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China Could Make 5th Gen Engines By 2021

by John Reed on June 29, 2011

China Defense Blog posted this interesting report on the future of Chinese figther engine production — something PLA officials publicly acknowledge is the major “bottleneck” in the development of China’s 21st Century fighters.

Basically, the report by China Sign Post says that China will be able to mass produce high-quality, “top-notch” fighter engines capable of powering a modern tacair fleet in five to ten years. That coincides nicely with the amount of time it will likely take to start mass producing its first wave of stealth fighters like the J-20.

Still, all of this is hampered by a decentralized engine manufacturing sector and even if Chinese fighter engine tech gets to the point where the U.S. engine sector was in the early 1990s, its engines will support its rise as a REGIONAL military power, not a superpower, according to the report.

But who knows, China may advance much quicker than that or it may hit some serious snags, as the reports authors point out:

This is one of the greatest aerospace engineering challenges, however, one that only a small handful of corporations worldwide have truly mastered. This should not be surprising: an engine is effectively an aircraft’s cardiovascular system; it can be transplanted but not easily modified. Unlike a human system, it can be designed and developed independently, but faces temperature, pressure, and G-force challenges that only the most advanced materials, properly machined and operated as an efficient system, can handle. While China has made progress in recent years with materials and fabrication, it appears to remain limited with respect to components and systems design, integration, and management—the keys to optimizing engine performance in practice—and to making logistical and operational plans at the force level based on reliable estimates thereof.  
Based on available open source evidence, Chinese progress in this critical area remains uneven and the whole remains “less than the some of the parts.” Given the overall capabilities inherent in China’s defense industrial base and the resources likely being applied to this problem, we expect that China will make significant strides, but barring major setbacks or loss of mission focus, it will take ~2–3 years before it achieves comprehensive capabilities commensurate with the aggregate inputs in this sector and ~5–10 years before it is able to consistently mass produce top-notch turbofan engines for a 5th generation-type fighter. When it does, however, the results will have profound strategic significance, as China will have entered an exclusive club of top producers in this area and eliminated one of the few remaining areas in which it relies on Russia technologically.


Some of the most interesting points raised by the analysis is the fact that Russia may be unable or unwilling to provide China with large numbers of quality jet engines due to the fact that the Kremlin is going to be undertaking a major military modernization of its own for which it will need high-performance fighter motors. Not only does this mean China will need its own engines to power its jets but also any that it intends to sell on the international market, according to the report.

Click through the jump to read the report and get it’s take on the status of China’s jet engine manufacturing ability.

China SignPost 39 China Tactical Aircraft Jet Engine Deep Dive 20110626

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

blight June 29, 2011 at 11:46 am

China's problem is that their industrial base is still oriented towards final assembly. They may make solar panels, but the inputs come from somewhere else. They may make electronics, but their inputs come from precision factories in other countries. They may make wind turbines, but assembly again from elsewhere.

If China wants to get ahead, they need to build a domestic aircraft industry, and not just fixate on fighter jets. China has ambitions to build fifth generation aircraft, but still buys Airbus aircraft, and presumably civilian turbines and the like. It is very much high time they risk going with a Chinese airline with Chinese airplanes and domestic parts, to challenge all sectors of aerospace to step up, do their part and learn how to integrate together.

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Mastro June 29, 2011 at 12:47 pm

Weird paper- states that the Chinese are at square one- but then concludes that they can make "significant strides" in just a few years.

I guess when you start from zero- "significant strides" are easy to claim.

China has had a huge amount of problems with submarines and their auto industry still has a lot of kinks (their quality is atrocious)

Stating that they can crank out engines in a few years is a bit optimistic.

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blight June 29, 2011 at 12:54 pm

The industry isn't quite at the point where they can build stuff from scratch: the Ming-class sub is a derivate of a Russian one, and I can't comment on their autos. If the Chinese are serious about moving ahead, they would invest in their civil aviation first and build the industrial base to crank out passenger jets and use that infrastructure for R&D of their fifth-gen military aircraft. That said, a civilian aviation effort is probably easier to draw talent into, especially if they may lack the security clearances for military projects; are easier to mobilize the population behind, and might even secure foreign collaboration.

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Chimp June 30, 2011 at 6:33 am

The Chinese auto industry is an interesting case.

Locally designed and produced cars are pretty bad. Funniest thing I've ever seen is a car listing as a feature "five cigarette lighters".

