a subsidiary of Chinese aerospace giant Aviation Industry Corporation of China (Avic), SAC’s parent company.

In its annual report in July, Avic said it built more than 400 WS-10 engines last year, suggesting the ­J-10 and J-11 fighters no longer needed Russian engines.

Andrei Chang, founder of the Canada-based Kanwa Defence Review, said Avic’s newly established Aeroengine Corporation of China had centralised resources for engine development, working as an umbrella for 24 units and about 10,000 employees.

“The outside world had underestimated the pace of China’s engine development. In fact, China has put quite a lot [of resources] into engine development over the past two or three years,” Chang said.

China has long struggled to build its own aircraft engines, and has made boosting its strength in this area a priority.

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Industry observers said Beijing spent about 150 billion yuan (HK$168 billion) to come up with its own fighter engines in the 2010-2015 five-year plan.

“China once needed to install a great number of [Russian] AL31F engines on its J-15 and ­J-11B fighters,” Chang said.

But in the future, it was unlikely to use the more advanced Russian 117S engines for its J-11D or ­J-20 fighters, he said. The 117S engine is used to power the Su-35.

The Su-35 is powered by two turbofan engines, giving it a range of about 3,500km on internal fuel, or 4,500km with two external fuel tanks, making it Russia’s most advanced multi-role fighter.

Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Dong said the ­J-11D project would help Shenyang Aircraft enter into “virtuous competition” with rival Chengdu Aerospace Corporation (CAC), another Avic offshoot that developed the J-9, J-10, J-20 and other fighters.

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“The central government doesn’t want to let CAC dominate China’s aviation manufacturing, just like the healthy competition between Boeing and Lockheed Martin in the United States,” Wong said.

Besides the J-11 series, SAC also developed the J-15 – designed for China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning – and the J-16 and J-31 fighters.

China could also be working on a more advanced engine. The WS-10 debuted at last month’s air show in Zhuhai, and the public outing suggests that the engine is not a cutting-edge design.

A staff member from Aero­engine would not comment on its plans for the engines that would power the J-15 and the J-20 stealth jets.