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China's ability to make quality jet engines

While there's no question that China is rapidly growing and modernizing its military, analysts have long seen the PRC's lack of expertise in making high-performance jet engines as a major obstacle in Beijing's quest to field a 21st Century air force.

Right now, the PRC largely relies on Russia to supply the engines for its modern fighters -- something that makes it too reliant on an outside power. However, China is making strides when it comes to jet engine development. A few months ago, U.S. Naval War College professor Andrew Erickson released this analysis of China's ability to produce modern fighter engines. Now, Erickson is taking aim at China's advances in building jet engines for large aircraft for both military and civilian use.

Here are some key points from Erickson's latest report that he co-wrote with Gabe Collins:

-- Buyers in China are expected to purchase 5,000 commercial aircraft and more than 2,300 business jets in the next 20 years, a number of aircraft that could require nearly 16,000 commercial turbofan engines to be purchased in the base scenario and 13,000 engines in the pessimistic growth scenario.

-- Major large aircraft buys by China’s military could easily add another 500-1,000 engines to these totals.

-- Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) Commercial Aircraft Engine (ACAE) plans to spend an average of US$300 million per year on jet engine R&D during the next five years, according to People’s Daily.

-- This is much less than the current jet engine market leaders (Rolls Royce, GE, Pratt & Whitney), who spent between US$1.4 and US$2.0 billion each on R&D in 2010 (8.3% to just under 13% of their respective sales revenue).

-- ACAE’s lower investment level may not enable it to catch up and develop a competitive commercial (and military) jet engine construction capability.

-- Civilian aeroengine development has military implications. The same large high-bypass turbofans used in civilian airliners can, with little or no modification, power large military aircraft including tankers, transports,Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft, and others. The major U.S. heavy lift aircraft (C-17 and C-5), tankers (KC-10 and KC-135), and AWACS and others (E-3A and P-8A) all either are, or can be, powered by engines that are basically identical to commercial aircraft powerplants.

Now here's a very interesting point made by Erickson and Collins -- the West, in its rush to supply the booming Chinese aviation market may be helping to develop China's military edge:
-- Joint ventures with jet engine market leaders like General Electric (GE) have the potential to give the Chinese aerospace industry a 100 piece puzzle with 90 of the pieces already assembled. Enough is left out so that the exporting companies can comply with the letter of the export control laws, but in reality, a rising military power is potentially being given relatively low-cost recipes for building the jet engines needed to power key military power projection platforms including tankers, AWACS, maritime patrol aircraft, transport aircraft, and potentially, subsonic bombers armed with standoff weapons systems.

-- While already a significant source of potentially damaging technology transfer, the imperative to prioritize quarterly profits today over long-term profits and strategic concerns may be exacerbated as long-term military spending constraints in Europe, Japan, and now even the U.S. may drive Western aeroengine manufacturers even further into Chinese joint ventures to replace revenue.

Here's the full report: A Chinese “Heart” for Large Civilian and Military Aircraft: Strategic and commercial implications of China’s campaign to develop high-bypass turbofan jet engines. Show Full Article

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