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Buy, Build, or Steal: China’s Quest for Advanced Military Aviation Technologies

By Phillip C. Saunders and Joshua K. Wiseman | China Strategic Perspectives 4 | December 01, 2011

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Executive Summary

Although China continues to lag approximately two decades behind the world’s most sophisticated air forces in terms of its ability to develop and produce fighter aircraft and other complex aerospace systems, it has moved over time from absolute reliance on other countries for military aviation technology to a position where a more diverse array of strategies can be pursued. Steps taken in the late 1990s to reform China’s military aviation sector demonstrated an understanding of the problems inherent in high-technology acquisition, and an effort to move forward. However, a decade later it remains unclear how effective these reforms have been. Where are the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and China’s military aviation industry headed? What obstacles must be overcome for China to join the exclusive ranks of those nations possessing sophisticated air forces and aviation industries capable of producing world-class aircraft?

This study identifies potential aviation technology development and procurement strategies, presents a general model of the options available to developing countries, and applies that model to explain Chinese procurement and aviation technology acquisition efforts over the last 60 years. The model articulates three main technology procurement avenues: purchase (buy), indigenous development (build), and espionage (steal), and three subavenues: reverse engineering (combining buy/steal and build), coproduction (combining buy and build), and codevelopment (combining buy and build, with an emphasis on build). It examines the costs, benefits, and tradeoffs inherent in each approach. Four variables influence decisions about the mix of strategies: (1) a country’s overall level of economic development, in particular the state of its technical/industrial base; (2) the technological capacity of a country’s military aviation sector; (3) the willingness of foreign countries to sell advanced military aircraft, key components, armaments, and related production technology; and (4) the country’s bargaining power vis-àvis potential suppliers.

In applying the model, we divide the evolution of China’s military aviation industry into five periods based on China’s changing access to foreign suppliers of military aircraft and aviation technology. Soviet assistance (1950–1960) provided the foundation for China’s military aviation industry, which cut its teeth coproducing Soviet fighter, bomber, and transport aircraft. Given Western embargoes, Moscow offered the only viable path to advanced aviation technology and provided assistance on favorable terms to support its communist ally. The second period (1960–1977) is marked by the Sino-Soviet split, which eliminated Chinese access to cutting-edge aviation hardware. China continued to produce and make modest refinements to 1950s vintage Soviet aircraft designs, using reverse engineering to fill in gaps where technical information was lacking. In the third period (1977–1989), China gained some access to Western aviation components and technologies and sought to apply them to a variant of the J–8 (a twin engine fighter based on a modified MiG–21 design) and the JH–7 (a fighter-bomber with a British engine). The fourth period (1989–2004) is marked by Western bans on arms sales to China in the wake of Tiananmen, Sino-Soviet rapprochement (leading to sales of advanced Russian fighters and coproduction arrangements), and a brief but important window of access to Israeli technologies. Covert access to advanced Western fighters and espionage (in both traditional forms and via computer network operations) also began to make more contributions.

In the fifth period (2004–present), China has enjoyed increased access to foreign commercial aviation technologies and has benefited from a “spin-off, spin-on” dynamic in gaining commercial access to dual-use technologies and applying them for military purposes. However, China’s legitimate access to advanced military-specific technologies has been reduced as Western sources of supply remained closed and Russia has become more reluctant to provide advanced aviation technology due to China’s reverse engineering of the Su-27, fear of future competition for export markets, and concerns about China’s long-term strategic direction.

China has used coproduction, selected purchases of advanced aircraft, reverse engineering, and foreign design assistance to build a capable military aviation industry with a significant indigenous design and production capacity. The Chinese military aviation industry can now produce two fourth-generation fighters roughly equal to those in advanced air forces: the J–10 (indigenously developed with Israeli assistance) and the J–11B (based on coproduction and reverse engineering of the Su-27). Both aircraft still rely on imported Russian turbofan engines. Test flights of the new J–20 stealth fighter prototype demonstrate Chinese ambitions to build fifth-generation fighters, but the extent to which the J–20 will match the performance of state-of-the-art Russian and Western fighters is unclear. Significant technical hurdles in engine design, avionics, and systems integration are likely to delay operational deployment of the J–20 until about 2020. This would be about 15 years after the F–22 entered U.S. Air Force service, supporting an overall assessment that the Chinese military aviation industry remains 15–20 years behind.

Producing state-of-the-art fighters requires an aviation industry to master a range of highly advanced, military-specific technologies. The historical development of China’s military aviation industry reflects an ongoing tension between the desire for self-reliance in defense and the need for access to advanced foreign technologies. China’s legitimate access to cutting-edge Western military technologies will likely remain curtailed and Russian reluctance to supply advanced military technologies will likely grow. These assumptions support two important conclusions. First, the Chinese military aviation industry will have to rely primarily on indigenous development of advanced “single-use” military aviation technologies in the future. The Chinese government is pursuing a range of “indigenous innovation” and technology development programs, but mastering advanced technologies becomes more difficult and expensive as a country moves closer to the technology frontier. This leads to a second, related conclusion: China will likely rely more heavily on espionage to acquire those critical military aviation technologies it cannot acquire legitimately from foreign suppliers or develop on its own.

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