From being mainly dependent on reverse-engineering of third and fourth-generation Russian fighter jets to building a modern class of warplanes of its own, China has come a long way. Today, China can count itself among the most elite nations in the field of defense innovation.
With the development of its first-ever stealth fighter, the fifth-generation Chengdu J-20, China has proven to the world that it can compete with the very best in combining modern airframes with advanced avionics, low cross-section radar, and other state-of-the-art features.
However, the only missing piece of the puzzle for China has been the absence of a strong engine to power these modern fighters. According to analysts at some British Institute quoted by leading Russian defense site, which EurAsian Times could not accurately identify, wrote – Beijing is superior in all segments of developing a fighter jet, barring the development of jet engines.
“(China) has overtaken Russia in the development of aviation weapons, stealth technologies, also in the field of creating various kinds of monitoring systems, avionics (avionics),” the research institute noted.
“(It is ahead) in all main parameters, in everything has surpassed Russia, except for one.”
“Despite the overall superiority of Chinese fighters [they] have a weak link – engines that do not meet modern requirements,” according to the institute.
The importance of having a capable and reliable engine cannot be understated, with jet engines playing a key part in the success or failure of a fighter aircraft.
While a fighter may boast all the modern features onboard in the form of advanced radars, low-observable technology, types of missiles as well as the ability to network with other platforms, they will be of no use if the jet is not powered by a capable engine.
The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) has a fleet of around 2500 fighter jets, cargo planes, and drones, which includes recently inducted J20s, which are considered China’s answer to the US’ stealth pair of F-35 Lightning and F-22 Raptors.
However, while the Chinese fighters are similar in size to the American duo and boast an impressive range of features that bear similarities to the advanced western counterparts, there is a huge cloud of doubt over the capability of the engines, with details regarding it still unclear.
Greg Waldron, Asia Managing Editor of aviation website, Flight Global, says, “What is consistently downplayed is that most of the small number of J-20s produced is probably powered by a Russian power plant, an upgraded version of the Saturn AL-31 that powers the Sukhoi Su-35.”
“The status of the type’s ultimate engine, the developmental Xian Aero Engine WS-15 Emei, is far from clear. Estimates suggest that the WS-15’s maximum thrust will be 18.4t (180kN), potentially giving the J-20 genuine ‘fifth-generation’ performance, including supercruise – the ability to travel at supersonic speeds without engaging the afterburner,” he adds.
“The lack of positive news – or any news whatsoever – could be interpreted as an admission by Beijing that it is still struggling with this engine. Complicating things is that occasionally Chinese aircraft experts take to state media to claim things are going well.”
Moreover, Russia which had earlier concluded a deal with the Chinese, under which President Xi Jinping procured the highly renowned “stealth killer” S-400 defense systems, has refused to part away with fighter engine technology for Beijing’s modern fighter jets.
“Attempts to power, Chinese aircraft designs have been hamstrung by Russia’s reticence to sell fighter engines directly, preferring to sell entire aircraft instead. The relationship has been further strained over the years by China’s efforts to reverse engineer foreign designs,” Lewin Day wrote in an editorial for Hackaday.
“After signing a deal to produce 200 Su-27 aircraft locally, China stopped the production line after just 100 units. Electing to learn from and change the design, the subsequent J-11 ruffled feathers as an unlicenced copy.”