That isn't by any means the whole story. The Chinese auto industry is one of the "five pillars" of the planned economy. It's awash with government money and foreign investment. A Guangzhou Honda isn't (as far as I can tell) any different from the previous Japanese built model. Same goes for Audi and VW.

The third strand of the story is more interesting. Companies like BYD are trying to skip a generation and go straight to advanced propulsion systems (electric / hybrid). The technology there is bubbling away. Ninety percent of it will fail, but the prize is enormous so there's still plenty of money and effort going into it.

There's no doubt you can build quality in China. It's all about price / quality tradeoffs. The report by China Sign Post says basically the same thing about Chinese aircraft. The J-20 is likely to be as expensive as the latest Western fighters because it's operating (in theory) at the same quality level.

The auto industry (and, as I read it, the defence aviation industry) are pretty much as far as they are going to get by stealing stuff. The hard bit is learning how to do advanced production techniques efficiently, and to fit what you make into a rational system.

None of this is news to Chinese engineers. They read the same forums everyone else does, and know what needs to be done. They have the successful examples of Japan and South Korea to draw on when it comes to developing integrated economies.

One way or another, Chinese kit is going to get closer and closer to what the neighbours have. It's up to China and her neighbours to work out how they can live together. I'm pretty sure it's doable.

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VASD June 29, 2011 at 12:57 pm

No doubt they have plenty of spies and hackers working for and targeting Pratt&Whitney and GE to speed up their engine development.

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EJ257 June 29, 2011 at 1:29 pm

It might be easier to start with a Google patent search. Probably already have. It’s not like they have a history of respecting IP or anything. Hack into western engine manufacturers to get the details and their “secret sauce”.

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blight June 29, 2011 at 6:00 pm

Being given the recipe of a famous chef does not make a world-class chef. The article suggests that by now China is aware of this. Sadly, for the meantime they will have to continue with espionage, which merely produces engines that fits someone else's specs, plus whatever tradeoffs are needed to get the engine into production.

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blight June 29, 2011 at 1:41 pm

The real point they are trying to make is that they need to grow the turbine industry so that they don't rely on espionage. Stealing yesterday's engines for tomorrow's aircraft is not a long term solution, and "they" know it.

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Jason June 29, 2011 at 1:32 pm

I'll be damned, Gates was right, they won't have a production model until around 2018But, by that time, the US will have 500+ 5th-gens.

I knew this act was a dog-and-pony show. They are no near ready for a 5th gen, and also a CSG.

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Dan June 29, 2011 at 8:25 pm

YEah and in 2014 we'll hear that CHina has already reached full production capabilities and will be cranking out 5th gens in a year. And we'll be told that CHina "Made significant gains faster than analysts expected". Look at the history, they always tend to make "Unexpected advances".

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Tim June 29, 2011 at 2:48 pm

Last I heard, China still struggled to produce the alloy to make the internal rotary blades for its Su-27 copied jet engine. They tried to install their own engines on the J-10s, but after making clanking noises (perhaps even crashed) the Chinese pilots rejected their own planes. So, it was back to mounting Russian-produced engines on Chinese 4+ fighters. To say they could make a leap to a top-notch engine for 5-generation fighters is like a kid who just took off his training wheels all of a sudden decided that he could ride racing bikes… and kick some asses. :)

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Lance June 29, 2011 at 3:00 pm

Thats over ten years from now why do we need to worry if we can get more F-22 and F-35s in 5 years or so.

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Stephen N Russell June 29, 2011 at 8:16 pm

Did they steal engine plans? Or can we Lisc them in the US to build?

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Dan June 29, 2011 at 8:26 pm

They bought off employees in our govt and aerospace companies to sell them secrets. 5000 here and there.

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klein June 29, 2011 at 9:27 pm

You mean China will have stolen/bought enough foreign engine tech to start building a modern jet engine on their own in 5-10 years.

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Jnhn B June 29, 2011 at 10:44 pm

Know what they do when development is too expensive, too long. That is called the panda Espionage thru industrial and other sources.

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saberhagen June 30, 2011 at 12:34 am

Engine stopped to be the most important and complex part of a jet fighter since 4th gen. I'd like to have similar report regarding their progress in sensor, electronic, software, etc.

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Fred Roberts November 20, 2012 at 8:00 pm

China is great at buying foreign equipment and then reverse engineering them so they can copy or utilize parts of the technology that were built into this equipment. I hope they don't get their hands on too much modern stuff.

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advantec333 December 5, 2013 at 12:40 am

In five years China will be head and shoulders above anyone in the aerospace field.

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