Tuesday, November 17, 2009

China to build a F-22 class fighter jet

The Chinese Air Force has announced that it has a F-22 type aircraft ready to make its first flight within a year. The Chinese believe this aircraft will enter service within ten years. U.S. intelligence believes the Chinese are nowhere near this kind of capability. But given the quantity and quality of data Chinese hackers have been stealing in the past five years, it's possible that they have much of the American technology that makes the F-22 and F-35 possible. Some believe that the Chinese also have a F-35 type design in the works as well.

American intel analysts believe that Chinese aviation technology (both design and manufacturing) is not yet capable of producing F-22/F-35 class aircraft. Given the experience with the first two Chinese designed and manufactured jet fighters (J-10 and JF-17), there is much doubt that China is capable of making the leap to F-22 class fighters. The big bottleneck is jet engine technology.

For two decades now, China has been developing the manufacturing technology for aircraft engines, the key component of any high performance aircraft. So far, China has been unable to create the manufacturing technology and personnel skills that are needed to make the engines for their most advanced jet fighters. For example, China is a major customer for Russian RD93 engines (originally designed for the MiG-29), and has bought over a thousand of them. The RD93 engines currently cost about $2.5 million each.

China has been developing a similar (apparently identical) engine to the RD93, the WS-13. Actually, this effort is being aided by Russia, which is selling China technology needed for the manufacture of key engine components. Russia isn't happy about this, because they don't want competition in the low cost jet engine market. Then again, China has a history of stealing technology it cannot buy, so the Russians are making the best of a bad situation. China says the WS-13 is nearly ready for service. Maybe, maybe not. Recently, China ordered another hundred RD93s. Building high performance military jet engines is difficult, and China has had problems mastering this kind of stuff. Not that they will not eventually acquire the skills, but until they do, they need the Russian made RD93s. Officially, more RD93 are being bought because China cannot produce enough of their WS-13s.

Chinese engineers also thought they had managed to master the manufacturing techniques needed to make a Chinese copy of the Russian AL31F engine. This Chinese copy, the WS10A, was meant for the Chinese J-10 fighter, which entered service two years ago. But the Chinese Air Force was not satisfied with the reliability or performance of the WS10A, and have ordered another hundred AL31Fs from Russia, in order to continue building J-10s. Meanwhile, Russian efforts to build an improved AL31 for their own F-22 competitor, have run into serious problems. Will the Chinese suddenly do better than their tutors?

The J-10 is the first modern jet fighter designed and built in China. The aircraft is an attempt to create a modern fighter-bomber that could compete with foreign designs. The experiment was not completely successful. Work on the J-10 began over twenty years ago, in an attempt to develop an aircraft that could compete with the Russian MiG-29s and Su-27s, and the American F-16. But the first prototype did not fly until 1998. There were problems, and it wasn't until 2000 that the basic design flaws were fixed. By 2002, nine prototypes had been built, and flight testing was going forward to find, and fix, hundreds of smaller problems. It was a great learning experience for Chinese engineers, but it was becoming apparent that the J-10 was not going to be competitive with the Su-27s/30s China was buying from Russia. The J-10 looks something like the American F-16, and weighs about the same (19 tons). Like the F-16, and unlike the Su-27, the J-10 has only one engine.

The 13 ton JF-17, which uses the RD93, is meant to be a low cost alternative to the American F-16. It was developed in cooperation with Pakistan. The JF-17 is considered the equal to earlier versions of the F-16, but only 80 percent as effective as more recent F-16 models. The JF-17 design is based on a cancelled Russian project, the MiG-33. Most of the JF-17 electronics (in the Pakistani version) are Western, with Italian firms being major suppliers. The JF-17 can carry 3.6 tons of weapons and use radar guided and heat seeking missiles. It has max speed of nearly 2,000 kilometers an hour, an operating range of 1,300 kilometers and a max altitude of 55,000 feet. China has not yet decided on whether it will use the FC-1/JF-17 itself. This is apparently because China believes its own J-10 (another local design) and J-11 (a license built Russian Su-27) are adequate for their needs. The J-10, like the JF-17, did not work out as well as was hoped.


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